Many of us consider ourselves to be shy, but at what point is it something more? I’ve worked with a number of people who report their problem as being “very shy” or “painfully shy.” Often what we determine is that they have social anxiety disorder.

You may be wondering, why does it matter? One of the problems with using shyness to label what is actually social anxiety is feeling like you can’t change. It’s just part of your personality and you’re stuck with it. Understanding that it’s social anxiety may give you hope it is a problem that can be tackled and you may be more likely to seek help. There are treatment approaches specific to social anxiety that can be incredibly useful. Personally, I have worked with a number of individuals who have experienced relief from their anxiety and improved confidence in social situations. So then, what is the difference? How do I know if I am shy or if I have social anxiety? Let’s explore the differences.

What is Shyness?

Shyness is generally considered a temperamental trait. A shy person tends to show or experience inhibition, discomfort, or anxiety in social situations. This is especially true with people he/she doesn’t know or in situations that are unfamiliar. A shy person may be described as quiet or someone who takes time to warm up to others. It is important to note that shyness is typical to some degree. Some studies have found that around 50% of college students report being shy. While there is some overlap between shyness and social anxiety, they are not the same. While many shy people wish they were more extroverted or social at certain points, those with shyness generally don’t find that it’s a big problem. Nor does it keep them from doing what they enjoy.

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety disorder is diagnosed when a person has a lot of fear or anxiety about a social situation in which they think others will be observing/judging them. The person fears other will view him/her in a negative way and tends to avoid those situations. This anxiety or avoidance has a significant impact on the persons life, which is key in determining that it’s not just shyness. It may help to think of social anxiety as shyness to the extreme.

Socially Anxious Thoughts

Socially anxious individuals often think there is something wrong with them. They judge themselves and call themselves names. Some examples of these names include stupid, boring, weak, crazy, awkward, or uncool. Many worry about doing something embarrassing. A lot of time is spent analyzing a social situation and identifying what they did wrong. Additionally, they tend to expect the worst to happen in a social situation.

Physical Symptoms of Social Anxiety

Physically, anxiety symptoms can feel pretty intense. Even like a panic-attack at times. Some common physical symptoms include blushing, sweating, fast or pounding heart, upset stomach or nausea, dizziness, muscle tension, shaking, and dry throat or mouth. People often fear others can see these symptoms and how anxious they are. They may then be on high alert when the physical symptoms start.

Situations That Cause Anxiety

The social situations that cause anxiety vary from person to person. Giving presentations or speaking in front of a group are often challenging. Eating in front of others, using a public restroom, or making eye contact may trigger fear. Interacting with strangers, making phone calls, or starting a conversation can be difficult. Individuals fear speaking to authority figures (professor, boss/supervisor, police officer, etc.). Parties, social gatherings, or work events may be avoided or cause anxiety. Missing work or school is also common. Furthermore, anxiety can affect performance in a variety of settings such as one’s career, academics, or sports.

Related Feelings

Symptoms of social anxiety and the impact it has on people’s lives can lead to a variety of feelings. Shame and embarrassment are very common. Depression, hopelessness, and sadness often develop as well. Individuals may feel disappointment or frustration with themselves. Limited connection with others and lack of social support can cause loneliness. People also report feeling that something is missing or not being able to pursue what they really want in life.

Some Questions to Consider

Now that you have a better understanding of shyness and social anxiety, here are some additional questions to consider:

  • In social situations, do you feel awkward, uncomfortable, or anxious?
    • If so, does that discomfort or anxiety keep you from doing certain activities? Or does it make it really hard to do those activities?
  • Do you worry a lot about what others think about you?
  • Do you feel so nervous around others it’s hard to speak?
  • Is it difficult to interact in a large group? Make phone calls? Start a conversation with someone you don’t know?
  • Do you feel embarrassed or anxious giving a presentation? Answering a question in class? Speaking up at a meeting?
  • Is it hard to assert yourself or stand up for yourself?
  • Are you easily embarrassed by physical symptoms like blushing or sweating? Do you worry a lot about people noticing those symptoms?
  • After a social interaction, do you over-analyze what you said or did?
  • Do you avoid eating or drinking in public? Using a public bathroom?
  • Do you worry about messing up or doing something wrong? Looking dumb or stupid?
  • Does your shyness or anxiety keep you from doing things you want to do? Interfere in your life (relationships, job, school)? Does it cause a lot of problems for you?

Yes answers to these questions are common with social anxiety. If you answered yes to a number of these, it may be helpful to meet with a mental health professional to determine if you have social anxiety.

You can also find some helpful resources for social anxiety here.

Jennifer Piper
Author: Jennifer Piper

I am a licensed psychologist in San Diego, CA currently accepting new clients. I specialize in social anxiety and frequently work with individuals who feel stuck to identify underlying factors contributing to their current difficulties. Additionally, I work with individuals who have a variety of concerns including stress, depression, anxiety, self-esteem, relationship issues, grief, sleep/insomnia, life transitions, and issues common to university students and young adults.