Causes of Social Anxiety

Why Do You Have Social Anxiety?

Ever since it was officially recognized as a disorder in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association, scientists all over the world have been trying to identify and understand the causes of social anxiety disorder (SAD).

Like for most psychological conditions, the majority of contemporary professionals agree upon the idea that SAD is caused by a combination of genetics as well as environmental and socioeconomic factors.

What this means is that there is hardly one specific root cause of social anxiety, but rather a variety of factors that can lead to a certain vulnerability that favors its development.

It is important to note that even a combination of most of these factors does not necessarily cause social anxiety in an individual.

A person might be equipped with “social anxiety genes“, have been raised by overly critical parents and have an insecure attachment style, but never really struggles with social anxiety and generally feels confident around others. Despite a certain vulnerability, SAD does not develop.

In contrast, others may be affected by only very few of these factors and develop social anxiety as a result.

For instance, this may be the case for an individual who is usually outgoing and sociable and suffers a traumatizing social experience. In this case, direct conditioning might cause the development of SAD in performance situations.

The Possible Causes of Social Anxiety Disorder

Once again, a single determining factor for the development of SAD does not exist. Rather, the possibility of social anxiety emerging increases as certain predispositions combine.

The following factors have been linked to SAD and are believed to be possible causes of social anxiety.

Genetics

Although researchers have not been able to identify a specific “social anxiety gene”, familial links are very common among those with SAD.

Especially those with generalized social anxiety disorder often have several relatives who are diagnosed with SAD or who have very shy, socially inhibited temperaments.

Therefore, genes seem to play a role for some affected people (Spence & Rapee, 2016).

Insecure Attachment Style

The psychologist John Bowlby famously coined the term “attachment style” (1969). It refers to the way we relate to others, especially on an emotional level and is formed in early childhood.

A secure bond between child and mother (or other primary caregiver) lays the foundations for secure emotional bonding for the rest of the child’s life and is an important factor for psychological health.

If the mother does not respond to the child’s needs adequately enough, an insecure attachment style may be the result.

Studies suggest that an insecure attachment style is a risk factor for the development of SAD (Bohlin, Hagekull, & Rydell, 2000; Muris, Mayer, & Meesters, 2000).

Parents’ Shortcoming

Many people with SAD report having been raised by parents that were overprotective, controlling, insensitive, rejecting, or emotionally distant.

Overcontrolling and rejecting parenting styles have been linked to the development of social anxiety (Bögels, Van Oosten, Muris, & Smulders, 2001; Wood, McLeod, Sigman, Hwang, & Chu, 2003).

Parents who overemphasize the opinion of others, socially isolate their children, or shame them frequently seem to be more frequent among SAD sufferers as well (Bruch, Heimberg, Berger, & Collins, 1989; Stravynski, Elie, & Franche, 1989).

Traumatic Social Experience(s)

About half of all people with SAD report that a social faux-pas which they experienced as highly humiliating marked the beginning of their social anxiety (Öst, 1985).

A common anecdote frequently recounted by SAD sufferers is that of being teased, made fun of or being laughed at for failing to adequately respond to a task at school, such as reading out loud or giving a presentation.

Psychologists refer to this type of learning as direct conditioning. By experiencing a very uncomfortable social situation, the brain tries to protect the organism from having to experience it again by activating brain areas responsible for fear responses. This often happens when only thinking of a similar experience.

This is the brain’s in-built protective system at work, unfortunately it is little helpful in the case of SAD.

Witnessing Others’ Traumatic Social Experiences

There have been some interesting findings with non-human primates that suggest that by simply observing another person having a traumatic social experience can we learn to be fearful of similar situations (Öst & Hughdahl, 1981; Mineka & Cook, 1991).

Witnessing the negative social consequences of others’ social faux-pas, the brain can be conditioned to fear similar situations, even though it did not experience them directly. For people with socially anxious parents or siblings, this may be a relevant cause.

Significant Negative Life Events

It has been found that people with SAD frequently report negative life events, such as moving various times during childhood, having been sexually abused, parents’ divorce, significant illness during childhood, psychopathology of a parent, and family conflicts (Kessler, Davis, & Kendler, 1997; Magee, 1999; Lieb et al., 2000; Bandelow et al., 2004).

It seems as if experiences of this type represent another predisposition which increases vulnerability to developing SAD.

