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How to Overcome Social Phobia

Living with social anxiety disorder as a teen and how to manage the condition.

Key points

  • Feeling nervous in social situations is normal, but if fear and discomfort start to affect one's daily life, then it might be social phobia.
  • For many teens with social phobia, the potential distress is so overwhelming that they avoid situations that are out of their comfort zone.
  • Children and teens who are shy, sensitive, or withdrawn might be at an innately greater risk for developing social phobia.

Ask your classmates if they’ve ever had anxiety when speaking with someone new or going to a party, and we’re sure a few hands will go up. Raise the question with the adults in your life, and you’re likely to see even more. Feeling nervous in certain social situations is completely normal, but if your fear and discomfort start to affect your daily life, then it might be something called social phobia.

Social phobia, now commonly known as social anxiety disorder, is a type of anxiety disorder defined by extreme fear or anxiety in social situations such as when eating in the cafeteria, making small talk, using public restrooms, or exercising at the gym. Even being called on in class or making a phone call can trigger some people.

For many teens with social phobia, the potential distress is so overwhelming that they'll try to avoid any situations that are out of their comfort zone. For others, their anxiety drives them to the other extreme and causes them to overcompensate in social settings. Luckily, social phobia is highly manageable when you understand its symptoms and skills for coping.

Is social phobia common?

Social phobia was first identified as its own phobia in the 1960s and has since grown prevalent throughout the country. In fact, social anxiety disorder is now one of the most common mental disorders following substance use disorder and depression. By some counts, 7 percent of American adults are living with social phobia, and the majority of people first experience symptoms during their childhood or teen years.

With society’s recent (and much welcomed) push to prioritize mental health, we’re now seeing more and more people share their experiences with social phobia. For example, last year Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open tournament due to anxiety related to her excessive press and media attention. Actress Lili Reinhart—who stars in the TV hit Riverdale—is another person in the spotlight who has opened up about her struggles with social anxiety.

Signs and symptoms of social phobia

Social phobia can manifest in a variety of emotional and physical ways. The phobia looks different for different people, but some of the most common symptoms are listed below.

Emotional signs and symptoms:

  • Excessive anxiety in everyday social situations
  • Intense worry for days, weeks, or even months prior to a social situation
  • Fear of being watched or judged by others
  • Fear that you’ll embarrass yourself
  • Fear that others will notice that you’re nervous or uncomfortable

Physical signs and symptoms:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Blushing, sweating, or trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Blanking out
  • Rigid body posture or speaking with an overly soft voice

Behavioral signs and symptoms:

  • Avoiding places where you might run into other people
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Staying quiet to avoid being noticed or embarrassed
  • Drinking alcohol or using other substances to soothe your nerves before social situations

What causes social phobia?

Researchers don't know exactly why some people develop social phobia (or any anxiety disorder, really) but they have a few theories. They’ve found that people are more likely to develop the condition if their biological parents or siblings have social phobia, but more research is needed to confirm if this is primarily due to nature or nurture.

Children and teens who are shy, sensitive, or withdrawn might be at an innately greater risk for developing social phobia, as are those with a physical condition that may draw unwanted attention.

We also know that stressful events—like bullying, abuse, and public embarrassment—are common causes of social anxiety. And speaking of stress, stories from the last few years suggest that the fear and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have caused even more adolescents to suffer from social phobia.

Ways to cope with social anxiety

Recognize when it’s time to get help.

Social anxiety disorder often goes untreated, but that doesn’t have to be the case for you. One national study found that the average age of first experiencing social phobia was 15 years, but most individuals (80 percent) didn't receive treatment and those who did often waited 10-15 years before doing so. If you think that you have social phobia, be the person who breaks that mold and seek help from family, friends, or professionals.

Challenge negative thoughts.

We are our own worst critics, which makes it easy to get stuck in our own heads. When we host negative thoughts like, “I’m too shy and I don’t have anything to say,” or, “People probably think I’m stupid or boring,” we are contributing to our fears and anxiety.

Instead, try to reframe those thoughts. For example, maybe you think that you acted like someone who was shy the last time you saw certain people but you’ll be prepared with a fact or story the next time you run into them. This offers you an opportunity to change how you perceive yourself, as well as how you feel that others see you.

Ease into situations that scare you.

Exposure is the process of facing and eventually overcoming your fears. The idea behind situational exposure is that by starting with scenarios that are less scary, you have time to build up the confidence to face situations that cause a lot of anxiety.

So how does it work? The high-level overview is: Identify certain social situations that scare you, challenge yourself with easier to harder scenarios, and prioritize positive self-talk and relaxation techniques. And remember, coping with anxiety is a lifelong process, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Avoid using alcohol as a social crutch.

Let’s say you work up the enthusiasm and courage to go to a party. Once you’re there, someone offers you a beer and you realize that it’s actually just what you need to relax and stop worrying so much. While alcohol or other substances may seem like the solution to stress, drinking too much can actually exacerbate anxiety and even cause bad moods and disrupt sleep.

Plus, other research shows a link between social anxiety disorder and an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, with insomnia playing a large role in the link in adolescents.

Explore CBT and other forms of therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is often used to manage phobias and other anxiety disorders. For those living with social anxiety disorder, CBT can help them to understand the why and how of their thought cycles. Once a person is aware of inaccurate or negative thought patterns, they can view the situation with a clear head and respond accordingly.