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Treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)

Treatment for social anxiety disorder often combines therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and medications like SSRIs. Mindfulness, exercise, and diet adjustments can also be effective. Around 15 million Americans are affected, and professional help is crucial for improvement.

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About 15 million Americans have a social anxiety disorder. If you’re one of them, your treatment options include therapy, medications, mindfulness training, exercise, and more.

Getting treatment is critical, as social anxiety disorder won’t go away by itself.

The help you get now could allow you to interact with others without crippling anxiety. And some of these therapies could improve your physical health too. 

What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Few people enjoy climbing up on a stage and speaking in front of a crowd. Most of us feel at least a little anxious when walking into a room for a job interview. And we might all practice for an important conversation, like an introduction to a boyfriend’s parents.

But for people with social anxiety disorder, these situations aren’t just uncomfortable. They can be crippling.

Social phobia is characterized by intense anxiety or fear of the following:

  • Being judged or criticized
  • Being rejected in a social situation
  • Appearing anxious 
  • Seeming stupid, awkward, or boring

People with social anxiety disorder look for ways to avoid social or performance situations.

If you can’t avoid these commitments, you’ll rehearse for days or weeks to get everything right. When the day comes, your heart races, you sweat, and you feel nauseous. You might even experience a full-blown panic attack.

People with social anxiety disorder know that their fears are unfounded. But even so, you may be unable to stop worrying without help.

Social Anxiety Disorder Treatment Options

Researchers call social anxiety disorder a “naturally unremitting condition” unless you get treatment. Without it, you’re likely to struggle with social situations for the rest of your life.

But with help, you can learn to manage your fears and participate fully in the world around you. Several treatment options exist, and your doctor might combine many of them to give you a full suite of tools. 

Therapy

A counselor can help you unpack your concerns, practice new behaviors, and develop a healthier life.

Three main types of therapy are used in people with social anxiety disorder. They include the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Change the way you think, act, and react in stressful situations. Practice your skills in real time with the support of your therapist. 
  • Exposure therapy: Confront your fears and engage in the activities you normally avoid. Progress slowly in a controlled environment, and use relaxation exercises when you feel worried. 
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): Reduce your discomfort and anxiety through mindfulness techniques. Accept your feelings and commit to changing what you can.

Your therapist might hold some sessions privately. But group therapy sessions could be critical for you, as you’ll practice in front of other people. Your treatment program will likely include a combination of both individual and group sessions.

Medications

Researchers say combining therapy and medications could be more helpful than using either type of treatment alone.

Your medication options include the following:

  • SSRIs: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are considered the best treatment for social anxiety disorder. Your doctor might suggest paroxetine, sertraline, or fluvoxamine. 
  • SNRIs: Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) could be helpful if SSRIs don’t work for you. Your doctor might start with venlafaxine. 
  • Benzodiazepines: If you still don’t find relief, your doctor might suggest a medication like clonazepam. 
  • Beta blockers: Some people find these medications ease episodic symptoms, so your doctor might give you a prescription to use as needed.

Researchers are looking closely at other options like gabapentin and pregabalin to help treat social anxiety disorder. Your doctor could try them if you’re not responding to the other therapies available. 

Mindfulness

During a stressful situation, your mind is focused on what could go wrong or what others think about you. Mindfulness techniques encourage you to accept what is happening now, including your feelings, and control how you react to the world around you.

Mindfulness techniques like meditation could help you relax instead of panicking.

You could also use deep-breathing exercises to help you calm down in the face of stress. Yoga could help you practice your breathing while you move, which could help introduce the concepts to people unaccustomed to mindfulness.

Techniques like this may seem unusual, but researchers say they’re particularly critical for people with anxiety disorders. Your work could help you interrupt the cycle of worry, reacting, and worrying more. You’ll build healthy habits you can use to cope instead of cycling through anxiety.

Acupuncture 

Practitioners use very tiny needles inserted in pressure points on your hands, feet, scalp, and other energy meridians. You may not feel them enter your body, but you could find the acupuncture environment soothing and calming.

Researchers aren’t sure why acupuncture helps some people with anxiety, but it’s possible that the serotonin your body releases when needles enter helps to soothe your overactive brain cells. This can have a calming effect in the short and long term.

Exercise Programs

People with anxiety disorders spend time and energy thinking. In an exercise program, you’ll spend time moving instead.

Structured walking, running, or cardiovascular programs get your heart pumping and your muscles stretching. The endorphins you release could help you feel less upset.

Choose a public exercise venue (like a gym), and you’ll also begin to sweat in front of others. And over time, you may realize that no one is looking at you or watching you while you work out. This can help to ease some social anxiety when you realize people are not watching you as closely as you thought they were.

Researchers say exercise is a promising additional treatment for people with social anxiety disorder, but they need more studies to prove why it works. Research is ongoing.

Diet Changes

Do you snack on fatty, high-calorie foods when you’re worried? Does your snack make you feel a little sick?

Adjusting your diet could help you feel a little healthier, and that could allow you to face your fears with a calmer demeanor.

People with anxiety issues benefit from a diet that fits the following criteria:

  • High in fruits and vegetables 
  • Low in empty calories 
  • High in micronutrients and vitamins 
  • Inclusive of breakfast

Cutting out caffeine could also be helpful for you. A cup of strong coffee could leave you feeling jittery and unprepared for the day’s challenges. Swapping out your drink for healthy tea or simply water could be wise. 

Where Should You Start?

Therapy and medications are front-line treatments for social anxiety disorder. The other treatments we’ve mentioned could be helpful, but they work best as additions to a formal treatment program.

Talk with your doctor about your social anxiety disorder symptoms and find out if treatment is right for you. They can help you determine if medication is right for you, and they can potentially refer you to a therapist who can help.

Comprehensive treatment programs can offer you medical and therapeutic support in one place. Take the first step to reach out for help today.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated November 21, 2023
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  8. Physical Activity as a Treatment for Social Anxiety in Clinical and Nonclinical Populations: A Systematic Review and Three Meta-Analyses for Different Study Designs. (June 2021). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
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  10. Nutrition as Metabolic Treatment for Anxiety. (February 2021). Frontiers in Psychiatry.
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