When thinking of social anxiety, most people picture a shy, introverted, and precautious person who severely struggles to interact with others. However, not everyone with social anxiety fits this description.
Social anxiety exists along a continuum, ranging from mild to severe. Mild social anxiety is a normal and helpful trait. It helps us worry just enough about how we come across, without impeding our performance in social situations. More intense social anxiety can become problematic.
To be moderately concerned about the impression we make on others can be thought of as an asset, not a weakness. It helps us prepare for a job interview or a date, and ensures we show others the more desirable aspects of ourselves. However, as these concerns become more severe, they usually backfire.
Drawing the Line between Mild and Problematic Social Anxiety
Given that social anxiety can occur in varying degrees, experts have proposed a possible continuum (Stein, Torgrud, & Walker, 2000). Towards the lower end, we would locate mild social anxiety and consider it a healthy and adaptive trait.
As concerns about being judged, rejected, or negatively evaluated increase, we start speaking of social anxiety disorder (SAD).
Some experts have argued that avoidant personality disorder, a different condition which relates to social inhibition, can be considered the upper end of the continuum. According to this view, it is the most severe version of social anxiety (Schneier, Blanco, Antia, & Liebowitz, 2002).
With increasing intensity of a person’s social fears, functional impairment becomes more and more serious. At this point, professional treatment is warranted.
Statistics of Mild Social Anxiety Disorder
Once a person meets the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, they can be classified according to the functional impairment their SAD causes them to experience.
- Mild social anxiety disorder: somewhat impaired.
- Moderate social anxiety disorder: significantly impaired.
- Serious social anxiety disorder: severely impaired.
The National Comorbidity Survey (Harvard Medical School, 2007) revealed that about one third of people with SAD have mild social anxiety disorder.
Harvard Medical School, 2007. National Comorbidity Survey (NCS). (2017, August 21). Retrieved from https://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/index.php. Data Table 2: 12-month prevalence DSM-IV/WMH-CIDI disorders by sex and cohort.
Schneier, F. R., Blanco, C., Antia, S. X., & Liebowitz, M. R. (2002). The social anxiety spectrum. The Psychiatric clinics of North America, 25(4), 757–774. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0193-953x(02)00018-7
Stein, M. B., Torgrud, L. J., & Walker, J. R. (2000). Social phobia symptoms, subtypes, and severity: findings from a community survey. Archives of general psychiatry, 57(11), 1046–1052. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.57.11.1046
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2017, November). Prevalence of Social Anxiety Disorder Among Adults. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/social-anxiety-disorder.
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