Is Social Anxiety a Habit?

a big thank you
Drawing by Adrian Serghie

   Don’t throw rotten tomatoes just because of the title. If we think about a habit, it’s nothing more than a strong neural path which have been developed and strengthened over the years. So over the years we developed a certain behavioural pattern we apply in social situations. But where does that behavioural pattern come from?

   Our brain’s plasticity is at highest when we were children. That’s when we learn the most. That’s when we start to develop neural networks we apply over the years. But if we, as children, are not in social environments and activities that much, we won’t develop social skills. Instead, we develop the behaviour of going into a corner or something like that. If that suites us from the beginning, that’s the behaviour we’ll apply over the years. We’ll try to find ways to retreat ourselves.

   “Talking is talking. WTF is so hard about it?” It’s hard because besides the language, there also is the body language. If we’re uncomfortable in a certain situation, our body will show it through its posture, blushing or sweat at the sizes of Niagara Falls. The person we’re talking to notices that and he/she will feel uncomfortable too. We’re also going to notice it and we will believe it’s our fault (which kinda is) and our anxiety will rise. When we try to break one of our neural patterns (habits), we will encounter resistance from our body because it’s out of our comfort zone. But if we grew up in lots of social situations, those will be part of our comfort zone so there will be little to no anxiety.


Child development

   Some feelings of anxiety in social situations are normal and necessary for effective social functioning and developmental growth. Cognitive advances and increased pressures in late childhood and early adolescence result in repeated social anxiety. Adolescents have identified their most common anxieties as focused on relationships with peers to whom they are attracted, peer rejection, public speaking, blushing, self-consciousness, panic, and past behavior. Most adolescents progress through their fears and meet the developmental demands placed on them. More and more children are being diagnosed with social anxiety, and this can lead to problems with education if not closely monitored. Part of social anxiety is fear of being criticized by others, and in children, social anxiety causes extreme distress over everyday activities such as playing with other kids, reading in class, or speaking to adults. On the other hand, some children with social anxiety will act out because of their fear. The problem with identifying social anxiety disorder in children is that it can be difficult to determine the difference between social anxiety and basic shyness.


   It can be easier to identify social anxiety within adults because they tend to shy away from any social situation and keep to themselves. Common adult forms of social anxiety include performance anxiety, public speaking anxiety, stage fright, and timidness. All of these may also assume clinical forms, i.e., become anxiety disorders.

   Criteria that distinguish between clinical and nonclinical forms of social anxiety include the intensity and level of behavioral and psychosomatic disruption (discomfort) in addition to the anticipatory nature of the fear. Social anxieties may also be classified according to the broadness of triggering social situations. For example, fear of eating in public has a very narrow situational scope (eating in public), while shyness may have a wide scope (a person may be shy of doing many things in various circumstances). The clinical (disorder) forms are also divided into general social phobia (i.e., social anxiety disorder) and specific social phobia. – Wikipedia

   As you can see, it’s normal to feel awkward in some situations, especially when you’ve never been through it. But if you feel paralyzed by that situation or you have panic attacks in social situations, it’s probably because you’ve been through little to no similar situations when you were a child and you haven’t developed your social skills. If over the years you’ve reacted in the same way, it’s now become a habit since that’s your mental “program” that runs when you encounter a social situation. Oh, and let’s not forget the fear. That’s always there and it stops us from finding new ways so we can reduce that anxiety.

   Yes, it depends on the situation. Some situations will not trigger so much anxiety as others. Depending on the severity of it, we can try to overcome it by ourselves or we might need to find professional help.

   How is social anxiety affecting your life?

90 thoughts on “Is Social Anxiety a Habit?

  1. Social anxiety affects my life in so many ways. I will put off important tasks/errands because I overthink the scenario so much with so many possible outcomes because I am socially anxious that things don’t get done.. the list goes on.

  2. Social anxiety is usually a major problem that is easily unnoticed especially from the teen years till eternity. In order to overcome it, one needs to be confident in him/herself. This the way out, believing and being confident in oneself.

  3. Social anxiety can have different roots as well, like hearing loss for example. When I went through a serious deterioration of my hearing in adolescence (due to a childhood illness) it impacted my life significantly, and severely. Teenagers are creatures of social life, but for me, it was the opposite. It took so much effort to socialize I usually opted out. This became the trend into adult that ended up labeling me with introversion. It’s true, I am mostly an introvert, but would I have been if I didn’t suffer through these issues in adolescence?

