A common question shy people ask themselves – “Do i have social anxiety or am I just shy?”.
Every human being in this world has and will experience shyness in one form of another.
Shyness—in a nutshell—, is simply a natural defense mechanism when we are faced with situations outside our comfort zones: public speaking, talking to a crush, job interviews, and so on. Shyness is just our natural reaction of being afraid of a potentially negative outcome, especially rejection.
However, (extreme) shyness is often confused with a more serious condition we call Social Anxiety Disorder, which can lead to delayed (or even complete lack of) treatment, that can produce detrimental effects to the said person’s social life.
Here, we will learn the main differences between the two, which is important if you are currently suspecting yourself (or closed ones) to suffer either from shyness or social anxiety.
What Is Shyness?
Shyness—also called diffidence as opposed to confidence— is in a nutshell, a type of feeling. That is, a feeling of discomfort and fear when we face new situations outside our comfort zone or when we meet new people.
It is important to note that shyness is not always triggered by social interactions. We can feel (extremely) shy during very embarrassing situations even when we are totally alone. For example when we farted with a really loud noise, even in an empty room.
Shyness is often linked to introversion as a personality trait (Is being introverted bad?), and also to low self-esteem.
What Actually Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety is a genuine fear of interaction with other people. Since most of our daily activities involve social interaction, social anxiety can be extremely pervasive and can wreak havoc on many different live
aspects such as:
- Work/employment: someone might avoid a really good job opportunity that requires frequent social interactions (that is, a lot of jobs)
- School: children with social anxiety, ironically, might invite bullying, while being bullied—on the other hand— might produce morephobi anxiety disorders, making this a deadly cycle. Social anxiety children might also avoid attending schools and might affect their long-term education
- Develop relationships: having close relationships with those outside our family is a very important aspect of leading happy and successful lives. Because the core symptom of social anxiety is the fear of social interactions, it can be very difficult for the individual to develop any relationship at all.
According to the latest report by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, social anxiety disorder is estimated to affect 2 to 7% of the U.S. adult population. That is approximately 15 million adults in America. So, if you suspect yourself of suffering from social phobia, know that you are definitely not alone.
The term “social phobia” first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition (DSM-III) back in 1980. The term has since evolved’ to “social anxiety disorder” we know today, and even back then, there have been confusions and misconceptions of the difference between shyness and social phobia.
The latest version of the DSM (the fifth edition, DSM-5), addressed this confusion by adding minor changes to the description, namely: “fear, anxiety, and/or avoidance is persistent and typically lasting for 6 or more months”. This persistence will be one of the major differences between shyness and social anxiety, as we will discuss further below.
Shyness VS Social Anxiety Disorder: Core Differences
It’s important to know that shyness can evolve into social anxiety disorder, but it’s not a natural and/or common progression. On the other hand, not all people with social phobia are shy.
Socially anxious extraverts are actually pretty common. They might be a socially active, talkative, and a very good public speaker, but they struggle deeply with anxiety within. Celebrities like Jessica Chastain, for example, is an extrovert dealing with constant stage frights and social anxiety.
Below are three core differences between social anxiety and “normal” shyness:
1.The Intensity of The Symptoms
One of the main differences between shyness and social anxiety disorder is the intensity of the symptoms. People suffering from social phobia may worry about—for example— their own wedding vow for weeks or even months. They can lose sleep due to anxiety, and the condition might be accompanied by severe physical symptoms (i.e. rapid heartbeat, severe headache, muscle tension, etc.)
With “normal” shyness, the symptoms are much more manageable. You might feel shy right before you went upstage for a speech, but is generally bearable and will dissipate with training and experience.
In people with social anxiety disorder, even a minor social interaction can cause the following symptoms:
- Rapid heartbeat (above 100 BPM is considered fast)
- Trembling (as a side effect of fast heart rate) and sweating
- Shallow, rapid breaths in upper lungs
- Dizziness, feeling lightheaded
- Blank mind and numbness
- Muscle tension
Psychological and emotional symptoms:
- Severe worry about embarrassing yourself
- Intense fear about social interactions
- Avoid social situations at all costs, or wall flowering when you absolutely must attend
- Worrying that other people might notice your anxiety or stress
- Tend to consume alcohol before social interactions
- Missing school or work due to uncontrollable fear and anxiety
For the emotional/behavioral symptoms, this list is not exhaustible. The psychological symptoms are significantly more intense in social phobia/social anxiety disorder, and normal shyness rarely projected noticeable physical symptoms.
2.The Persistence of The Symptoms
One of the main differences, as implied by the newest description update for social anxiety disorder in the DSM05 (as discussed above), is the persistence of the symptoms.
Shyness tends to disappear as the individual become more familiar with the situation, or when the individual achieved certain successes and climb in social status. For example, it’s quite common for people to “overcome” shyness as they become a rich person in adulthood.
That’s not the case with social anxiety, as the symptoms can—as described by DSM-5— last 6 or more months. During this period, the symptoms may even worsen with time.
While shyness can get better as our social situations improve, social anxiety disorder or social phobia won’t cure itself—no matter how “successful” we are socially— unless it’s properly treated by a professional.
One of the most worrying factors that can cause this is the fact that one of the symptoms of social anxiety disorder is fearing of becoming anxious itself—as discussed above—. This, in turn, will create a detrimental cycle for the individual.
When a said individual choose to endure the social activity/interaction, they will feel intense stress or anxiety, this is why the most common choice is to avoid the situation altogether—which will create various damages discussed above—.
3. The (Total) Inability To Control The Anxiety
Still according to the DSM-5, “The person recognizes that this fear is unreasonable or excessive.”
But even after they acknowledged that their fear and anxiety are irrational and not based on fact, they can’t control and subside the anxiety.
Combined with the persistence of the symptoms—as discussed above—, the feelings and thoughts created by the anxiety simply won’t go away without professional help. A structured, cognitive behavioral therapy is commonly implemented, with a very high success rate.
Thus, willpower alone is usually not an option for individuals suffering from social phobia. It’s an important thing to understand if your loved ones are diagnosed with social anxiety.
Diagnosing Social Anxiety Disorder
The most reliable and accurate way to determine whether you are suffering from social anxiety disorder (SAD) is to visit a mental health professional, which will conduct an in-depth interview or tests to make a proper diagnosis
As outlined in the DSM-5, the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder include:
- Fear and/or anxiety about one (or more) social situation. The individual is exposed to potential judgment by others, and the fear or anxiety lasts at least six months or more
- Fear others will notice the anxiety symptoms and distress, and thus the individual will be judged negatively by others. If the potential patient is a child, the fear/anxiety most occur when the child is among their peers (not just adults).
- The individual tend to avoid social interactions, or when they endure it, it will be accompanied by wtih intense stress.
- The produced fear is excessive(out of proportion) compared to the actual threat, and the individual acknowledges that it is unreasonable.
The mental health professional might conduct specific tests, such as the Social Phobia Inventory (SPIN) , or the smaller version called the Mini SPIN. However, a full diagnostic interview is generally the best possible, most accurate approach.
The primary cause of social anxiety disorder is still a mystery, although many experts and medical professionals agree that SAD might be caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors.
If you suspect yourself of suffering from social anxiety disorder or currently dealing with extreme shyness, it is wise to schedule an appointment with your doctor—or even better, a psychiatrist—. When untreated, the symptoms of social anxiety disorder tend to get worse and won’t cure itself, and can lead to various complications like depression, gambling problems, or substance abuse.
On the other hand, professional treatments for SAD have a very high success rate, and various medications are now available to help with social anxiety disorder.