Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia) and Avoidant Personality Disorder

Social Anxiety Help

Larry Cohen, LICSW

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)
Avoidant Personality Disorder

Excerpted from:
American Psychiatric Association,
DSM-5, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition;
Arlington, VA, 2013;

Diagnostic Criteria
A. Marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others. Examples include social interactions (e.g., having a conversation, meeting unfamiliar people), being observed (e.g., eating or drinking), and performing in front of others (e.g., giving a speech).

Note: In children, the anxiety must occur in peer settings and not just during interactions with adults.

B. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated (i.e., will be humiliating or embarrassing; will lead to rejection or offend others).

C. The social situations almost always provoke fear or anxiety.

Note: In children, the fear or anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, clinging, shrinking, or failing to speak in social situations.

D. The social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.

E. The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation and to the sociocultural context.

F. The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically fasting for 6 months or more.

G. The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

H. The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition.

I. The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, such as panic disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, or autism spectrum disorder.

J. If another medical condition (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, obesity, disfigurement from burns or injury) is present, the fear, anxiety, or avoidance is clearly unrelated or is excessive.

Specify if:

Performance only: If the fear is restricted to speaking or performing in public.


Individuals with the performance only type of social anxiety disorder have performance fears that are typically most impairing in their professional lives (e.g., musicians, dancers, performers, athletes) or in roles that require regular public speaking. Performance fears may also manifest in work, school, or academic settings in which regular public presentations are required. Individuals with performance only social anxiety disorder do not fear or avoid nonperformance social situations.

Diagnostic Features

The essential feature of social anxiety disorder is a marked, or intense, fear or anxiety of social situations in which the individual may be scrutinized by others. In children the fear or anxiety must occur in peer settings and not just during interactions with adults (Criterion A). When exposed to such social situations, the individual fears that he or she will be negatively evaluated. The individual is concerned that he or she will be judged as anxious, weak, crazy, stupid, boring, intimidating, dirty, or unlikable. The individual fears that he or she will act or appear in a certain way or show anxiety symptoms, such as blushing, trembling, sweating, stumbling over one’s words, or staring, that will be negatively evaluated by others (Criterion B). Some individuals fear offending others or being rejected as a result. Fear of offending others–for example, by a gaze or by showing anxiety symptoms–may be the predominant fear in individuals from cultures with strong collectivistic orientations. An individual with fear of trembling of the hands may avoid drinking, eating, writing, or pointing in public; an individual with fear of sweating may avoid shaking hands or eating spicy foods; and an individual with fear of blushing may avoid public performance, bright lights, or discussion about intimate topics. Some individuals fear and avoid urinating in public restrooms when other individuals are present (i.e., paruresis, or “shy bladder syndrome”).

The social situations almost always provoke fear or anxiety (Criterion C). Thus, an individual who becomes anxious only occasionally in the social situation(s) would not be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. However, the degree and type of fear and anxiety may vary (e.g., anticipatory anxiety, a panic attack) across different occasions. The anticipatory anxiety may occur sometimes far in advance of upcoming situations (e.g., worrying every day for weeks before attending a social event, repeating a speech for days in advance). In children, the fear or anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, clinging, or shrinking in social situations. The individual will often avoid the feared social situations. Alternatively, the situations are endured with intense fear or anxiety (Criterion D). Avoidance can be extensive (e.g., not going to parties, refusing school) or subtle (e.g., overpreparing the text of a speech, diverting attention to others, limiting eye contact).

The fear or anxiety is judged to be out of proportion to the actual risk of being negatively evaluated or to the consequences of such negative evaluation (Criterion E). Some­ times, the anxiety may not be judged to be excessive, because it is related to an actual danger (e.g., being bullied or tormented by others). However, individuals with social anxiety disorder often overestimate the negative consequences of social situations, and thus the judgment of being out of proportion is made by the clinician. The individual’s sociocultural context needs to be taken into account when this judgment is being made. For example, in certain cultures, behavior that might otherwise appear socially anxious may be considered appropriate in social situations (e.g., might be seen as a sign of respect).

The duration of the disturbance is typically at least 6 months (Criterion F). This duration threshold helps distinguish the disorder from transient social fears that are common, particularly among children and in the community. However, the duration criterion should be used as a general guide, with allowance for some degree of flexibility. The fear, anxiety, and avoidance must interfere significantly with the individual’s normal routine, occupational or academic functioning, or social activities or relationships, or must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (Criterion G). For example, an individual who is afraid to speak in public would not receive a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder if this activity is not routinely encountered on the job or in classroom work, and if the individual is not significantly distressed about it. However, if the individual avoids, or is passed over for, the job or education he or she really wants because of social anxiety symptoms, Criterion G is met.