    It’s a slippery slope.

    1. That sounds tough. I’m very sorry you have to go through this. To answer your question I have another one: before your illness, how introverted were you?

      1. In this case, I think you probably wouldn’t have been as you introverted as you are now if it weren’t for your illness. But I’m glad you found the strength to go forward in spite of it.

  4. I think you have over simplified at the beginning with the idea that lack of social activity for very young children causes social anxiety.
    Social skills can be and are picked up in very early stages with just a few people that are safe and close.
    Putting a young child in a more social setting to begin with really needs to be done alongside a person with whom the child feels familiar and safe.
    Group activities provide enormous amounts of information for a tiny person to process and they actually need time to hide in a corner (or retreat to their safe person) in order to fully process all that.
    I suspect that an increase in the use of full time group childcare from very young over the past couple of generations is probably a big contributor to social anxiety because of massive amounts of social stimulation with a lack of safe processing time/ space.

    1. I think your point might have some merit. Especially when you consider most parents are working full time jobs in addition to raising children. So little of a parents time is spent with their child. Thus the rise of Group childcare. It can be a strange environment for a child. They are removed from their safe place of family and thrust in amongst strangers for a large part of their day. Their formative years are institutionalized with a professional (and usually overworked) caregiver and a group of strange children at varying stages of development. They are not with their peers, in a loving environment, they are with their fellow inmates following the dictates of the warden. A family this does not make. No wonder we’re seeing rising cases of social anxiety. The child learns the only safe place is to retreat to oneself.

    2. Thank you so much for pointing this out! You’re right about the fact that children pick up social skills from others, especially from familiar people. What I’m trying to say is that children need more social contacts with peers. Adults interact in a certain way whilst children have they’re own way to interact, especially because they rely more on imagination than adults. I have an example in my family. My cousin can perfectly interact with adults, but he has difficulties in interacting with peers… in my opinion, this “peer interacting skill” is something children need to learn in their early ages. Thanks again for the valuable information!

      1. Yeah, it’s an interesting topic and I think there are so many variables to consider.
        I wonder if your cousin will find interaction with peers easier as he becomes an adult.
        I have seen a lot of kids with high functioning autistic spectrum traits who find it easier to interact with adults than young people for example.
        And my teen daughter (who does have social anxiety) seems very mature to grown ups that don’t know her well but really struggles to interact with peers and make friends and is missing out on a lot of rite of passage teen behaviour because of it, yet as a young child she was very sociable and found that stuff easy. My nearly 2yo on the other hand is not especially nervous in groups but will simply stay back and observe everything and barely speak until she gets home.

  5. I agree with you 100%. It is a program and if we grew up believing every social situation was dangerous then we will run for our lives. The good thing is it can be reprogrammed. Just like the people who help others with phobias you can teach yourself how to do these things and learn that it’s not as scary or dangerous as your fear tells you it. Personally I am doing really well. I used to be housebound for the most part. I couldn’t get gas, go to the store, talk to anyone or do anything because of the fear but I started forcing myself to try. Just try. I might take a trip just for gas and once I did it I would tell myself how proud I was of me then I went home and rested because the fear always wiped me out. But I do all those things and more now because I reprogrammed my brain. The only issue I have now is my other half is afraid of me and commitment so his fear is messing up my future that is the biggest issue now.

    1. It’s awesome if you managed to reprogram yourself. I think that the biggest obstacle is the fact that people expect to do it perfectly in the first try. If we just try, as you said, we would get so much better!

      1. Expecting to be perfect is a good way to end up disappointed or feeling like a failure. If we wait to be perfect then we will never do anything. I accept that I’m not perfect now and it makes it easier to do things.

  6. I can see why you would say anxiety is the way our body learns to respond in certain situations. I hear the doorbell ring and my anxiety is at mass capacity immediately. I’ve always believed that my social anxiety is a result of feeling like a financial and/or emotional burden to first my parents, and then nearly every person I’ve encountered since. I believe I was put in many social situations as a child, but retreated from interactions because I thought I wasn’t worth other’s time or consideration. It’s intensified since I became a mom. I’m so afraid someone will discover how worthless I am and expose me to everyone. Then what will my children think of me? Luckily, I’m also very logical, and work hard every day to not be seen that way. Also, becoming aware that my parents were not always the best at budgeting and had substance abuse issues, I stopped feeling guilty for existing. Haha. I do think my anxiety has worsened since I became a stay at home mom while pregnant with my second child, though. So, maybe exposure to social situations is part of it.

