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Is Social Anxiety a Real Disorder?

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Just about everyone has moments of nervousness in certain social circumstances, such as when giving a speech or meeting new people. But for some people, this moderate nervousness is replaced by an overwhelming fear and other disruptive symptoms. Do people who experience this type of distress have a mental illness? Is social anxiety a disability?

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is a mental health disorder that is characterized by excessive, disproportionate fear or worry that can be triggered by a variety of common social situations. The clinical term for this condition is social anxiety disorder (social phobia). 


As established in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), someone who has social anxiety disorder will exhibit the following types of symptoms:

  • Significant fear or worry about social situations during which they may be scrutinized by others.
  • Fear that they will act in a manner that will cause them to be judged negatively by others, which can lead to embarrassment, humiliation, and/or rejection.
  • Either avoiding such situations altogether or enduring them with considerable distress.

The DSM-5 also includes the following information about the persistence and severity of these symptoms:

  • Symptoms will occur every time (or almost every time) that a person is placed in certain social situations.
  • The fear that the person experiences will be disproportionate to the potential threat posed by the social situation.
  • The symptoms of social anxiety disorder will be severe enough to impair the individual’s ability to function at work, in school, or in other important areas.

To be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, a person will typically need to have experienced symptoms for at least six months.

Problems it Causes in Everyday Life

In the previous section, we noted that the symptoms of social anxiety disorder will impair a person’s ability to function in one or more important areas of life. Here are some examples of what that can look like – and what types of problems can occur as a result of these symptoms:

  • A person who has social anxiety disorder may refuse a promotion at work if their new role would require public speaking, socializing with clients, or similar responsibilities. This can be harmful to their career development as well as their financial stability.
  • Overwhelming school-related anxiety can undermine a person’s academic progress, which can lead to failure, dropping out of school, or opting not to pursue post-secondary education. This can limit their employability, negatively impact their finances, and undermine their overall satisfaction with their life.
  • Excessive fears or worries related to meeting new people can prevent a person from forming meaningful friendships and romantic relationships, which can lead to isolation and diminished quality of life.
  • If a person attempts to self-medicate their symptoms by abusing alcohol or other drugs, they put themselves at risk for myriad additional problems, including medical concerns, legal jeopardy, and addiction.

Is Social Anxiety a Real Diagnosable Disorder?

Yes, social anxiety is a real diagnosable mental illness. It is one of 11 conditions in the anxiety disorders section of the DSM-5, and it affects millions of people every year.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has reported the following about this condition:

  • About 12.1% of adults in the United States will have symptoms of social anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  • Experts estimate that the past-year prevalence of social anxiety disorder among U.S. adults is 7.1%.
  • The past-year prevalence of social anxiety disorder is higher among women (8.0%) than among men (6.1%).
  • Social anxiety disorder is most common among young adults ages 18-29. About 9.1% of people in this age range had symptoms of this condition in the past 12 months.
  • Almost 30% of adults with social anxiety disorder experience severe impairment as scored on the Sheehan Disability Scale.

Is Social Anxiety Classified as a Disability?

Is social anxiety a disability? The answer to this question can vary depending on who you ask and why you’re asking.

For example, anxiety disorders (including social anxiety) are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that employers who are subject to ADA rules cannot deny employment or promotions due to social anxiety disorder if a person can fulfill the duties of a particular role with reasonable accommodations.

Similarly, someone with severe social anxiety may also qualify for certain disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Unfortunately, the ADA rules don’t apply to every workplace, and the SSA’s claims process can be difficult to navigate, especially for someone who is attempting to access benefits due to an anxiety disorder or some other mental health concerns. This doesn’t mean that you cannot receive disability protections or financial support due to your struggles with social anxiety. But accomplishing these objectives may be difficult.

Can Social Anxiety be Treated?

As we’ve established, untreated social anxiety disorder can have a devastating impact on a person’s life. But there is good news for anyone who has this condition: Social anxiety can be treated.

Treatment for this condition often involves a combination of medication and therapy. 

Depending on the nature and severity of a person’s distress, their treatment team may prescribe an antidepressant or an anti-anxiety medication. These medications can ease some of the physical and psychological symptoms that are commonly associated with this condition.

The therapeutic component of treatment for social anxiety may include a variety of elements, such as:

  • Individual, group, and family sessions
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy
  • Neurofeedback
  • Somatic therapy

If a person’s struggles with social anxiety are related to a history of untreated trauma, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and other trauma-focused interventions may also be beneficial.

Contact Montare Behavioral Health About Treating Social Anxiety

If social anxiety has been preventing you from living a full and satisfying life, Montare Behavioral Health is here to help.

Our network of treatment centers offers a full continuum of life-affirming care at convenient locations throughout southern California. At each of our facilities and in all of our programs, you can expect to receive personalized services and comprehensive support from a team of highly skilled professionals. Working together, we can identify and address the full scope of your needs, so that you can build a foundation for a much healthier and more hopeful future.

To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact Us page or call us today.