08 Oct What Is the Difference Between Being Shy and Suffering From Social Anxiety?

Trudy Jacobsen

It’s easy to confuse shyness and social anxiety. However, while they may seem similar, this misconception can make it more difficult for people with social anxiety to seek the help they need. Social anxiety goes beyond sweaty palms and nervous butterflies. It’s a condition that can affect every aspect of a person’s life. Unfortunately, many people who struggle with social anxiety don’t realize that this is a serious mental health condition because social anxiety is often misattributed to shyness. If you’ve always considered yourself “shy,” but your shyness verges on debilitating in social situations, you may be wondering if it’s time to talk to a therapist about social anxiety.

Understanding the key differences between shyness and social anxiety can help you take the next steps towards getting quality treatment.

Severity of Symptoms

Admittedly, shyness can be frustrating. However, even introverts and people who feel uncomfortable making small talk can typically engage in social situations without too much stress. Social anxiety, on the other hand, can be so intense that it often holds people back from managing their everyday responsibilities and pursuing what they really want. People with social anxiety may avoid simple tasks like calling the dentist’s office to make an appointment, running errands in public, or even going to job interviews because of their overwhelming sense of fear.

Physical Symptoms

A shy person may feel jittery when chatting with someone new, but they typically can take a deep breath and carry on successfully. Conversely, the physical symptoms of social anxiety can be much stronger. They may range from sweating, nausea, and increased heart rate to more severe symptoms like hyperventilation and panic attacks. For people who experience strong physical symptoms of social anxiety, popular stress-relieving tactics like taking deep breaths and thinking positive thoughts are unlikely to have any effect.

Anxiety in Familiar Situations

Shy people may feel hesitant when they find themselves in unfamiliar scenarios. Meeting new people or speaking in front of a crowd of strangers can be somewhat unnerving. In contrast, people with social anxiety may dread the thought of spending time with relatives, hanging out with close friends, or even ordering food at a restaurant. Thus, they may come up with excuses to avoid seeing loved ones or worry that their friends secretly dislike them.

Negative Thought Patterns

Someone who’s shy may be more prone to experiencing mild embarrassment than others. Yet, they tend to get over their feeling in time. For someone with social anxiety, though, every public mistake, no matter how small, is evidence of their low self-worth. It’s not uncommon for them to experience persistent negative thoughts, even after exiting a situation. And they often end up dwelling on a perceived social faux pas for hours or days after an interaction has ended.

This can result in a “negative thought spiral”—the fixation on one awkward moment serves as a reminder of other mishaps. It’s hard for the person to break out of this distressing thought pattern, even if they know that their fears are irrational.

Social Anxiety Requires Treatment to Manage

Without treatment, someone with social anxiety will often find that their condition becomes more and more difficult to deal with over time. A young person who felt anxious around people they didn’t know might be written off as just shy. But as they get older, they may still be intimidated by typical social interactions and require professional help to work through these feelings. Many people will “grow out” of their shyness and improve their social skills by gaining more life experience and stepping out of their comfort zones. Yet, those with social anxiety may need to work with a therapist to address their symptoms.

Social anxiety may go undiagnosed for years, but there is no reason to suffer in silence. Connecting with the right therapist is the first step to successfully treating social anxiety.