NHS Lothian

Building confidence in social situations

2 min read

What is social anxiety?

Most of us know what it’s like to feel anxious in social situations. But for some people, anxiety in everyday social situations can feel completely overwhelming and uncontrollable. This is called social anxiety. Social anxiety can make it very hard to get on with your life and can have a big impact on relationships, employment and life in general.

What’s it like to have social anxiety?

People who struggle with social anxiety often feel overpowered by negative thoughts and are full of self-doubt about their ability to cope in social situations. When the anxiety is at its worst, it can also bring uncomfortable bodily responses such as sweating, blushing, a dry mouth or dizziness. The combination of negative thoughts and uncomfortable bodily responses can often make people avoid certain social situations altogether.

What causes social anxiety?

Nobody knows for sure what causes social anxiety. Some people seem just to be naturally more anxious than others. Other people may have had difficult experiences growing up. Bullying, difficult life events, feeling heavily criticised as a child, or even having parents who suffer from social anxiety are all experiences that may influence our own feelings in social situations.

Social anxiety can sometimes go hand-in-hand with other difficulties, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can also often experience social anxiety.

Research has helped us understand that thoughts can play an important role in the development of social anxiety and can also keep it going. These thoughts can be about yourself, other people, the future and the world around you. If you’re struggling with social anxiety you may recognise the following negative thoughts:


  • “I’ll make a fool of myself”
  • “I’m boring / stupid / useless”

Other people

  • “Other people will laugh at me”
  • “They’ll think I’m an idiot”

The future

  • “Something bad will happen”
  • “I won’t be able to cope”

The world

  • “The world is judgemental and unforgiving”
  • “The world is threatening”


How common is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is one of the most common types of anxiety, affecting around one in ten people. Although both women and men can struggle with social anxiety, women are more likely to experience it than men. Social anxiety commonly starts in childhood, but people can develop these difficulties at any time in their life.


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