Are you wondering about the distinction between social anxiety vs. shyness? Is there really such a thing as social anxiety disorder, or has shyness simply been medicalized?
In fact, shyness and social anxiety are two different things, even though there is definitely overlap between the two. If you’re not sure about the difference, or you’re wondering if you are just shy or have social anxiety, we’ll discuss that in this article.
What Is Shyness?
Shyness refers to a feeling of being uncomfortable or awkward around people. Usually, shyness shows up when you are meeting new people or entering an unfamiliar situation. Shyness is fairly common.
People who are shy may feel uncomfortable, but they usually warm up a bit once they stay in a situation and find that they can relax. It might feel awkward talking to people, but it’s not impossible and doesn’t make you have intense anxiety.
Shyness may also make it harder for you to speak up (especially if you are soft-spoken). It may lead to others speaking over you.
However, most people who are shy don’t experience a lot of negative effects in terms of their life satisfaction. In other words, it’s quite possible to be shy but also live a good life. It’s possible to be generally happy and content with yourself–and also be shy.
Most people who are shy have friends. They may learn to work around their shyness. And, they probably consider their shyness to be a personality trait that may not need changing.
While some people who are shy might want to feel more comfortable in new situations, most people who are shy don’t belittle themselves or fear being shy.
Estimates of shyness range from 40-60% of the population. That means that when you see everyone acting calm and confident, half of those people actually feel awkward, tense, or worried in new situations.
About 15% of babies are thought to be born with a shy temperament (also known as behavioral inhibition). Some shyness might also come about from situational factors such as growing up in unhealthy family situations or experiencing traumatic events.
On the whole, however, shyness is a personality trait that is manageable. It doesn’t override your goals in life, your education, your ability to complete work, or your ability to make and maintain friendships and relationships.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is the intense fear of being rejected, judged, criticized, or viewed in a negative way. This anxiety may show up when you are in social situations or when you need to perform in front of others.
Social anxiety has numerous specific triggers that all involve being the center of attention: public speaking, being singled out or criticized, eating in public, writing in front of someone, oral exams, etc.
Social phobia is another name for social anxiety disorder. While social anxiety exists on a continuum, when it is severe it is a diagnosable mental health disorder.
A diagnosis of social anxiety disorder is made based on a set of criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). There are also a number of screening tests that can be used to detect whether someone might have social anxiety disorder.
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A person with social anxiety will have anxiety symptoms so severe that it becomes impossible to relax or enjoy social or performance situations. This leads to avoidance of these situations at all costs despite the negative effects this can have on life satisfaction.
Social anxiety disorder can lead to other related problems such as depression and substance abuse. It can make you less likely to be assertive and deflate your self confidence. It can also make you feel as though all eyes are on you at all times.
Despite being the third most common mental health disorder (behind only depression and substance abuse), most people with social anxiety symptoms will never seek help or receive treatment.
Some of the proven treatments for social anxiety disorder include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication. Medication can be helpful particularly if you have a lot of physical symptoms. Group therapy can also be helpful.
People with social anxiety may also have a lot of anticipatory anxiety. This means that you may lie awake worrying about social or performance situations that are weeks or months away.
In other words, social anxiety is not a normal personality trait that should be accepted or viewed in a positive way. Instead, it is a problem with good mental function that you don’t need to live with.
Many people with social anxiety will underperform in their careers or take jobs below their capabilities. Most end up earning less money than those without social anxiety.
Differences Between Social Anxiety vs. Shyness
We’ve already talked about some of the differences between social anxiety and shyness, but let’s look at them in more detail now.
First, it’s important to note that not all people who have social anxiety will also be shy. In other words, you can be very extroverted and interested in making friends, but crippling anxiety holds you back. For this reason, it’s clear that social anxiety is not just an extreme form of shyness.
Some people with social anxiety will feel fine in social situations, but fall apart when they need to perform or be in the spotlight, such as giving a speech or playing a sport. This isn’t the case for someone who is just shy.
People with social anxiety also experience extreme physical symptoms that those with shyness don’t. Things like having a racing heart, trouble catching your breath, sweating, feel nauseous, dizziness, stomachache, headache, etc. Someone who is just shy might feel uncomfortable but won’t have severe anxiety symptoms.
A person with social anxiety will also experience negative impacts in most areas of their life. For example, you might not be able to work or work at a job below your abilities. You might have problems finding a relationship or making friends. You might not have finished school, etc.
It’s clear that the intensity of your fear, level of avoidance, and overall impact on your life help to distinguish shyness from social anxiety. If you enter a situation and your anxiety keeps getting worse instead of going away, chances are you have social anxiety and not just shyness.
And, if you realize that your fear is out of control and not rational, but feel powerless to control it, that’s another sign that you might have social anxiety.
What about you? What do you think about the difference between social anxiety vs. shyness? Let me know in the comment section.