    1. It’s interesting you said you retreated from social interactions as a child because you thought you wasn’t worth other’s time. Who was that other? Were there people you didn’t felt like that with?

      1. I believe my feelings of unworthiness were a result of a few different things that seemed to add up (to me). My parents would often send us out of the room to smoke pot, but I thought they just didn’t want to be around me (my siblings were popular with the other kids, I was usually home because I was too timid to make friends). My father was the main culprit, though it would probably hurt him very much to hear it. I was always a curious child and home a lot, I thought reading would bring us closer together. He didn’t know how to handle children and would get angry at interruptions to his reading, then I’d hear “go play.” My paternal grandparents, which were the only ones I saw regularly, had the same attitude toward children (best seen, not heard). I also had a maternal aunt who would always make it a competition between her kids and my siblings. Being so timid, most of the time I didn’t even try to compete, so the idea my cousin was better than me quickly took root. It wasn’t long before I saw every child as better than me. These were the adult family that I was raised around, so the idea that I was not worthy of their time or consideration was cemented at a very young age.

  7. I was in school plays in elementary school and then in band for jr. high and high school. I suppose that experience has helped me in the ability to speak in front of a group of people and explain complicated concepts to people I just met (both part of my day job). However, I do prefer limited social experiences outside of work. Aside from a couple of routine D&D games that I’m in, I don’t do much social interaction outside of work.

    1. Interesting! But it seems that you don’t do because that’s what you choose, not because you’re anxious of you think about getting in a social situation. Does that make sense?

  8. As someone with bad social anxiety, I can see how it can be approached as a “habit”. As you stated, habits strengthen over time; after all, that’s how we develop compulsory behaviors like biting our nails, etc. With divorced parents, I moved around frequently and never stayed at a school longer than 2 years. Over my childhood, and while this was happening, I learned to not let people become close to me because I was unsure if I’d still be there as a friend in the future. Obviously, this carried over into adulthood, but I have lived in the same city since high school. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to change my socially anxious behavior, but 1) it’s extremely out of my comfort zone and 2) its a subconscious habitual thought process to keep my social circle at a distance. I’m also an overly observant person and overthink others’ body behaviors, facial expressions, etc. which can cause me to panic. Anyway, with school starting on Monday, I hope I can meet some new people and slowly change my habits. xoxo

  9. So many variables can play into this – with me it was the narcissistic people who raised me – letting me know that my needs weren’t important while theirs were the priority – 100% of the time. Add to the an abusive husband, sexual predators, etc and so on… I’m actually OK most of the time going out and doing little things. Saturday morning grocery runs can be too much stimulation – and frustration, especially with the plethora of “We shop for you” services. Some of it too is my Sensory Processing Disorder, in which too much stimuli sets me right to “shut down” mode. I’m working on it. Slowly.

    1. That’s what kills self-esteem and self-confidence. I’m very sorry you had to go through that. No person should go through this, especially children. But when parents have some dragons they need to kill which they ignore, others have to suffer…

  10. I have general anxiety disorder and social anxiety is a component. The two combined keep me fairly isolated, by choice, I admit, because I prefer isolation to dealing with the discomfort that triggering situations and thoughts bring on. I’m very wedded to my routine, and it becomes problematic because deviations become less and less tolerated. Agoraphobia becomes more and more real. I have safe things that I still participate in, but anxiety can limit life extremely. Shopping, for instance. I have one grocery store. I don’t go to others at all. I stay with what and who I know.

    The read was very interesting. I believe that my issues did start in primary school. Facing new situations and being desperate for approval made the outside world difficult to navigate. We moved several times, and trying to relearn the rules and procedures and gain acceptance all over again became increasingly difficult. My family did involve me in social activities, but as I got older, I began to resist.

    I’m working on it.

    1. Even though it’s more difficult now, you can do it, at least, as long as the anxiety is bearable. I don’t recommend facing your anxiety at its fullest potential at once, but challenging it little by little. What can I do to help you with this?