Social Skills Deficit

People with SAD frequently question their social competence, although an overwhelming number of studies has shown that most SAD sufferers clearly underestimate their social performance (Cartwright-Hatton, Hodges, & Porter, 2003; Cartwright-Hatton, Tschernitz, & Gomersall, 2005, Clark & Arkowitz, 1975; Norton & Hope, 2001; Rapee & Abbott, 2006; Rapee & Lim, 1992; Stopa & Clark, 1993; Voncken & Bögels, 2008).

On a same note, the majority of people with SAD additionally overestimates the visibility of their anxiety.

Still, some people with social anxiety do seem to lack social skills (e.g., Alden & Mellings, 2004, Alden & Wallace, 1995; Baker & Edelmann, 2002).

In these cases, a vicious cycle may emerge which ultimately leads to the development of SAD, considering that a deficiency in social skills is likely to lead to negative social experiences, which increases social avoidance, which yet again impedes the improvement of social skills (Spence, Donovan, & Brechman-Toussaint, 1999).

Cognitive Biases (or: unfavorable ways of thinking)

Cognitive biases relate to the way we perceive the world around us. They are highly dependent on our beliefs, moods, and the way we think.

Imagine being asked to rate your well-being on a Friday afternoon. Now imagine the same thing, but on a Monday morning. Your answers are likely going to differ in some way, given that the world tends to look more colorful with the weekend coming up.

Just as your way of thinking affected your answers in the imaginary survey above, people with social anxiety are strongly influenced by the beliefs they hold about themselves, others and the world.

Additionally, an anxious and depressed emotional state are likely to affect the way people with SAD perceive their surroundings and themselves in social situations.

Anxiety-driven thoughts increase the likelihood of perceiving social cues that signal threat and disapproval.

It has been suggested that cognitive biases can lead to the development of SAD (Alfano & Beidel, 2011).

However, it is not clear whether they should be seen as root causes of social anxiety, since they can also be interpreted as mere manifestations or symptoms of the disorder.

Biological Vulnerabilities

Although there is not enough evidence to prove the existence of structural abnormalities in social anxiety disorder, there have been some interesting findings that suggest certain biological differences.

Just as with cognitive biases, it is not clear whether these neurobiological differences are causes of social anxiety or if they should rather be considered manifestations of SAD after its onset.

Cultural Influences

Individualistic cultures, such as found in Northern America and most parts of Europe, value social confidence, and outgoing individuals tend to strive in these societies.

This leaves people with reserved and shy temperaments in a position in which they either adjust their personality to societal standards or suffer from the consequences of not fitting in.

The latter often include receiving lower wages, having fewer friends and romantic partners, and struggling with the sensation of being inadequate, among others (Alden & Taylor, 2004; Hart, Turk, Heimberg, & Liebowitz, 1999; Spokas & Cardaciotto, 2014).

For people with this type of temperament, the development of SAD can be a consequence (Brockveld, Perini, & Rapee, 2014).

Being shy and introverted are often seen as undesirable traits in individualistic cultures.

In collectivist cultures, such as found in Eastern Asia, a shy and rather reserved temperament is often appreciated. Very extroverted and outgoing people are often seen as rude and disrespectful in these societies.

And indeed, when looking at the prevalence of SAD in countries such as Japan and China, the numbers tend to be lower compared to Western countries, such as the United States and Russia (Hofmann, Asnaani, & Hinton, 2011).

Societal expectations may influence what is seen as functional impairment, and therefore what is classified as a psychological disorder.

However, while SAD, defined as fear of negative evaluation and humiliation, is not as common in collectivist cultures, another type of social fears can often be found in these societies.

Especially in Japan, a fear of making other people feel uncomfortable has been well documented. It has been suggested that this phenomenon, referred to as Taijin Kyofusho, relates to cultural norms that value interdependence and social harmony (Rector, Kocovski, & Ryder, 2006).

While the culture an individual grows up in seems to have an influence on the chances of developing SAD, it is rather to be treated as a predisposing factor instead of a fixed cause. But as pointed out several times before, this accounts for all the causes of social anxiety listed on this page.

Taijin Kyofusho, a social anxiety type predominantly found in Japan, has been associated with fear of offending others.

Another thing to keep in mind is that psychological issues are not always easy to generalize, as a person’s unique biological makeup and life experiences create a peculiar way of being in the world.

That is, not everybody reacts the same way when faced with a given situation. This is also true for the emotional processing of disturbing life events and explains why not everybody affected by the above vulnerabilities develops SAD.

To learn about the numerous effective therapies for social anxiety, head over to our complete treatment guide.