Associated Features Supporting Diagnosis

Individuals with social anxiety disorder may be inadequately assertive or excessively submissive or, less commonly, highly controlling of the conversation. They may show overly rigid body posture or inadequate eye contact, or speak with an overly soft voice. These individuals may be shy or withdrawn, and they may be less open in conversations and disclose little about themselves. They may seek employment in jobs that do not require social contact, although this is not the case for individuals with social anxiety disorder, performance only. They may live at home longer. Men may be delayed in marrying and having a family, whereas women who would want to work outside the home may live a life as homemaker and mother. Self-medication with substances is common (e.g., drinking before going to a party). Social anxiety among older adults may also include exacerbation of symptoms of medical illnesses, such as increased tremor or tachycardia. Blushing is a hall­ mark physical response of social anxiety disorder.


The 12-month prevalence estimate of social anxiety disorder for the United States is approximately 7%. Lower 12-month prevalence estimates are seen in much of the world using the same diagnostic instrument, clustering around 0.5%-2.0%; median prevalence in Europe is 2.3%. The 12-month prevalence rates in children and adolescents are comparable to those in adults. Prevalence rates decrease with age. The 12-month prevalence for older adults ranges from 2% to 5%. In general, higher rates of social anxiety disorder are found in females than in males in the general population (with odds ratios ranging from 1.5 to 2.2), and the gender difference in prevalence is more pronounced in adolescents and young adults. Gender rates are equivalent or slightly higher for males in clinical samples, and it is assumed that gender roles and social expectations play a significant role in explaining the heightened help-seeking behavior in male patients. Prevalence in the United States is higher in American Indians and lower in persons of Asian, Latino, African American, and Afro-Caribbean descent compared with non-Hispanic whites.

Development and Course

Median age at onset of social anxiety disorder in the United States is 13 years, and 75% of individuals have an age at onset between 8 and 15 years. The disorder sometimes emerges out of a childhood history of social inhibition or shyness in U.S. and European studies. Onset can also occur in early childhood. Onset of social anxiety disorder may follow a stressful or humiliating experience (e.g., being bullied, vomiting during a public speech), or it may be insidious, developing slowly. First onset in adulthood is relatively rare and is more likely to occur after a stressful or humiliating event or after life changes that require new social roles (e.g., marrying someone from a different social class, receiving a job promotion). Social anxiety disorder may diminish after an individual with fear of dating marries and may reemerge after divorce. Among individuals presenting to clinical care, the disorder tends to be particularly persistent.

Adolescents endorse a broader pattern of fear and avoidance, including of dating, compared with younger children. Older adults express social anxiety at lower levels but across a broader range of situations, whereas younger adults express higher levels of social anxiety for specific situations. In older adults, social anxiety may concern disability due to declining sensory functioning (hearing, vision) or embarrassment about one’s appearance (e.g., tremor as a symptom of Parkinson’s disease) or functioning due to medical conditions, incontinence, or cognitive impairment (e.g., forgetting people’s names). In the community approximately 30% of individuals with social anxiety disorder experience remission of symptoms within 1 year, and about 50% experience remission within a few years. For approximately 60% of individuals without a specific treatment for social anxiety disorder, the course takes several years or longer.

Detection of social anxiety disorder in older adults may be challenging because of several factors, including a focus on somatic symptoms, comorbid medical illness, limited insight, changes to social environment or roles that may obscure impairment in social functioning, or reticence about describing psychological distress.

Risk and Prognostic Factors

Temperamental. Underlying traits that predispose individuals to social anxiety disorder include behavioral inhibition and fear of negative evaluation.

Environmental. There is no causative role of increased rates of childhood maltreatment or other early-onset psychosocial adversity in the development of social anxiety disorder. However, childhood maltreatment and adversity are risk factors for social anxiety disorder.

Genetic and physiological. Traits predisposing individuals to social anxiety disorder, such as behavioral inhibition, are strongly genetically influenced. The genetic influence is subject to gene-environment interaction; that is, children with high behavioral inhibition are more susceptible to environmental influences, such as socially anxious modeling by parents. Also, social anxiety disorder is heritable (but performance-only anxiety less so). First-degree relatives have a two to six times greater chance of having social anxiety disorder, and liability to the disorder involves the interplay of disorder-specific (e.g., fear of negative evaluation) and nonspecific (e.g., neuroticism) genetic factors.