      1. you do, the blog is quite helpful. realizing that you aren’t unique in your oddities, that others suffer in the same way is both annoying (not so special a snowflake) and heartening (there are others that “get” it).

        daily meditation helps. i’m also starting to do open heart yoga poses. they also help. the challenging thing is the letting go of the past, for me, the release of the tied up and buried feelings, and i think that just takes time.

        but yesterday was a good day.

  11. I’m probably going to get some backlash here, but so be it. First, I’m an empath, so I can relate to people like Liz who can get overwhelmed by others. Yes, SOME kids may need to be worked into social situations more gradually also.

    HOWEVER, in the majority of cases, I think it IS a learned habit. I have a background similar to Liz’s with abusive parents. My family is still dysfunctional as hell (just look at my own blog posts lately). And while I still prefer smaller groups, etc… I *CAN* function in large groups and in front of people. I made the decision on my own to change how I was. When I started High School, I saw they offered public speaking classes and made up my mind to take them. I hated every minute of it at first, but I got better and more acclimated. By the time I hit my junior year, I’d won awards in civic organization speaking competitions and was giving speeches in front of other classes and an entire elementary school for veteran’s day.

    And no, I’m nothing special either. If *I* can unlearn it, MOST other people can also. The trouble is, you’re attacked by helicopter parents when you say things like this. They don’t want to hear that their over-protective ways are actually stunting their kids’ growth and leaving them ill-equipped to deal with life.

    1. Congratulations! That’s a huge victory, if I can call it like that. And yes, parents will react that way because they want the best for their kids. The thing is that they don’t always realize that “the best” is not what they think it is.

  12. After years of CBT, and seeing its benefits in my life, I would have to agree that social anxiety is a habit, and a choice.
    Yet I also believe some habits have a purpose. Anxiety, extreme sensitivity, and high intuition saved me (as a child in an abusive home).
    Given the egregious abuses that are happening all around us, it is to be expected that many of us would develop an anxious personality in order to survive. And then struggle reintegrating into a ‘safer’ environment once the danger has passed.
    Therefore I believe the best habits we can cultivate are these:
    1. Be decent and loving human beings, ourselves, which means we deal with our junk and don’t dump it on others.
    2. Be willing to take a stand against abuse, oppression, and injustice. When we say things like: ‘I believe you’ (to an assault victim) or ‘you have valid reasons to feel anxious/upset/alone/afraid/etc.’ we empower people and we let them know they have entered a safe(r) environment making it easier for them to change old anxiety habits.

    1. That’s a big list and I think there are other difficulties there besides the social anxiety. I’m very sorry no one paid attention to them. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so difficult for you know. The good thing is that you can do something about it. The bad thing is that it takes lots of time and effort. Are you willing to go for it?

      1. I’m in the process of getting better. Meds and all. But i’m staying optimistically pessimistic, if i ever get passed this i will be pleasantly surprised

    1. Congratulations and thank you very much for sharing your experience! Do you think the same tips and tricks can work on other types of anxiety as well?

      1. Yes because I implemented those in an everyday life and have reduced my anxiety and panic a to the minimum. It’s not easy, but it needs an everyday practice, like any other thing 🙂 Most of us are used to train our bodies, but forget to train our mind while it’s proved that the brain can be changed cause it has a neuroplastic marks 🙂

  13. Great post, I suffer with severe blushing and another root cause of it is made worse by my social anxiety. Absolute nightmare to live with and im ALWAYS over thinking. Great post im following you 🙂

    1. It will get better in time as long as you put yourself in little social situations as often as you can (maybe daily). It will be hard at first, but it’s the only way to make this better. Thank you very much for taking your time to read and to share your thoughts! I hope you’ll find more content that resonates with you 🙂

      1. Thanks for the reply, yes the content definitely resonates with me. My therapist used to say start putting myself in the situations that scared me most. One was shopping at sainsburys but I just couldnt do it. This has also led to the severe blushing I now get bumping into anyone sets that off its a nightmate. 🙂

      2. I manage it one time, but then I try face the fear again and say there is a trigger. It then happens all over again and I wont go out anywhere for ages

      3. I had similar issues. You need to get the the root cause of this and discover what it is. My guess is embarrassment or shame of your past, of how you were when younger, something that happened to you maybe at school. You now fear someone you know or used to know ridiculing you now. I have same problems. Might be an anxiety toward your job, relationship status, family, that you feel other people have it better than you, and you are worth less than them.
        This is how it was for me anyway.
        Just a stab in the dark, but hopefully something in there rings true.

