Disclaimer. As always, this article is meant to be informative and should not be used as a rubric for diagnosis. If you have any personal questions or concerns regarding this topic, please consult a licensed professional.
People usually misconstrue shyness and social anxiety. But, who wouldn’t be a bit awkward when walking into a room full of strangers? Shyness is the initial awkwardness the precedes forced small talk with people you have never met, like at a party or a new job. Social anxiety is a bit different.
Social anxiety is the pervasive intense fear of being judged, humiliated, rejected, or embarrassed in a social setting that leads to anxiety or avoidance. Shy people do not like being the center of attention, and social situations do not cause them severe distress, maybe just sweaty palms. Shyness is not a mental health condition. It’s a personality trait.
On the other hand, social anxiety disorder (S.A.D) is more than shyness. Social anxiety can be brought on by different factors, such as past trauma, isolated upbringing, genetics. Someone with S.A.D fears social situations because they are apprehensive about being embarrassed or negatively evaluated by their status, role, or behavior.
Although shyness and social anxiety share similar physical symptomatology, there are traits that make differentiate them.
Below are seven signs that you are not just “shy.”
- Avoiding or escaping very public settings.
Although a shy person may feel uncomfortable at a party where they do not know anyone, someone with social anxiety will avoid public settings altogether. This symptom can devolve into agoraphobia. Public situations, such as dining out at a restaurant, dating, or returning an item to a store, can be harrowing for someone with an anxiety disorder where there are opportunities for embarrassment or rejection.
If avoidance is not possible, those who have social anxiety may try to escape the situation by hiding in a bathroom or leaving early. This differs from shyness because a shy person might open up after a while or stick to a familiar group of people. Avoidance and escapist tactics are used as safety behaviors. The problem with safety behaviors is that they provide the illusion of “surviving” the event. However, you still feel guilty for not controlling your anxiety.
- Feeling very self-conscious in front of others.
Public settings make you feel uncomfortable because you feel as though people are watching and judging you. You might not even have everyone’s attention, yet you still have an inexplicable fear that at some point something will happen, and everyone will start judging you. To a regular person, this might sound illogical. But, that’s the thing. Social anxieties sometimes do not have logic.
They can arise at the most random moment and make you suddenly feel as though the spotlight has fallen on you. Some physical symptoms involve sweating, heart palpitations, and panic attacks.
- Fear of physical symptoms that may cause you embarrassment
One way social anxiety can pass as shyness is through physical cues. Both have physiological similarities such as blushing, sweating, rigid posture, and trembling. However, for someone with social anxiety, their bodily responses can make them anxious. Even having their mind go blank for a few seconds can make them feel like they left a poor impression.
- Fear that others will notice that you look anxious.
Similarly, those with social anxiety fear that their anxiety is noticeable, thus producing more anxiety.
- Having anxiety in anticipation of a feared activity or event.
Before a big event, like a presentation, it is normal to feel a bit anxious. Usually, that type of anxiety diminishes after a while. However, if you experience social anxiety, you might think, for months, about all the things that could go wrong. In some cases, these thoughts can accumulate in your mind and lead you to avoid the event or situation. This behavior can be particularly damaging if it is school or work-related.
- Expecting the worst possible consequences from a negative experience during a social situation
Although the definitive cause for social anxiety is unknown, researchers believe that underdeveloped social skills can lead to social anxiety. Being teased or bullied for being socially awkward can lead you to fear further social interactions and exacerbate social anxiety.
- Spending time after a social situation analyzing your performance and identifying flaws in your interactions.
Sometimes, we revisit past moments to learn from them and become better. But, obsessing over a past detail usually ends that same way– insecurities creeping out from the corners of our mind to make us feel inferior. However, for someone with social anxiety obsessing over a small detail does not feel like a choice. Social anxiety is about seeing yourself through the lens of someone else. Hence, you might be prone to dwelling and analyzing past interactions, especially conversations.
If you find yourself nitpicking past conversations, find your trigger. The trigger is in the part of the conversation that you keep replaying. Figure out a better response, and then let it go. Letting go is a difficult step, and it might take some time to learn. If you are having trouble letting go of past conversations, reach out to a therapist for help. With cognitive-behavioral therapy, you will learn tools that will help you feel more confident in social situations.
The self-critical stream of consciousness can make you feel like you are being watched through a magnifying glass. But, working with a therapist and engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy can help.
Let us know in the comments below what has helped you cope with social anxiety.
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Cuncic, Arlin, and Amy Morin. “3 Coping Strategies That Actually Make Social Anxiety Worse.” Verywell Mind, 28 May 2020, www.verywellmind.com/what-are-avoidance-behaviors-3024312.
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NIMH. “Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/index.shtml.
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