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What Do We Know About the Cause of Social Anxiety Disorder?

  • Genetics

As with all anxiety disorders we know the cause of social anxiety disorder in some cases is  genetics. Genes happen to have something to do with just about every mental illness, and physical illness there is.

If you remember from learning about types of social anxiety disorder, there are two kinds of social anxiety disorder, specific and generalized. Generalized social anxiety is defined by being fearful of most social circumstances, while specific social anxiety is defined by only being fearful in certain circumstances, like public speaking.

Generalized social anxiety,  is also more severe and has more comorbidity, meaning, there are other diagnoses that co occur along with it. This particular type of social anxiety appears to be more strongly genetically linked than is specific social anxiety.

Both the serotonin and the dopamine pathways have been implicated in social anxiety disorder ( SAD) and other anxiety disorders although we don't understand exactly how they are or why.  This is why drugs that alter these neurotransmitter levels seem to help with anxiety.

  • Children's Temperment/Behavioral Inhibition

A child's temperment is  their character or makeup.  This  is relatively unchanging  over the course of their life. Evidence shows that children who are shy and fearful as toddlers often later go on to become rather cautious and introverted around others when they are in school. We call these children inhibited children.

Psychologists believe these children have a low threshold for arousal in the amygdala and hypothalmic circuits to unfamiliar events. This means they  will react to change and unfamiliar  conditions of any kind with sympathetic nervous system arousal ( high heart rate and acceleration of heart rate). Essentially their bodies react as if they are stressed! Also, these children will   respond to new or different people or circumstances with avoidance or what we call behavioral inhibition. Children who exhibit this temperament early on are believed to be at risk of developing anxiety disorders including social anxiety. Thus, behavioral inhibition is considered a cause of social anxiety disorder.

  • Parental Attachment/ Anxiety

There is  evidence that early patterns of parenting style can influence children's later perceptions of people and their sense of self. There is additional evidence that parent's perception of the world, and of other people as unsafe or judgmental can have this same effect, thus producing anxiety in their child. In some indirect ways, parenting can be considered a cause of social anxiety disorder.

  • One Traumatic Social Experience can Trigger it

I have often heard a client who is dealing with social anxiety claim that they had one traumatic experience. For example, they fell on stage, or they vomited, or they choked in a specific situation and then they began to avoid social situations. That point of the event  is where their  social anxiety, which may have always been there to an extent, just really took off. That is why avoidance is such a powerful thing. It reinforces the anxiety or fear, and strengthens it's hold on you.

Other risk factors that may, or may not be related to social anxiety in different degrees include:

  • Being a woman
  • Having less social support
  • Lower social class
  • Being single

  • Being unemployed
  • Poor education
  • Early trauma
  • Early phobias
  • Abuse, Neglect, Attachment problems in childhood

Leave Cause of Social Anxiety Disorder for Types of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety and anger

Social anxiety and teens

Social anxiety and depression
Social anxiety and valerian root

Counseling for social anxiety

 H.-U. Wittchen, L. Fehm Epidemiology and natural course of social fears and social phobia .mActa Psychiatr Scand 2003: 108 (Suppl. 417): 4–18.

 Elizabeth,J Kink,N, Ollendick T.H.Social anxiety disorder in children and youth: A research update on aetiological factors Counselling Psychology Quarterly,
June 2006; 19(2): 151–163

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