      4. Yes I been through all these things, im thinking just out of some of the things that happened to me the worst being I was severely bullied as a child. I also had a bad childhood, single mum, quite abusive and married into a rubbish relationship. Also ridiculed and put down, never had a relationship with my real dad.
        But then it manifested into this terrible blushing, so I now also suffer with chronic blushing and the anxiety has turned into social anxiety im like a prisoner locked inside myself sometimes.

      5. Very sorry to hear this. You need to know you are not alone as others have had similar bad experiences. Have you seen a counsellor? It may take time and you need to find the right one you connect with, and be honest with her/him.

      6. Yes I have seen a counsellor, CBT, Hypnotist nothing has worked. The NHS have a leaflet going around about CBT, I may try that again. What have you tried thats worked?

      7. I had to put myself out there over the years in high school, college and at work. I had to put myself in different social situations and that’s the only thing that helped me over the years to diminish my social anxiety.

      8. Yes I know thats got to be the way but I also have my blushing the two go hand in hand. Its so difficult I can feel less anxious, then I get a full on blush, then I get anxious about the blush its like a never ending cycle. 🙁

  14. CBT challenges the behaviours and thought patterns that we have learnt over years and years that lead to social anxiety and panic attacks. As i’ve got older I’ve taught myself coping mechanisms and ways to challenge these thoughts that obsess us, it is most definitely a bad habit.

      1. I did a 4 day course in Birmingham UK called the Linden Method, which I would highly recommend.
        It basically took the stance that you shouldn’t read about anxiety all the time and the symptoms cos then you will keep associating it with yourself. And people around you treating you like a patient isn’t good too. You want to feel as normal as you can and be treated that way. You can reset your brain back to it’s original state before you trained it to overthink and worry. It does work, with some hard work

      1. One thing that actually worked for me and it is an example of the evolution of the brain’s plasticity. I was not very comfortable in public speaking and when I explored it more it was the anxiety and fear of speaking in front of people. I quickly joined Toastmasters and felt a lot better. Slowly speaking was within my comfort zone. Similarly, the things that trouble us initially can slowly become our good friends 🙂

  15. Amazing and extremely interesting read! I’ve never thought about social anxiety this way. This may very well be the case but I cannot, however, relate to it.

    Personally, I didn’t really have any social issues throughout my childhood that cause my anxiety today. My anxiety started closer to the end of middle school, once I started to realize that I was physically different from my peers. It continued to worsen because of my own paranoia and overthinking, not because of my own childhood experiences. You can read a little more about it here:

    It’s actually my first post on my first website. On an unrelated topic, I wanted to know if you had any tips for someone (ME) who just started blogging? I’m still fairly new to all this and getting some advice from a person who has been doing this for a while will help me be a little less anxious about this new venture. Other than that, thank you so much for taking the time to read this and I hope to hear from you soon.

    Have a great day!

    1. Hi Ayesha! Thank you very much for your comment! In your case, the social anxiety came in from a different source.
      As an advice, keep going forward and be true with yourself. Do whatever you love!

  16. Anxiety plays from the ‘unknown’. That is why I don’t socialise as much. I can understand why it becomes a habit. If you don’t socialise you’re in a safe place.

  17. I work as a front desk and have had the same job for about 10 years. I want to move up and become a supervisor. After applying to many jobs and getting calls for interviews, I never called them back to set up an interview because I am scared. I’m scared of being interviewed and switching to a different job. My social anxiety is keeping me from moving up in my career

    1. I’m not sure if it’s only social anxiety or there are other factors involved as well. Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown? Or maybe you’re afraid to leave your comfort zone?
      Regarding the social anxiety, does it manifest in other social circumstances as well?

      1. Yes. It happens when trying to talk with people I work with and people I check in. I avoid all social situations because I’m scared and because I don’t like feeling the way I do with how my body reacts. I have had panic attacks in social situations too. I don’t have any friends because of it. My body get tights, I sweat, I get a tingly feeling, my body literally shakes, my mind races, I stutter and more things happen as well.

      1. Still a work in progress, but I have not missed work because of it in six months. Really the best thing for me personally is to be some where quiet and alone, and just, and slow my breathing. Shallow breathing is the worst part for me. It’s debilstat

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