Embarrassment and social phobia: the role of parasympathetic activation

J Anxiety Disord. 2003;17(2):197-210. doi: 10.1016/s0887-6185(02)00197-4.


The few studies on the psychophysiology of embarrassment have suggested involvement of parasympathetic activation. However, blushing, the hallmark of embarrassment and a prominent symptom in social phobia, is more likely to be produced by cervical sympathetic outflow. Hitherto, there has been no evidence of parasympathetic innervation of the facial blood vessels. In this study, a group of social phobics and control participants watched, together with a 2-person audience, a previously made videotape of themselves singing a children's song. Self-report measures confirmed that this task induced embarrassment. While two measures of respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) during the task did not indicate heightened parasympathetic tone, increased heart rate (HR) and skin conductance marked sympathetic activation. Thus, our data do not support the notion that an increase in parasympathetic activation plays a significant role in social phobia and embarrassment. Social anxiety and embarrassment both resulted in sympathetic activation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Blushing / physiology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System*
  • Phobic Disorders / psychology*
  • Psychophysiology