Social anxiety is the unreasonable or excessive fear of or discomfort in social or performance situations. Individuals with social anxiety anticipate that they will be judged by others, make a bad impression, or do something embarrassing. Therefore, they avoid social situations or force themselves to endure the situations while feeling intense anxiety. There may often be extreme anticipatory anxiety related to upcoming social situations, which can begin a vicious cycle. Fearful anticipation will lead to distressing thoughts and anxiety symptoms during the feared situation, which can lead to either actual or perceived poor performance in the situation, which then leads to embarrassment and increased anxiety for the future.

Social anxiety is related to personality styles/traits that are quite common, such as shyness, introversion, and perfectionism. Most people experience these with different levels of intensity. For those with social phobia, the extreme fear or avoidance of social situations interferes with their daily routine, their school/work life, or their social life and relationships.

Some individuals with social anxiety experience anxiety only in certain kinds of social situations. For example, some may feel extreme distress in formal situations, like at meetings or presentations, and others may feel more distress in more casual and intimate situations, like at a party or in a small group of friends. Still others may have more generalized social phobia and experience anxiety in performance situations as well as social interactions.

Reported prevalence of social anxiety ranges from 3% to 13%, depending on the level of impairment. In the general population, most people with social anxiety fear public speaking, and about half experience anxiety when speaking to strangers and meeting new people. In clinical populations, most individuals fear multiple types of social situations.

Onset for social anxiety usually occurs in the mid-teens, with a childhood history of shyness. There are some whose onset may begin in early childhood. Some individuals report onset of the social anxiety occurring after a particular stressful or embarrassing experience. The course of anxiety often continues for the individual, although the social anxiety will vary in severity during that time, often depending on life stressors and demands.

Social anxiety appears to run in families. Studies have found that having a close relative with social anxiety can make an individual ten times more likely to have Social Phobia compared to someone who does not have a relative with social anxiety. More specific social fears, like having a fear of public speaking, were less likely to be predicted by one’s family. There appears to be a combination of factors in the development of social anxiety, including genetic influences as well as environmental and learning effects.