ARTICLESApril 28, 2023

This is What Triggers Social Anxiety

Social anxiety (or social phobia as it is also known) can be an overwhelming sense of nervous or panic when in situations where you feel you will be judged or criticized by others. Estimates suggest that up to 15% of the population will meet criteria for social anxiety disorder (SAD) sometime in their lives (Kessler et al., 2005; Ohayon & Schatzburg, 2010). Since this type of anxiety comes up in situations involving strangers, coworkers, classmates, teachers, professors, friends and people in general, it can get in the way of many important goals and realms in one’s life.

Here we discuss the typical situations that trigger SAD, but it is also important to note that what is usually at the core of social anxiety is a person’s negative view about themselves.

People with social anxiety are more likely to be self-critical (Iancu, Bodner & Benzion, 2015) and post-secondary students scoring higher on social anxiety have also been found to endorse low self-esteem (Murad, 2020; He, 2022). It’s important to acknowledge that SAD isn’t just above negative self-view, it involves other things like catastrophic thoughts, vividly imagining negative social outcomes and avoidance (which should be reviewed in treating social anxiety), but it is an important component.

What’s important to know about low self-esteem or negative self view that occurs with social anxiety?

social anxiety treatment - a young man walks in the middle of the road into the dawn surrounded on either side by trees
Social anxiety is difficult and impactful, but there is treatment and hope.

1) It started a long time ago.

Usually this negative view is created in childhood, adolescence or during one’s impressionable life events. Therefore, one’s negative self-image is often longstanding, chronic and feeds the negative thoughts one has when interacting with others.


black teenager sitting on the steps of an outdoor porch with his forehead against his fists
Low self esteem begins in our formative years

2) It can underlie many other difficulties, especially depression.

In psychology, what we call “comorbidity” or having two or more disorders occurring at the same time, is quite high with SAD. Estimates suggest that 90% of individuals with SAD have at least one other disorder that they struggle with (Koyuncu et al., 2019). Oftentimes, depression or substance abuse disorder (including alcohol abuse) frequently co-occurs with social anxiety. When we understand that a negative self-image underlies social anxiety, it is not hard to see why difficulties such as depression and substance abuse also arise.

Unfortunately, when you have co-occurring disorders, it can increase the chance that these difficulties are not properly identified when you attend treatment. That is why being seen for an assessment during your first appointment can be particularly crucial in your treatment planning with social anxiety.

white woman sits on a bench looking at her phone with her bottom lip curled down. In the background around her several arms/hands are extended with a thumbs down gesture
Negative self-view occurs also occurs in depression and other conditions.


3) It is likely to surface during early adolescence.

While some with SAD may experience it later in life, typically coinciding with some negative social or life stressors, it typically arises for many during one’s teenage years. As one becomes a teenager, there are many firsts happening along with many biological, social and psychological changes that can increase one’s chance of negative social experiences (e.g., bullying, negative body image, embarrassment) that can solidify the negative self image that propels social anxiety.


a black teenager sits at her desk in a classroom, writing on paper with a pencil. Students similarly dressed in a private school uniform can be seen behind her in the background.
SAD and low self-esteem peaks in the teens years.

4) It can make it that much harder to talk about.

Having a negative self-view can result in doubting one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours, so expressing these innermost experiences to a therapist can make it even more overwhelming and scary. Worrying about how you are seen by others makes attending a therapy session a huge source of stress. However, if you find a therapist who is trained in treating individuals with SAD (and comorbid difficulties) they are more likely to be aware of how difficult even showing up is for you. Finding the right therapist who is able to support you in this process is really important.

Granted, you won’t feel comfortable with a therapist right away, but over time, therapy should feel like a space where you can feel supported, safe and not judged. A trained therapist who knows to check in on how the therapy process is (not just the content) can make a world of difference to someone with social anxiety.

asian woman puts one hand to her head as her eyes are closed and her head tilts downwards. In front of her you can see the arm of the person in front of her making an explaining gesture.
Having both a negative self view and SAD makes it hard to seek treatment


Other than negative self-view, social situations of various kinds are behavioural/situational triggers that increase anxiety both before, during and even after they occur. One often imagines themselves making mistakes, acting awkwardly or having physical symptoms of SAD (e.g., sweating, blushing or shaking) visible to others during these events. We’ve grouped these types of situations into themes below:

Social Situations that Trigger Social Anxiety

1) Group Situations

joining a group chat over text

joining a group chat in person

asking a question in a meeting

asking a question in class


2) Interacting with Strangers

calling to make an appointment

asking a question from a store cashier

using a public washroom when others are present


3) Worrying That Physical Symptoms Will Be Noticed

fearing that others will notice your shortness of breath

scared others will notice you sweating

avoiding tasks where others can see your hands shaking


4) Other Specific Situations

public speaking

going to a crowded public venue

being the center of attention


The Momenta Clinic for Psychological Wellness provides therapy in Toronto and virtual services for adolescents and adults in Ontario who are experiencing low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or having a tendency to be self-critical. We have talented and compassionate clinicians ready to help you on your journey. We have a diverse team and we tailor our approach to fit the unique needs of every patient we serve. Get in touch with us if you would like to book a session!



Iancu, I., Bodner, E. & Ben-zion, I. Z. (2015). Self-esteem, dependency, self-efficacy and self-criticism in social anxiety disorder. Journal of Comprehensive Psychiatry, 58:165-71.

Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler. O, et al. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62:593–768.

Koyuncu, A., Ince, E., Ertekin, E. & Tukel, R. (2019). Comorbidity in social anxiety disorder: diagnostic and therapeutic challenges. Drugs in Context, v8.

Murad, O. S. (2020). Social Anxiety in Relation to Self-Esteem among University Students in Jordan. International Education Studies, 13(2):96-103.

Ohayon, M. M. & Schatzberg, A. F. (2010). Social phobia and depression: prevalence and comorbidity. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 68:235–243.

Xiaxong, H. (2022). Relationship between self-esteem, interpersonal trust and social anxiety of college students. Occupational Therapy International, v2022.