Do you know how to spot the difference between shyness and social anxiety? Most people don’t – and that can be a very dangerous thing.
Being shy is a personality trait; having social anxiety is a mental illness. And yet, it’s very easy to mistake social anxiety as mere shyness. They share many of the same characteristics, and on the surface, it can be difficult to tell the two apart. But social anxiety is so much more complicated than shyness!
Social Anxiety Disorder (or SAD for short) is an anxiety disorder characterized by intense feelings of worry and distress in social situations and under the scrutiny of others (American Psychological Association, 2013). This fear of negative evaluation usually begins in childhood and persists for at least 6 months or more, even though most patients recognize that it’s unreasonable or excessive. And while statistics report that SAD affects over 15 million people all over the world, only 50% seek treatment, most of whom wait up to 10 years before getting help (Psycom, 2017).
With that said, here are 8 definitive signs your so-called shyness may actually be a case of social anxiety:
(Disclaimer: this list is by no means meant to substitute a professional diagnosis, so be mindful of the perils of self-diagnosing. It’s always best to ask a mental healthcare professional.)
1. You’re always self-conscious
One of the most distinguishing features of social anxiety is the extreme fear of being judged. After all, there’s a reason why it’s also called “social phobia.” People who suffer from SAD are pathologically insecure; they’re always worried about the way they look or act and what other people think of them (Kocovsci & Endler, 2000). For someone who’s just shy, it’s different. A shy person is only afraid of what other people will think of them when it matters, like in public speaking or meeting someone for the first time. But for a person with SAD, their greatest fear in life is embarrassing themselves in front of other people.
2. Your anxiety feels out of hand
There are times when it’s normal to feel shy or nervous around other people, like when we move to a new school where we don’t know anyone or have to perform in front of an audience. But social anxiety is irrational and unwarranted. It arises in just about every social situation, and people with SAD feel distressed about things as simple as walking alone, making eye contact with someone, entering a room, using public transportation, or even just eating in front of other people. The fear is always there, even when there’s really nothing you should be afraid of (Heimberg, et al., 2014).
3. It interferes with your performance
There are a lot of ways social anxiety can negatively impact a person’s performance, whether at school or at work. With the crippling fear of negative evaluation ever-present, we’re too afraid to do our best because we don’t want to draw any attention to ourselves. So we call in sick at work when the anxiety becomes too overwhelming, or keep quiet even when we’re having trouble with the lesson. We don’t pitch our ideas at meetings, or raise our hand in class, or join clubs/organizations because it gives us too much social anxiety.
4. It affects your relationships
It’s hard to make friends when you’re shy, but it can feel damn near impossible when you have social anxiety. For shyness, it’s all about breaking the ice and the awkwardness of getting to know one another, see if you click. But having social anxiety complicates our relationships; it keeps us from getting close to people and feeling comfortable enough around them to really let them in. Someone with SAD will feel tense and uneasy around other people no matter how close they are or how long they’ve known them (Davila & Beck, 2002) – which brings us to our next point!
5. It doesn’t go away with familiarity
For most of us, we only feel shy around other people at the beginning of a relationship. But once we get to talking and getting to know them more, we gradually let our guard down and our feelings of discomfort start to subside. This isn’t the case for someone with social anxiety. Those who have Social Anxiety Disorder often experience fear, distress, and embarrassment on a daily basis, whenever they’re around someone else, even if it’s their parents or their siblings or their best friend. It’s not a matter of unfamiliar situations or meeting new people – they will never feel calm or at ease unless they’re alone and away from others.
6. You overanalyze everything
Having Social Anxiety Disorder is much more intense than just being “shy”. Shyness is a personality trait, but social anxiety is a mental illness. Someone with social anxiety will obsess over every social interaction they have and devote a lot of their time and energy to trying to understand other people’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. They’re often overly self-critical (i.e. “I took too long to reply and now she hates me!”) and tend to take everything personally (i.e. “He didn’t say hello when he passed me by because he doesn’t want to be friends anymore”).
7. You avoid social situations
A lot of people feel anxious in certain social situations, but when your social anxiety leads you to avoid everything all together, then you know it’s already serious (Moitra, Herbert, & Forman, 2008). Someone with Social Anxiety Disorder is often tardy or absent; they frequently decline invitations; they never want to speak in front; and they would much rather sit in the corner all day and not be noticed than mingle with anyone else. It doesn’t matter if it’s a normal day at work/school, their own birthday party, or even their own wedding day.
8. You have physical symptoms
Just like most anxiety disorders, social anxiety is often accompanied by certain physical symptoms. Most commonly, patients diagnosed with SAD report feeling sweaty palms, shortness of breath, an accelerated heartbeat, chest palpitations, muscle tension, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, and trembling – all the same signs as someone having a panic attack (Roth, Antony, & ). And these physical symptoms only surface in social situations or in anticipation of a social situation.
If you’ve spent most of your life being told that you’re just a “shy” person, it can be hard to know for certain if you’re already dealing with something more serious. If you strongly relate to any of the signs mentioned here, it’s important that you reach out to a mental healthcare worker today and get the help you need. Social Anxiety Disorder is a very treatable condition and over 70% of those in therapy are successfully treated (National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, 2013). It’s only a matter of learning to spot the signs.
- American Psychological Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th Edition. Washington, DC; APA Publishing.
- Psycom (2017). “Social Anxiety Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment.” Retrieved 31 March 2020 from https://www.psycom.net/social-anxiety-disorder-overview
- National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (2013). Social Anxiety Disorder: Recognition, Assessment, and Treatment. British Psychological Society, Leicester (UK).
- Kocovski, N. L., & Endler, N. S. (2000). Social anxiety, self‐regulation, and fear of negative evaluation. European Journal of Personality, 14(4), 347-358.
- Heimberg, R. G., Hofmann, S. G., Liebowitz, M. R., Schneier, F. R., Smits, J. A., Stein, M. B., & Craske, M. G. (2014). Social anxiety disorder in DSM‐5. Depression and Anxiety, 31(6), 472-479.
- Davila, J., & Beck, J. G. (2002). Is social anxiety associated with impairment in close relationships? A preliminary investigation. Behavior Therapy, 33(3), 427-446.
- Moitra, E., Herbert, J. D., & Forman, E. M. (2008). Behavioral avoidance mediates the relationship between anxiety and depressive symptoms among social anxiety disorder patients. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22(7), 1205-1213.
- Roth, D., Antony, M. M., & Swinson, R. P. (2001). Interpretations for anxiety symptoms in social phobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(2), 129-138.