Feeling anxious, fearful, or avoidant about situations that might involve the scrutiny of others can be a part of social anxiety and social phobia. The scope and intensity of symptoms and their effects on daily life are the main factors that set these experiences apart.

Anxiety is a natural feeling that comes from the anticipation of adversity, threat, or challenge. It is a part of the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response, which is a set of automatic physiological reactions that aim to support survival.

When a person continuously overestimates a perceived threat, it can lead to pathological anxiety, which refers to anxiety that becomes persistent and impairing. Pathological anxiety lays the foundation for anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia.

This article explores the differences and similarities between social anxiety and social phobia, a mental health disorder now formally known as social anxiety disorder.

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Social anxiety and social phobia describe two different ends of the social anxiety spectrum.

Social anxiety on its own is not a formal diagnosis. It is a way to describe a shared experience of the following symptoms when engaging with others in a social setting:

  • nervousness or concern about being in a social situation
  • fear
  • avoidance
  • apprehension

Anxiety is a natural response, especially in situations with factors of uncertainty, such as:

  • meeting new people
  • going to unfamiliar places
  • being in the spotlight

For some people, social anxiety can be intense in the moment, but it does not typically cause ongoing disruption in everyday life.

Social phobia, which is also known as social anxiety disorder in diagnostic manuals such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR), is a diagnosable mental health disorder. Health experts classify it in the DSM-5-TR as an anxiety disorder involving specific diagnostic criteria and symptoms that cause major impairment in important areas of function.

Social anxiety disorder replaced social phobia in the DSM-5-TR as a way to include a broader range of interpersonal experiences that warranted an anxiety disorder diagnosis.

Learn more about social anxiety disorder.

Mental health specialists give a formal diagnosis of social anxiety disorder in the DSM-5-TR when a person meets specific diagnostic criteria. Social anxiety disorder can present in different ways and different contexts for individuals.

The diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder include:

  • a persistent anxiety or fear about at least one social situation for 6 months or more
  • the fear involves negative evaluation from others, such as rejection, humiliation, or embarrassment
  • the same social situations almost always trigger fear or anxiety
  • the individual actively tries to avoid the situation
  • the anxiety or fear is out of proportion to the actual situation or threat
  • the anxiety or fear causes significant distress or impairs occupational or social functioning

Social anxiety disorder may also have associations with physical experiences, such as:

Social anxiety symptoms

The symptoms of social anxiety and social anxiety disorder often overlap, but health experts differentiate them by their duration and intensity. Social anxiety disorder is a persistent state of social anxiety that can cause major changes in daily life.

Temporary social anxiety’s effects are often temporary and less severe. Even if intense initially, such as when giving a big presentation for the first time, social anxiety may improve the more someone remains in a specific social situation.

Possible symptoms of typical anxiety in social situations include:

  • nervousness
  • feeling unsure initiating conversations
  • self-consciousness
  • avoidance
  • fear of judgment
  • preferring the company of familiar peers
  • seeking reassurance in social settings
  • experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety, such as sweating or rapid heartbeat

Mental health experts consider temporary social anxiety a natural human experience that results from any anticipation of potential harm or negative outcomes in a social setting. Anxiety, in general, is part of the body’s short-term stress response, a beneficial set of physiological processes that help a person prepare for adversity.

Some causes of social anxiety disorder are not as well understood. It features pathological anxiety, a type of maladaptive, or unhelpful, anxiety that impairs function and causes significant challenges in areas such as school, work, or relationships. Some experts believe that it may stem from learned history, behavioral causes, and other experiences.

According to research from 2023, people experiencing pathological anxiety often show heightened amygdala responses to anxiety cues. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for processing threats, initiating the stress response, and the experience and expression of many emotions, among other functions.

The exact reason this hypersensitization occurs is unclear, but inflammation may play an important role. A review from 2022 suggests prolonged inflammation from a persistent stress response in the body may affect amygdala function. This contributes to the symptoms someone experiences in anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder.

What contributes to persistent stress can vary between individuals. Biological factors, genetics, learning history, and environmental exposure may all increase a person’s risk.

As a shared experience and not a formal diagnosis, there is no specific treatment for social anxiety. A person can help manage temporary anxiety in social situations with coping strategies such as:

Professional counseling can also help someone with social anxiety identify triggers and develop new coping responses.

Treatment for social anxiety disorder

Treatment options for anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder generally include medications and psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can help a person restructure unhelpful patterns of thinking that keep them stuck in a pathological anxiety loop. Exposure therapy can help reduce anxiety symptoms through controlled social exposure in a safe setting.

To help provide more immediate relief of symptoms, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help regulate mood and reduce anxiety symptoms by balancing neurotransmitter activity in the brain.

Social anxiety on any part of the spectrum can benefit from self-management strategies, such as:

  • focusing on a balanced diet and regular exercise
  • limiting alcohol and caffeine
  • getting enough quality sleep
  • developing stress management and relaxation tools
  • identifying triggers of and patterns in social anxiety
  • recruiting friends and loved ones as support for social situations
  • working with a mental health professional to address underlying causes of anxiety

Individuals can speak with a mental health professional about other techniques that may help with anxiety and social anxiety specifically.

Temporary anxiety in life is natural, especially in unfamiliar social settings. When anxiety is persistent, impairing, or occurs every time a person encounters a specific social situation, it may be time to speak with a mental health professional.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, more than one-third of people living with social anxiety disorder go 10 years or longer before seeking professional guidance.

Social anxiety and social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, are two separate experiences on the spectrum of social anxiety. Temporary anxiety in social settings can be a natural and temporary response to uncertainty. Conversely, social anxiety disorder is a persistent, severe type of anxiety that impairs function and has pervasive effects on everyday life.

Both social anxiety and social anxiety disorder may benefit from coping strategies such as counseling, healthy lifestyle habits, and relaxation techniques. As a type of anxiety disorder, treatment for social anxiety disorder can include specific psychotherapy approaches and medication.