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Causes of Social Phobia

In many species of animals who live in social groups, including primates, there will be certain members of the group who appear subordinate while others seem dominant. The ones who are subordinate will tend to be socially withdrawn and to spend their time fearfully scanning their environments. Dominance hierarchies also exist in human society, and it has been hypothesized that Social Phobia may reflect the state of being - or feeling oneself to be - in a position of subordination [ref]. Studies of primates have revealed that those who are in subordinate positions tend to have neurochemical changes in the brain that are similar to what has been found among people with Social Phobia, including reduced dopamine signaling [ref].

The first signs of being socially anxious can often be seen in childhood. Children who are characterized by high levels of behavioral inhibition - that is, who are very shy and wary of exploring novel situations - are at high risk for developing Social Phobia [ref]. Genetic factors seem to influence the development behavioral inhibition [ref]. Maternal stress and depression during pregnancy can also contribute to behavioral inhibition in a child [ref].

Childhood experiences and parenting styles also seem to be linked with the development of Social Phobia. Children who have an insecure attachment bond with their parents are at an increased risk of having anxiety problems, including social anxiety [ref]. Having parents with Social Phobia or Depression, or parents who are perceived by their children as overprotective or rejecting, can also increase the risk of a child developing Social Phobia [ref]. However, the link between styles of parenting and Social Phobia in children is complex, because in different cultures the same parenting styles tend to be associated with different outcomes in children [ref]

Individuals who are socially anxious and withdrawn may fall into a vicious circle that perpetuates their anxiety. When interacting with others they may tend to make little eye-contact, seldom smile, have trouble initiating conversations, and may often come across as anxious and uncomfortable. All of these features will make other people less inclined to interact with them, which will thus confirm their feelings of being ineffective in social situations. Children and adolescents who are socially anxious and withdrawn are at an increased risk of being unpopular, rejected, ignored and teased by their peers [ref, ref], at least in many Western societies. These experiences will reinforce their beliefs that social situations are frightening and unpleasant.


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Course & Prevalence