For some people, social situations hold particular fears. When exposed to meetings at work or even casual social encounters they feel uncomfortable, inept and very tense. People who experience such sensations are described as social phobics. Like other phobias, the affected person experiences shaking, blushing, palpitations and shortness of breath when in the situation they most fear.
Typically, social phobics worry that anything but a good impression will have the most dreadful consequences. They fear that others will see beyond their thin veneer and will judge them for the person they really are, resulting in their humiliation. Ironically, these brave attempts to fit in and give only the best impression, become hampered by anxiety and the person becomes marginalized as a result.
The engine that drives social anxiety involves a whole set of personal beliefs about the right way to behave in social situations. The first of these is the central belief that you are both boring and stupid (and there may be others). When exposed to a social situation the person assumes they are being evaluated against these beliefs, "if I look anxious they'll see right through me and think I'm stupid." This draws in the third belief involving the high standards that must be achieved to avoid a negative appraisal, "I must appear intelligent, cool, calm, collected and witty."
Armed with these beliefs, the social situation becomes a trap that can't easily be escaped from. A social encounter acts like a switch that turns on the anxiety engine. This leads to uncomfortable physical sensations which only serve to confirm that the person is about to become socially inadequate. Anxiety causes the person to stiffen and worry about what is happening to them. To the observer they may appear to be unfriendly which makes them feel uncomfortable. The body language and other signs are naturally picked up by the vigilant phobic. The result of all this, which in real time can be just a few moments, is that the worst fears of the phobic are confirmed.
People who are anxious tend to be preoccupied by their own sensations and often miss what is really going on around them. Social phobics have a way of overestimating the extent to which they believe their anxiety is can be seen by others. As such they engage activities that have a protective quality, such as avoiding eye contact and clipping back social exchanges in order to reduce the chance for negative evaluations. Time spent afterwards is filled with ruminations about how badly they performed and what others must be thinking about them.
The basis of social anxiety is a profound lack of self confidence, coupled with the tendency to misinterpret actual or perceived failure in social situations. Treatment involves cognitive therapy and systematic exposure to situations that evoke anxiety and lead to unrealistic predictions about the consequences of social failure.