According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, social phobia is a persistent fear of one or more situations in which the person is exposed to possible scrutiny by others and fears that he or she may do something or act in a way that will be humiliating or embarrassing. For one to be social phobic, exposure to the feared situation must provoke anxiety and the person must recognize this anxiety is irrational (although this may be absent in children). If another disorder is present, the social phobic fear is unrelated to it. For instance, if a person has a history of panic attacks, having a panic attack must not be the sufferer's fear. Sufferers are typically more self-conscious and self-attentive than others. As a result, social phobic's tend to limit or remove themselves from situations where they may be subject to evaluation. Sufferers often recognize their fear is excessive or irrational, yet can't seem to break out of the cycle. As such, the diagnosis of social phobia is made only when the fear leads to avoiding occupational functions, social activities, or relationships with others.

Mental health professionals often distinguish between generalized and specific social anxiety disorders. People with generalized social anxiety have great distress with most or all social situations. A famous study by Stanford University established that distress was more likely when social encounters were unfamiliar, involved power or status differences, difference in gender, or the presence of a group of people. Those with specific social phobias may experience anxiety only in a few situations. For example the most common specific phobia is glossophobia, the fear of public speaking or performance, also known as "stage fright". Other examples of specific social phobias include fears of writing in public (scriptophobia) and using public restrooms (paruresis).

There is much debate concerning the relationship between social phobia and shyness. Shyness is not a criterion for social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety disorder may be quite comfortable with certain people or many people, but still feel intense anxiety in specific social situations. Child psychologist Samuel Turner provides a summary between shyness and social phobia. Both share several features: negative cognition's in social situations, heightened physiological reactivity, a tendency to avoid social situations, and deficits in social skills. Negative cognition's include fear of negative evaluation, self-consciousness, devaluation of social skills, self-deprecating thoughts, and self-blaming attributions for social difficulties. Social phobia is distinct from shyness in that it has a lower prevalence in the population, follows a more chronic course, is more functionally debilitating, and has a later age of onset. There are problems with these kinds of comparisons. It may be that the differences between them are quantitative rather than qualitative. There are some that argue that shyness is mistakenly treated with medication intended for social phobia, effectively labeling the personality trait a mental illness.

Social phobia should not be confused with panic disorder. Sufferers of panic disorder are convinced that their panic comes from some dire physical cause, and often go to the hospital or call for an ambulance during or after their attacks. Social phobic's may experience a panic attack when triggered, but they are aware that it is extreme anxiety they are experiencing, and that the cause is an irrational fear. Few social phobic's would willingly go to a hospital in that instance because they fear rejection and judgment by authority figures (such as the medical staff). The general form of social anxiety is sometimes incorrectly called generalized anxiety disorder. The principal difference between the two is that the social phobia deals with anxiety in a social setting, while generalized anxiety disorder is extreme anxiety for any situation (work, school, et al.), not necessarily one involving other people.

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