Alden, L. E., & Taylor, C. T. (2004). Interpersonal processes in social phobia. Clinical psychology review, 24(7), 857–882. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2004.07.006

Alden, L. E., & Mellings, T. M. B. (2004). Generalized Social Phobia and social judgments: the salience of self- and partner-information. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 18(2), 143–157. doi:10.1016/s0887-6185(02)00244-x

Alden, L. E., & Wallace, S. T. (1995). Social phobia and social appraisal in successful and unsuccessful social interactions. Behaviour research and therapy, 33(5), 497–505. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(94)00088-2

Alfano, C. A., & Beidel, D. C. (Eds.). (2011). Social anxiety in adolescents and young adults: Translating developmental science into practice. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/12315-000

American Psychiatic Association. (1980). Diagnostic and statistical manual. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Aouizerate, B., Martin-Guehl, C., & Tignol, J. (2004). Neurobiologie et pharmacothérapie de la phobie sociale [Neurobiology and pharmacotherapy of social phobia]. L’Encephale, 30(4), 301–313. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0013-7006(04)95442-5

Baker, S. R., & Edelmann, R. J. (2002). Is social phobia related to lack of social skills? Duration of skill-related behaviours and ratings of behavioural adequacy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41(3), 243–257. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466502760379118

Bandelow, B., Charimo Torrente, A., Wedekind, D., Broocks, A., Hajak, G., & Rüther, E. (2004). Early traumatic life events, parental rearing styles, family history of mental disorders, and birth risk factors in patients with social anxiety disorder. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, 254(6), 397–405. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-004-0521-2

Birbaumer, N., Grodd, W., Diedrich, O., Klose, U., Erb, M., Lotze, M., Schneider, F., Weiss, U., & Flor, H. (1998). fMRI reveals amygdala activation to human faces in social phobics. Neuroreport, 9(6), 1223–1226. https://doi.org/10.1097/00001756-199804200-00048

Bögels, S. M., van Oosten, A., Muris, P., & Smulders, D. (2001). Familial correlates of social anxiety in children and adolescents. Behaviour research and therapy, 39(3), 273–287. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0005-7967(00)00005-x

Bohlin, G., Hagekull, B., & Rydell, A.-M. (2000). Attachment and social functioning: A longitudinal study from infancy to middle childhood. Social Development, 9(1), 24–39. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9507.00109

Bruch, M. A., Heimberg, R. G., Berger, P., & Collins, T. M. (1989). Social phobia and perceptions of early parental and personal characteristics. Anxiety Research, 2(1), 57–65. https://doi.org/10.1080/08917778908249326

Cartwright-Hatton, S., Hodges, L., & Porter, J. (2003). Social anxiety in childhood: the relationship with self and observer rated social skills. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 44(5), 737–742. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-7610.00159

Clark, J. V., & Arkowitz, H. (1975). Social anxiety and self-evaluation of interpersonal performance. Psychological Reports, 36(1), 211–221. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1975.36.1.211

Condren, R. M., O’Neill, A., Ryan, M. C., Barrett, P., & Thakore, J. H. (2002). HPA axis response to a psychological stressor in generalised social phobia. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27(6), 693–703. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0306-4530(01)00070-1

Cook, M., & Mineka, S. (1991). Selective associations in the origins of phobic fears and their implications for behavior therapy. In P. R. Martin (Ed.), Handbook of behavior therapy and psychological science: An integrative approach (pp. 413–434). Pergamon Press.

Heimberg, R. G., Hope, D. A., Dodge, C. S., & Becker, R. E. (1990). DSM-III-R subtypes of social phobia. Comparison of generalized social phobics and public speaking phobics. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 178(3), 172–179. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005053-199003000-00004

Hofmann, S. G., Anu Asnaani, M. A., & Hinton, D. E. (2010). Cultural aspects in social anxiety and social anxiety disorder. Depression and anxiety, 27(12), 1117–1127. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20759

Hofmann, S. G., Newman, M. G., Ehlers, A., & Roth, W. T. (1995). Psychophysiological differences between subgroups of social phobia. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 104(1), 224–231. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.104.1.224

Kessler, R. C., Davis, C. G., & Kendler, K. S. (1997). Childhood adversity and adult psychiatric disorder in the US National Comorbidity Survey. Psychological Medicine, 27(5), 1101–1119. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291797005588

Levin, A. P., Saoud, J. B., Strauman, T., Gorman, J. M., Fyer, A. J., Crawford, R., & Liebowitz, M. R. (1993). Responses of “generalized” and “discrete” social phobics during public speaking. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 7(3), 207–221. https://doi.org/10.1016/0887-6185(93)90003-4