Culture-Related Diagnostic Issues

The syndrome of taijin kyofusho (e.g., in Japan and Korea) is often characterized by social­ evaluative concerns, fulfilling criteria for social anxiety disorder, that are associated with the fear that the individual makes other people uncomfortable (e.g., “My gaze upsets people so they look away and avoid me”), a fear that is at times experienced with delusional intensity. This symptom may also be found in non-Asian settings. Other presentations of taijin kyofusho may fulfill criteria for body dysmorphic disorder or delusional disorder. Immigrant status is associated with significantly lower rates of social anxiety disorder in both Latino and non-Latino white groups. Prevalence rates of social anxiety disorder may not be in line with self-reported social anxiety levels in the same culture–that is, societies with strong collectivistic orientations may report high levels of social anxiety but low prevalence of social anxiety disorder.

Gender-Related Diagnostic Issues

Females with social anxiety disorder report a greater number of social fears and comorbid depressive, bipolar, and anxiety disorders, whereas males are more likely to fear dating, have oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, and use alcohol and illicit drugs to relieve symptoms of the disorder. Paruresis is more common in males.

Functional Consequences of Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder is associated with elevated rates of school dropout and with decreased well-being, employment, workplace productivity, socioeconomic status, and quality of life. Social anxiety disorder is also associated with being single, unmarried, or divorced and with not having children, particularly among men. In older adults, there may be impairment in caregiving duties and volunteer activities. Social anxiety disorder also impedes leisure activities. Despite the extent of distress and social impairment associated with social anxiety disorder, only about half of individuals with the disorder in Western societies ever seek treatment, and they tend to do so only after 15-20 years of experiencing symptoms. Not being employed is a strong predictor for the persistence of social anxiety disorder.

Differential Diagnosis

Normative shyness. Shyness (i.e., social reticence) is a common personality trait and is not by itself pathological. In some societies, shyness is even evaluated positively. However, when there is a significant adverse impact on social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning, a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder should be considered, and when full diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder are met, the disorder should be diagnosed. Only a minority (12%) of self-identified shy individuals in the United States have symptoms that meet diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder.

Agoraphobia. Individuals with agoraphobia may fear and avoid social situations (e.g., going to a movie) because escape might be difficult or help might not be available in the event of incapacitation or panic-like symptoms, whereas individuals with social anxiety disorder are most fearful of scrutiny by others. Moreover, individuals with social anxiety disorder are likely to be calm when left entirely alone, which is often not the case in agoraphobia.

Panic disorder. Individuals with social anxiety disorder may have panic attacks, but the concern is about fear of negative evaluation, whereas in panic disorder the concern is about the panic attacks themselves.

Generalized anxiety disorder. Social worries are common in generalized anxiety disorder, but the focus is more on the nature of ongoing relationships rather than on fear of negative evaluation. Individuals with generalized anxiety disorder, particularly children, may have excessive worries about the quality of their social performance, but these worries also pertain to nonsocial performance and when the individual is not being evaluated by others. In social anxiety disorder, the worries focus on social performance and others’ evaluation.

Separation anxiety disorder. Individuals with separation anxiety disorder may avoid social settings (including school refusal) because of concerns about being separated from attachment figures or, in children, about requiring the presence of a parent when it is not developmentally appropriate. Individuals with separation anxiety disorder are usually comfortable in social settings when their attachment figure is present or when they are at home, whereas those with social anxiety disorder may be uncomfortable when social situations occur at home or in the presence of attachment figures.

Specific phobias. Individuals with specific phobias may fear embarrassment or humiliation (e.g., embarrassment about fainting when they have their blood drawn), but they do not generally fear negative evaluation in other social situations.

Selective mutism. Individuals with selective mutism may fail to speak because of fear of negative evaluation, but they do not fear negative evaluation in social situations where no speaking is required (e.g., nonverbal play).

Major depressive disorder. Individuals with major depressive disorder may be concerned about being negatively evaluated by others because they feel they are bad or not worthy of being liked. In contrast, individuals with social anxiety disorder are worried about being negatively evaluated because of certain social behaviors or physical symptoms;

Body dysmorphic disorder. Individuals with body dysmorphic disorder are preoccupied with one or more perceived defects or flaws in their physical appearance that are not observable or appear slight to others; this preoccupation often causes social anxiety and avoidance. If their social fears and avoidance are caused only by their beliefs about their appearance, a separate diagnosis of social anxiety disorder is not warranted.

