Make an Appointment: [email protected] | 407-955-9774

  • Navigating Social Anxiety in Adolescence

    By: Barbara Santana, MA, Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern

    Does your teen experience Social Anxiety?

    For generations, adolescence has been recognized as a challenging time– many adults look back on their teen years and remember seasons of awkwardness, uncomfortable physical changes, difficulty relating to parents, and struggles to feel a sense of belonging in their schools and communities. It’s undeniable that the countless changes that come with the transition from childhood to adulthood are universally fraught, which makes it all too easy to assume that the stresses the beloved teens in our life are facing are completely normal and not cause for concern.

    However, before we chalk up a modern teenager’s struggles to their stage of life and a rite of passage, it is important to consider the current context in which they find themselves. Teens today face an unprecedented level of mental illness, and as we take stock of the potential causes, a common theme emerges: 

    Their social lives look very different than those of the generations before them

    Consider the number of recent changes to the social landscape of a typical teenager: unlike the millennials before them who experienced the advent of social media during adolescence or early adulthood, the lives of Generation Z have been broadcast on social media from their first lost tooth to the removal of their braces. 

    As teens gain access to devices of their own, a teen that might have been blissfully unaware of the event that they weren’t invited to now gets to watch every detail that their peers post; another teen insecure about their body image can compare their shape and size to those of their friends with the push of a button, and to those of models and bodybuilders by searching a simple hashtag.

    Additionally, today’s teens have also grown up in an age of digital communication that reached its peak during the global outbreak of COVID-19, the effects of which are still echoing through society today. 

    Kids were already more accustomed to connecting with others at a distance, which offers a different and somewhat limited social experience, and for much of the past two and a half years, have been restricted to this level of connection to varying degrees.

    Social connection has decreased in both quantity and quality during their lifetimes.

    It’s no wonder that teenagers are experiencing as much strife in their lives as they are now. 

    Although we know some tension is typical in this phase of life, the struggles teens face have grown to clinical proportions: it is estimated that…

     1 in 3 teenagers have Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) 

    as catalogued in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders (DSM-V). If you are wondering whether you or someone you care about may have Social Anxiety Disorder, here are the symptoms as described in the DSM-V:

    • Marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to
    • Possible scrutiny by others. (i.e. having a conversation, meeting new people, being observed, performing, etc.)
    • The individual fears that he or she will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated (i.e. humiliating, embarrassing, offensive, repulsive, etc.)
    • The social situations almost always provoke fear of anxiety.
    • The social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
    • The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation and to the sociocultural context,
    • Lasts for 6 months or more
    • Causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,
    • Cannot be explained by other factors such as substance use, a medical condition, or another mental disorder.

    Not sure whether these symptoms are true of you or your teen’s experience? 

    They can manifest in many ways including these more observable traits: 

    • Limited eye contact
    • Avoiding contact from unfamiliar people
    • Excessive involvement in isolated activities
    • Limited or no close friendships
    • Hypersensitivity to criticism or disapproval
    • Excessive need for reassurance of being liked
    • Reluctance to take part in new activities
    • Negative self-image
    • Lack of assertiveness
    • Heightened physiological distress in social settings, marked by increased heart rate, profuse sweating, dry mouth, muscular tension, or trembling.

    It is sad to consider that 1 in 3 adolescents are experiencing such distress in their social lives, but they are unfortunately not the only ones affected; social anxiety disorder is the third most common mental illness in the United States, and the most common anxiety disorder, even more prevalent than Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder.

    Due to its prevalence, it is highly likely that you or someone you care about is affected by this disorder and thus limited in their ability to deeply and meaningfully connect with others.

    Although social connection may seem like only one small part of a young person’s development, it is absolutely foundational to every branch of their lives

    Relationships with others are crucial to our sense of personal identity!

    As we discover who we are (the main question of adolescence), it is of the utmost importance to look to others to learn both what makes us unique and how our differences can shape how we contribute to the world, as well as how we are so much like those around us to offer a sense of belonging and connectedness

    Frequent social connections also help us relate to others more robustly, as our day-to-day interactions with individuals and communities teach us indispensable character traits, such as compassion, service, morality, and responsibility, all of which become more brittle without a felt sense of kinship with our neighbors. 

    It is mainly from and with each other that we learn, grow, and give and receive love.

    If you or someone you care about is experiencing SAD, there is abundant hope for healing and change!

    Many evidence-based practices can be implemented to address both its causes and its symptoms.

    Here are a few recommended courses of action: 

    • Individual therapy with a mental health counselor: counselors have a few different ways they may treat clients with social anxiety, one thing they will have in common is a non-judgmental and encouraging stance toward clients brave enough to hope for healing and take steps towards it.
    • Group therapy: this may seem counterintuitive, but small group therapy can be a great way to begin to feel more comfortable with others in a controlled setting where everyone in the room understands what you are going through and is rooting for you.
    • Medication: Millions of people use medication to manage their mental health symptoms either permanently, or for a time while they undergo therapy to treat the root causes of anxiety. Consider visiting a doctor to discuss whether this option may be right for you.
    • Practice: Social anxiety can be reduced by gradually increasing participation in interpersonal activities as you implement new social skills. Consider what strengths and interests can be used to initiate social contact.
    • Acceptance: Part of any healing journey is accepting that negative emotions may never fully disappear. Although one can make leaps and bounds in healing from mental illness, it is possible that some symptoms, discomfort, or unpleasant emotions may never be fully gone from your life. Regardless, one can radically change one’s life experience for the better, be proud of the progress they have made, and live a life that is full of meaning and purpose.

    Anyone with social anxiety should know that they are not alone in their struggles and that there are tried-and-true methods of improving their experience and regaining the freedom to connect with others. 

    With hope, a willingness to be challenged, and support from trusted individuals, SAD can be greatly diminished in unexpected and beautiful ways.

    Reach out today and schedule a consultation!

    Jongsma, A. E., Peterson, L. M., & McInnis, W. P. (1996). The child and adolescent psychotherapy treatment planner. New York: Wiley.

    American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).