Social Anxiety

Understanding Social Anxiety

Social anxiety or “social phobias” refers to overwhelming feelings of emotional discomfort, fear, embarrassment and humiliation in social situations. The concern of being negatively evaluated by others leads to avoidance of everyday social situations and activities.

Signs of Social Anxiety

Signs and symptoms may be different for everyone and these are only guidelines:

  • Excessive self-consciousness and anxiety in the presence of others.
  • Intensive worry for days before an upcoming social situation.
  • Extreme fear of meeting new people and public speaking.
  • Extreme worry of being embarrassed, humiliated, or judged by others, especially people you don’t know.
  • Frequent feeling of being watched, stared at and judged by others.
  • Feeling a lack of confidence in public.
  • Low self-esteem and negative thoughts.
  • Loneliness with few or no friends.
  • Physical symptoms of social anxiety can include: blushing, sweating, shaking, trembling, shaky voice, tense muscles, dry mouth or heart beating faster.

Social Anxiety in University Life

University students can experience social anxiety which may result in:

  • Avoidance of situations (clubs, parties, extracurricular events, volunteering or work) which limits one’s ability to enjoy activities in their daily life.
  • A fear of meeting other new students which can be an obstacle during group work assignments.
  • A fear of speaking in formal/informal situations (i.e. oral presentations).
  • An inability to ask questions in class.
  • An avoidance or extreme discomfort in interactions with professional or academic staff.
  • Difficulty communicating one’s needs/wants in their relationship with others (assertiveness).

Causes of Social Anxiety

  • Feeling criticized by parents related to social behaviour.
  • Childhood experiences of being bullied by peers.
  • Shyness in childhood can evolve into social anxiety.
  • Negative social experiences which caused embarrassment or humiliation.
  • Transition to university can exaggerate social anxiety.
  • A family history of anxiety and/or other mood disorders.


  • Attend a support group.
  • Talk with a trusted friend, family member, counsellor, or other professional.
  • Realize that other people also experience anxiety. In fact, 12% of Canadians are affected by anxiety, making it the most common mental illness.
  • People do NOT judge you as harshly as you judge yourself.

Coping Strategies

  • Learn and use relaxation techniques as they are effective in managing anxiety.
  • Develop a repertoire of ways to meet and engage people in order to practice how to get a conversation started.
  • Identify negative thoughts and develop corresponding positive affirmations.
  • Establish social goals such as: smile, nod and/or say a brief hello to the people you encounter.
  • Set goals to increase social interaction. Try using the support of people in your existing social network.
  • Counselling can enable you to identify negative thoughts and mistaken beliefs that underlie fear of social situations and help you become more comfortable and confident in your social abilities.
  • Attend meditation and yoga classes.
  • Reduce the amount of time you socially isolate yourself (i.e. being on the computer).
  • Verbalizing your feelings can reduce anxiety and help you establish a connection with others (ex. “I sure am nervous today”).

When to get help

Further consultation with a professional may be needed if:

  • Coping strategies were ineffective.
  • Your level of anxiety is intense and interferes with your daily routine, interpersonal relationships, and academic work.

Social Phobia workbooks

  • The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, Edmund j. Bourne
  • Managing Social Anxiety: A Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Debra A. Hope
  • The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming Your Fear, Martin M. Antony