Social Anxiety Disorder Causes

Social Anxiety Disorder Causes:Genetics 


As with all anxiety disorders we know the cause of social anxiety disorder in some cases is  genetics. Genes happen to have something to do with just about every mental illness and physical illness there is.

If you remember from learning about types of social anxiety disorder, there are two kinds of social anxiety disorder, specific and generalized. Generalized social anxiety is defined by being fearful of most social circumstances, while specific social anxiety is defined by only being fearful in certain circumstances, like public speaking.

Generalized social anxiety is also more severe and has more co morbidity, meaning, there are other diagnoses that co occur along with it. This particular type of social anxiety appears to be more strongly genetically linked than specific social anxiety.

For years twin studies have suggested there is a strong genetic component to social anxiety. Twin studies control for other factors such as upbringing, explaining social anxiety. 

Then in 2015, an actual specific gene "SLC6A4" has been  identified as a possible trigger for the development of social anxiety disorder (SAD).  SLC6A4 has also been linked to depression and OCD ( Forstner et al 2015).

Social Anxiety Causes: The Brain

Both the serotonin and the dopamine pathways have been implicated in social anxiety disorder ( SAD) although one study in 2015 suggested high levels of serotonin, not low levels are what are associated with social anxiety disorder (Fricke A et al 2015). We know the brain is implicated but we don't know exactly how. There are other studies that show relationships with other parts of the brain and social anxiety disorder.

For example, we know that parts of the brain that respond to threat become over active during facial recognition tasks, and that people who have social anxiety perceive anger more readily in people's facial expressions or misread anger when it isn't there. 

Social Anxiety Causes: Behavioral Inhibition

A child's temperament is their character or makeup.  This  is relatively unchanging  over the course of their life. Behavioral inhibition is the tendency to exhibit fearful behavior and withdraw in unfamiliar situations. Evidence shows that children who are behaviorally inhibited as toddlers often later go on to become rather cautious and introverted around others when they are in school. 

One study recently found that perinatal complications were associated with higher levels of behavioral inhibition and social anxiety symptoms in children (Wittchen, H., L. Fehm,L. 2003)

Psychologists believe these children have a low threshold for arousal in the amygdala and hypothalmic circuits to unfamiliar events. This means they will react to change and unfamiliar  conditions of any kind with sympathetic nervous system arousal ( high heart rate and acceleration of heart rate). Essentially their bodies react as if they are stressed! Also, these children will   respond to new or different people or circumstances with avoidance or inhibition. Thus, behavioral inhibition is considered a cause of social anxiety disorder.

Social Anxiety Causes: Parenting Style

There is  evidence that early patterns of parenting style can influence children's later perceptions of people and their sense of self. There is additional evidence that parent's perception of the world, and of other people as unsafe or judgmental can have this same effect, thus producing anxiety in their child. In some indirect ways, parenting can be considered a cause of social anxiety disorder.

Most children learn to interact with others and are socialized by their parents, so their parents are in effect teaching them beliefs about the way the world works. This can also hinder their opportunities to gain confidence about themselves. 

Similarly, if a parent is constantly giving a child the message that they are inadequate, they can develop concerns and fears about being criticized and judged by others. Some studies have shown that father's rejection and criticism is more related to and increase in social anxiety than a mothers ( Mak et al 2017).

Social Anxiety Causes: Trauma

I have often heard a client who is dealing with social anxiety claim that they had one traumatic experience. For example, they fell on stage, or they vomited, or they choked in a specific situation and then they began to avoid social situations. That point of the event is where their social anxiety, which may have always been there to an extent, just really took off. That is why avoidance is such a powerful thing. It reinforces the anxiety or fear, and strengthens it's hold on you.

Other risk factors that may, or may not be related to social anxiety in different degrees include:

  • Being a woman
  • Having less social support
  • Lower social class
  • Being single
  • Being unemployed
  • Having Poor education
  • Experiencing Early trauma
  • Experiencing early phobias
  • Being the victim of abuse or neglect

Social Anxiety Causes: Lack of Sleep

That's right. Studies show that lack of sleep will cause you to feel lonely and less likely to want to engage in others. Additionally you will be perceived as less socially attractive to others. If you have social anxiety, getting the right amount of sleep is crucial (Science Daily 2018). 

Worse still, that alienating vibe makes sleep-deprived individuals more socially unattractive to others

Social Anxiety Causes: Your Behavior

Social anxiety is maintained by focusing on what you believe are negative signs that others are thinking badly about you, and on your body's signals of danger. This causes you to engage in an avoidance pattern which ensures you will never learn that the things you are most afraid of will never happen. Thus the behavior you engage in becomes a cause of your social anxiety. Thankfully therapy can break this cycle. CBT has actually been shown to change the brain of people who have social anxiety!


Elizabeth,J Kink,N, Ollendick T.H.Social anxiety disorder in children and youth: A research update on aetiological factors Counselling Psychology Quarterly,June 2006; 19(2): 151–163

Forstner AJ, Rambau S, Friedrich et al.  Further evidence for genetic variation at the serotonin transporter gene SLC6A4 contributing toward anxiety. Psychiatr Genet. 2017.

Frick A, Åhs F, Engman J, et al. Serotonin Synthesis and Reuptake in Social Anxiety Disorder: A Positron Emission Tomography Study. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(8):794–802. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0125

 H.-U. Wittchen, L. Fehm Epidemiology and natural course of social fears and social phobia .mActa Psychiatr Scand 2003: 108 (Suppl. 417): 4–18.

Hio Wa Mak, Gregory M. Fosco, Mark E. Feinberg. The Role of Family for Youth Friendships: Examining a Social Anxiety Mechanism. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10964-017-0738-9

Nutt, D. J., Bell, C. J., & Malizia, A. L. (1998). Brain mechanisms of social anxiety disorder. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 59(Suppl 17), 4-11.

Suarez, G. L., Morales, S., Metcalf, K., & Pérez‐Edgar, K. E. (2019). Perinatal complications are associated with social anxiety: Indirect effects through temperament. Infant and Child Development, 28(3). doi: 10.1002/icd.2130

University of California - Berkeley. (2018, August 15). Poor sleep triggers viral loneliness and social rejection: Lack of sleep generates social anxiety that infects those around us. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 1, 2019 from

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Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.