Lieb, R., Wittchen, H. U., Höfler, M., Fuetsch, M., Stein, M. B., & Merikangas, K. R. (2000). Parental psychopathology, parenting styles, and the risk of social phobia in offspring: a prospective-longitudinal community study. Archives of general psychiatry, 57(9), 859–866. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.57.9.859

Magee W. J. (1999). Effects of negative life experiences on phobia onset. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 34(7), 343–351. https://doi.org/10.1007/s001270050154

Muris, P., Mayer, B., & Meesters, C. (2000). Self-reported attachment style, anxiety, and depression in children. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 28(2), 157–162. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2000.28.2.157

Norton, P. J., & Hope, D. A. (2001). Analogue observational methods in the assessment of social functioning in adults. Psychological Assessment, 13(1), 59–72. https://doi.org/10.1037/1040-3590.13.1.59

Öst, L.-G. (1985). Ways of acquiring phobias and outcome of behavioral treatments. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 23, 683-689.

Öst, L.-G., & Hugdahl, K. (1981). Acquisition of phobias and anxiety response patterns in clinical patients. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 19(5), 439–447. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(81)90134-0

Rapee, R. M., & Abbott, M. J. (2006). Mental representation of observable attributes in people with social phobia. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 37(2), 113–126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2005.01.001

Rapee, R. M., & Lim, L. (1992). Discrepancy between self- and observer ratings of performance in social phobics. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101(4), 728–731. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.101.4.728

Rector, N.A., Kocovski, N.L. & Ryder, A.G. Social Anxiety and the Fear of Causing Discomfort to Others. Cogn Ther Res 30, 279–296 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-006-9050-9

Schneier, F. R., Liebowitz, M. R., Abi-Dargham, A., Zea-Ponce, Y., Lin, S. H., & Laruelle, M. (2000). Low dopamine D(2) receptor binding potential in social phobia. The American journal of psychiatry, 157(3), 457–459. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.157.3.457

Schwartz, C. E., Wright, C. I., Shin, L. M., Kagan, J., & Rauch, S. L. (2003). Inhibited and uninhibited infants “grown up”: Adult amygdalar response to novelty. Science, 300(5627), 1952–1953. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1083703

Spence, S. H., Donovan, C., & Brechman-Toussaint, M. (1999). Social skills, social outcomes, and cognitive features of childhood social phobia. Journal of abnormal psychology, 108(2), 211–221. https://doi.org/10.1037//0021-843x.108.2.211

Spence, S. H., & Rapee, R. M. (2016). The etiology of social anxiety disorder: An evidence-based model. Behaviour research and therapy, 86, 50–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2016.06.007

Spokas, M. E., & Cardaciotto, L. (2014). Heterogeneity within social anxiety disorder. In J. W. Weeks (Ed.), The Wiley Blackwell handbook of social anxiety disorder (pp. 247–267). Wiley Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118653920.ch12

Stein, M. B., Goldin, P. R., Sareen, J., Zorrilla, L. T., & Brown, G. G. (2002). Increased amygdala activation to angry and contemptuous faces in generalized social phobia. Archives of general psychiatry, 59(11), 1027–1034. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.59.11.1027

Stopa, L., & Clark, D. M. (1993). Cognitive processes in social phobia. Behaviour research and therapy, 31(3), 255–267. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(93)90024-o

Stravynski, A., Elie, R., & Franche, R. L. (1989). Perception of early parenting by patients diagnosed avoidant personality disorder: a test of the overprotection hypothesis. Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica, 80(5), 415–420. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0447.1989.tb02999.x

Tillfors, M., Furmark, T., Marteinsdottir, I., Fischer, H., Pissiota, A., Långström, B., & Fredrikson, M. (2001). Cerebral blood flow in subjects with social phobia during stressful speaking tasks: a PET study. The American journal of psychiatry, 158(8), 1220–1226. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.158.8.1220

Voncken, M. J., & Bögels, S. M. (2008). Social performance deficits in social anxiety disorder: reality during conversation and biased perception during speech. Journal of anxiety disorders, 22(8), 1384–1392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2008.02.001

Wood, J. J., McLeod, B. D., Sigman, M., Hwang, W. C., & Chu, B. C. (2003). Parenting and childhood anxiety: theory, empirical findings, and future directions. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 44(1), 134–151. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-7610.00106

Show References

Pin, Share & Follow