Delusional disorder. Individuals with delusional disorder may have nonbizarre delusions and/ or hallucinations related to the delusional theme that focus on being rejected by or offending others. Although extent of insight into beliefs about social situations may vary, many individuals with social anxiety disorder have good insight that their beliefs are out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation.

Autism spectrum disorder. Social anxiety and social communication deficits are hallmarks of autism spectrum disorder. Individuals with social anxiety disorder typically have adequate age-appropriate social relationships and social communication capacity, although they may appear to have impairment in these areas when first interacting with unfamiliar peers or adults.

Personality disorders. Given its frequent onset in childhood and its persistence into and through adulthood, social anxiety disorder may resemble a personality disorder. The most apparent overlap is with avoidant personality disorder. Individuals with avoidant personality disorder have a broader avoidance pattern than those with social anxiety disorder. Nonetheless, social anxiety disorder is typically more comorbid with avoidant personality disorder than with other personality disorders, and avoidant personality disorder is more comorbid with social anxiety disorder than with other anxiety disorders.

Other mental disorders. Social fears and discomfort can occur as part of schizophrenia, but other evidence for psychotic symptoms is usually present. In individuals with an eating disorder, it is important to determine that fear of negative evaluation about eating disorder symptoms or behaviors (e.g., purging and vomiting) is not the sole source of social anxiety before applying a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder. Similarly, obsessive­ compulsive disorder may be associated with social anxiety, but the additional diagnosis of social anxiety disorder is used only when social fears and avoidance are independent of the foci of the obsessions and compulsions.

Other medical conditions. Medical conditions may produce symptoms that may be embarrassing (e.g. trembling in Parkinson’s disease). When the fear of negative evaluation due to other medical conditions is excessive, a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder should be considered.

Oppositional defiant disorder. Refusal to speak due to opposition to authority figures should be differentiated from failure to speak due to fear of negative evaluation.


Social anxiety disorder is often comorbid with other anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, and substance use disorders, and the onset of social anxiety disorder generally precedes that of the other disorders, except for specific phobia and separation anxiety disorder. Chronic social isolation in the course of a social anxiety disorder may result in major depressive disorder. Comorbidity with depression is high also in older adults. Substances may be used as self-medication for social fears, but the symptoms of substance intoxication or withdrawal, such as trembling, may also be a source of (further) social fear. Social anxiety disorder is frequently comorbid with bipolar disorder or body dysmorphic disorder; for example, an individual has body dysmorphic disorder concerning a preoccupation with a slight irregularity of her nose, as well as social anxiety disorder because of a severe fear of sounding unintelligent. The more generalized form of social anxiety disorder, but not social anxiety disorder, performance only, is often comorbid with avoidant personality disorder. In children, comorbidities with high-functioning autism and selective mutism are common.

Avoidant Personality Disorder

Diagnostic Criteria

A pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:

1. Avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.

2. Is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked.

3. Shows restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed.

4. Is preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations.

5. Is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy.

6. Views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others.

7. Is unusually reluctant to take personal risks or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing.

Diagnostic Features

The essential feature of avoidant personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.

Individuals with avoidant personality disorder avoid work activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection (Criterion 1). Offers of job promotions may be declined because the new responsibilities might result in criticism from co-workers. These individuals avoid making new friends unless they are certain they will be liked and accepted without criticism (Criterion 2). Until they pass stringent tests proving the contrary, other people are assumed to be critical and disapproving. Individuals with this disorder will not join in group activities unless there are repeated and generous offers of support and nurturance. Interpersonal intimacy is often difficult for these individuals, although they are able to establish intimate relationships when there is assurance of uncritical acceptance. They may act with restraint, have difficulty talking about themselves, and withhold intimate feelings for fear of being exposed, ridiculed, or shamed (Criterion 3).

Because individuals with this disorder are preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations, they may have a markedly low threshold for detecting such reactions (Criterion 4). If someone is even slightly disapproving or critical, they may feel extremely hurt. They tend to be shy, quiet, inhibited, and “invisible” because of the fear that any attention would be degrading or rejecting. They expect that no matter what they say, others will see it as “wrong,” and so they may say nothing at all. They react strongly to subtle cues that are suggestive of mockery or derision. Despite their longing to be active participants in social life, they fear placing their welfare in the hands of others. Individuals with avoidant personality disorder are inhibited in new interpersonal situations because they feel inadequate and have low self-esteem (Criterion 5). Doubts concerning social competence and personal appeal become especially manifest in settings involving interactions with strangers. These individuals believe themselves to be socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others (Criterion 6). They are unusually reluctant to take personal risks or to engage in any new activities because these may prove embarrassing (Criterion 7). They are prone to exaggerate the potential dangers of ordinary situations, and a restricted lifestyle may result from their need for certainty and security. Someone with this disorder may cancel a job interview for fear of being embarrassed by not dressing appropriately. Marginal somatic symptoms or other problems may become the reason for avoiding new activities.

