Social Anxiety Disorder: A Common, Underrecognized Mental Disorder
Timothy J. Bruce, Ph.D., and Sy Atezaz Saeed, M.D.

University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, Peoria, Illinois

For years, social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, has been underrecognized and undertreated. That situation is beginning to change, however, because recent research has shown that the disorder is highly prevalent, chronic in its untreated course, often associated with comorbid mental and substance-related problems, and capable of disabling those who have it. We now know more about recognizing social phobia and the types of interventions to which it is responsive.

Clinical Features

Social phobia is an intense, irrational and persistent fear of being scrutinized or negatively evaluated by others.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. (DSM-IV),1 describes social phobia as an intense, irrational and persistent fear of being scrutinized or negatively evaluated by others (Table 1). In patients with this disorder, feared social or performance situations typically provoke an immediate anxious reaction ranging from diffuse apprehension to situational panic. The types of fears and avoidance commonly associated with social phobia (Table 2) are, to some degree, experienced by most people. However, to meet the diagnostic criteria for this disorder, the symptoms must be severe enough to cause significant distress or disability. Social phobia can be generalized, meaning that the patient fears many or most social interactions, or it can be limited to one or a few situations, such as public speaking or performing.

Diagnostic Criteria for Social Phobia

A. A marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing. note: In children, there must be evidence of the capacity for age-appropriate social relationships with familiar people and the anxiety must occur in peer settings, not just in interactions with adults.

B. Exposure to the feared social situation almost invariably provokes anxiety, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally predisposed panic attack. note: In children, the anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, or shrinking from social situations with unfamiliar people.

C. The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable. NOTE: In children, this feature may be absent.

D. The feared social or performance situations are avoided or else are endured with intense anxiety or distress.

E. The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person's normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.

F. In individuals under 18 years of age, the duration is at least six months.

G. The fear or avoidance is not due to the direct physiologic effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition and is not better accounted for by another mental disorder (e.g., panic disorder with or without agoraphobia, separation anxiety disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, a pervasive developmental disorder or schizoid personality disorder).

H. If a general medical condition or another mental disorder is present, the fear in Criterion A is unrelated to it; (e.g., the fear is not of stuttering, trembling in Parkinson's disease or exhibiting abnormal eating behavior in anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.)

Specify if:
Generalized: if the fears include most social situations (also consider the additional diagnosis of avoidant personality disorder).


Reprinted with permission from American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994:416*7. Copyright 1994.

In social phobia, fear and avoidance typically develop into a vicious cycle that can become severely distressing, debilitating and demoralizing over time. Although patients are usually aware that their fears are unreasonable, they still find themselves experiencing significant dread before facing a feared social encounter. The encounters themselves often evoke physical sensations of anxiety (e.g., blushing, sweating) and a preoccupation with possible embarrassment or humiliation. Encounters may be endured with distress or, more typically, avoided--either subtly (e.g., by modifying one's interactions within encounters) or overtly (e.g., by nonattendance). These various forms of avoidance preclude any change in the patients's core pathologic social fears and cause significant distress or functional impairment.

Common Fears in Social Phobia

Public speaking or performing
Making "small talk"
Small group discussion
Asking questions in groups
Being introduced
Meeting or talking with strangers
Being assertive Being watched doing something (e.g., eating, writing)
Attending social gatherings
Using the telephone
Using public restrooms
Interacting with "important" people
Indirect evaluation (e.g., test taking)

It should be noted that not everyone who suffers from social phobia appears shy, withdrawn or overtly nervous. Presentation of symptoms varies widely (Table 3). In some situations, the patient may not appear anxious, thus obscuring the underlying fear, avoidance, distress and disability.

Epidemiology, Course and Disability

Recent epidemiologic studies report that social phobia has a lifetime prevalence rate of 13.3 percent and a one-year prevalence rate of 7.9 percent in community samples, making it the third most prevalent psychiatric disorder, following substance abuse and depression.2 In community samples, circumscribed fears of public speaking or performing are most prevalent. In clinical samples, generalized fears of many social interactions predominate, perhaps because of the greater likelihood of disability, and consequent help-seeking, in generalized social phobia.

Onset of social phobia typically occurs between 11 and 19 years of age. Onset after age 25 is rare,3,4 although it is not uncommon for an existing social phobia to remain unprovoked for years until some new social or occupational demand (e.g., meeting new people, public speaking, promotion) forces these persons into social encounters that trigger the syndrome. Slightly more females than males have social phobia.3 In one study,5 about one half of the patients reported that their phobia began in response to a specific embarrassing experience; the others reported that it had been with them for as long as they could remember.

Clinical Dimensions of Social Phobia

The following are some of the ways in which patients with social phobia may vary in symptom presentation:
Generalized versus specific fears or avoidance
Severe versus mild physiologic reactivity to social encounters
Socially skilled versus unskilled
Fear of familiar versus unfamiliar social situations
Fear of formal versus informal social situations
Fear of group versus individual social interactions
Presence versus absence of preoccupation with and fear of specific anxiety sensations (e.g., blushing, shaking)

Untreated, social phobia is chronic and unremitting. Selective avoidance of social situations may temporarily reduce symptoms but usually leaves underlying fears intact. Disability from social phobia can be pervasive and severe. Approximately 85 percent of patients with the disorder experience academic and occupational difficulties caused by their inability to meet the social demands of securing and maintaining employment or relationships. In one epidemiologic sample,3 nearly one half of those with social phobia were unable to complete high school; 70 percent were in the lowest two quartiles of socioeconomic status; and approximately 22 percent were on welfare.

Comorbidity and Detection

Approximately one half of patients with social phobia have comorbid mental, drug or alcohol problems.6,7 The disorder increases a patient's lifetime risk of depression approximately fourfold.3 Up to 16 percent of patients who present with social phobia have alcohol abuse problems8; conversely, many patients presenting for treatment of substance abuse problems meet the criteria for social phobia.9 Interestingly, longitudinal data show that social phobia precedes approximately 70 percent of these comorbid conditions,3 suggesting that some comorbid conditions arise in response to the phobia. Importantly, the presence of comorbidity in social phobia has been associated with an increased lifetime incidence of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.3 Although these data underscore the need for early detection, social phobia often goes undetected.

In a recent epidemiologic study of 2,096 primary care patients in France,10 it was found that approximately 5 percent of those detected through screening met the criteria for social phobia. Of those patients with early onset (before age 15), 70 percent had comorbid major depression. Interestingly, of patients presenting with social phobia alone, only 46 percent were initially recognized as having any psychiatric disorder. Of patients presenting with social phobia and depression, 76 percent were recognized as having psychiatric problems, although the social phobia was specifically identified in only 11 percent. These data reemphasize the importance of comprehensive psychiatric screening and highlight the need to screen for social phobia, particularly in patients who present with other common mental health disorders, such as depression or substance abuse.

Obstacles to Effective Treatment of Social Phobia

Patient avoids treatment because of fear, shame or stigma.
Screening devices for assessing social phobia are unavailable.
Assessment and treatment are misdirected toward specific symptoms (e.g., somatic complaints) or comorbid conditions (e.g., depression, substance use problems) rather than toward the social phobia syndrome.
Affordable and expert care is unavailable.
Physician or patient lacks knowledge about effective treatment options.
Patient or physician trivializes phobia or views it as characterologic and unchangeable (e.g., patient is "just shy").

As with all psychiatric conditions, detection can be facilitated by the use of a brief screening instrument that assesses for the primary features of disorders. This method is particularly relevant for social phobia, because patients often avoid volunteering their fears face-to-face. Some general screening devices for mental disorders (e.g., the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV-Screen [SCID-Screen]) include questions related to social phobia but are quite lengthy, requiring up to 25 minutes to complete; others do not screen for social phobia (e.g., the Primary Care Evaluation of Mental Disorders [Prime-MD]). Instruments designed specifically to measure social phobia (e.g., the Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale, the Social Avoidance and Distress Scale)11 are extensive and more applicable to monitoring outcome than to screening.

In the absence of a brief yet thorough instrument for detecting social phobia, family physicians can improve detection by adding selected questions to their existing screening instrument. In a recent study of 9,375 managed care patients, the following yes-or-no statements were sensitive to detecting 89 percent of social phobia cases: (1) being embarrassed or looking stupid are among my worst fears; (2) fear of embarrassment causes me to avoid doing things or speaking to people; (3) I avoid activities in which I am the center of attention. Positive responses can be followed up to determine whether the phobia is a problem for which the patient desires treatment. A number of obstacles to prompt recognition and effective treatment have been identified (Table 4). When these obstacles are overcome, social phobia is responsive to specific pharmacologic and psychologic interventions....

Patients with social phobia who have been treated with cognitive behavior therapy experience significantly less relapse than those treated only with pharmacotherapy...