Associated Features Supporting Diagnosis

Individuals with avoidant personality disorder often vigilantly appraise the movements and expressions of those with whom they come into contact. Their fearful and tense demeanor may elicit ridicule and derision from others, which in turn confirms their self-doubts. These individuals are very anxious about the possibility that they will react to criticism with blushing or crying. They are described by others as being “shy,” “timid,” “lonely,” and “isolated.” The major problems associated with this disorder occur in social and occupational functioning. The low self-esteem and hypersensitivity to rejection are associated with restricted interpersonal contacts. These individuals may become relatively isolated and usually do not have a large social support network that can help them weather crises. They desire affection and acceptance and may fantasize about idealized relationships with others. The avoidant behaviors can also adversely affect occupational functioning because these individuals try to avoid the types of social situations that may be important for meeting the basic demands of the job or for advancement.

Other disorders that are commonly diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder include depressive, bipolar, and anxiety disorders, especially social anxiety disorder (social phobia). Avoidant personality disorder is often diagnosed with dependent personality disorder, because individuals with avoidant personality disorder become very attached to and dependent on those few other people with whom they are friends. Avoidant personality disorder also tends to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and with the Cluster A personality disorders (i.e., paranoid, schizoid, or schizotypal personality disorders).


Data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions suggest a prevalence of about 2.4% for avoidant personality disorder.

Development and Course

The avoidant behavior often starts in infancy or childhood with shyness, isolation, and fear of strangers and new situations. Although shyness in childhood is a common precursor of avoidant personality disorder, in most individuals it tends to gradually dissipate as they get older. In contrast, individuals who go on to develop avoidant personality disorder may become increasingly shy and avoidant during adolescence and early adulthood, when social relationships with new people become especially important. There is some evidence that in adults, avoidant personality disorder tends to become less evident or to remit with age. This diagnosis should be used with great caution in children and adolescents, for whom shy and avoidant behavior may be developmentally appropriate.

Culture-Related Diagnostic Issues

There may be variation in the degree to which different cultural and ethnic groups regard diffidence and avoidance as appropriate. Moreover, avoidant behavior may be the result of problems in acculturation following immigration.

Gender-Related Diagnostic Issues

Avoidant personality disorder appears to be equally frequent in males and females.

Differential Diagnosis

Anxiety disorders. There appears to be a great deal of overlap between avoidant personality disorder and social anxiety disorder (social phobia), so much so that they may be alternative conceptualizations of the same or similar conditions. Avoidance also characterizes both avoidant personality disorder and agoraphobia, and they often co-occur.

Other personality disorders and personality traits. Other personality disorders may be confused with avoidant personality disorder because they have certain features in common. It is, therefore, important to distinguish among these disorders based on differences in their characteristic features. However, if an individual has personality features that meet criteria for one or more personality disorders in addition to avoidant personality disorder, all can be diagnosed. Both avoidant personality disorder and dependent personality disorder are characterized by feelings of inadequacy, hypersensitivity to criticism, and a need for reassurance. Although the primary focus of concern in avoidant personality disorder is avoidance of humiliation and rejection, in dependent personality disorder the focus is on being taken care of. However, avoidant personality disorder and dependent personality disorder are particularly likely to co-occur. Like avoidant personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder and schizotypal personality disorder are characterized by social isolation. However, individuals with avoidant personality disorder want to have relationships with others and feel their loneliness deeply, whereas those with schizoid or schizotypal personality disorder may be content with and even prefer their social isolation. Paranoid personality disorder and avoidant personality disorder are both characterized by a reluctance to confide in others. However, in avoidant personality disorder, this reluctance is attributable more to a fear of being embarrassed or being found inadequate than to a fear of others’ malicious intent.

Many individuals display avoidant personality traits. Only when these traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persisting and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress do they constitute avoidant personality disorder.

Personality change due to another medical condition. Avoidant personality disorder must be distinguished from personality change due to another medical condition, in which the traits that emerge are attributable to the effects of another medical condition on the central nervous system.

Substance use disorders. Avoidant personality disorder must also be distinguished from symptoms that may develop in association with persistent substance use.

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If you have any questions or comments, please email Larry Cohen, LICSW, with offices in Washington, DC.

Social Anxiety Help is a founding regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC):