Is It Social Anxiety or Are You Just Shy?

There are certain social scenarios that tend to release the proverbial butterflies in our stomachs. Just the idea of standing up to speak in front of a room full of people or walking into a crowded party, for example, is enough to make many squirm—and that’s to be expected.

In 1975, a surprising new study revealed that about 40 percent of Americans consider themselves to be shy. Many of those people are able to overcome their shyness in order to function. After an initial warm-up period, they usually acclimate to the situation and start to feel more comfortable.

But for those who suffer from social anxiety disorder, the problem goes deeper than run-of-the-mill shyness. They may struggle with even the most common everyday activities, like making small talk, maintaining eye contact, entering a room full of people or—in severe cases—simply going to work or school.

Tamar Chansky, author of "Freeing Yourself from Anxiety," describes social anxiety as a default excessive feeling of discomfort, a fear of being judged and scrutinized, and embarrassment in ordinary situations. While it’s normal to feel self-conscious on a job interview or a first date, for instance, people with social anxiety might struggle with routine situations like ordering at a restaurant, talking on the phone, getting up to use the restroom at work or eating around others.

"This discomfort interferes with functioning and leads to avoidance and a limited life," Chansky explains.

People with social anxiety tend to hear constant criticism and judgment in their heads, she explains—they scrutinize every move they make, replay every word they say and usually conclude that they are "weird," "wrong" or "a failure."

Anticipatory anxiety is also a big part of social anxiety. As Chansky notes, even if you’re home alone, anxiety can be triggered as you begin to imagine a social situation and think of how uncomfortable you will be or how badly you might "mess up."

According to Lisa Bahar, a licensed professional clinical counselor, if you experience intense fear in social situations, skip those situations altogether to avoid anxiety, feel physical signs of anxiety (nausea, sweating, rapid heart rate, rigid body posture) and/or feel very self-conscious, you could be experiencing social anxiety disorder.

How to Handle Social Anxiety

For clients who suffer from social anxiety disorder, Bahar encourages them to be willing to acknowledge and face their fears by doing the opposite of what that fear is telling them to do. 

For example, you might try approaching a social situation and participate by taking small, reasonable steps, such as making two minutes of small talk or learning to discern between a closed group and a group that is open to others approaching. "Social anxiety can be managed with practice, and the symptoms can decrease in intensity," says Bahar.

Chansky agrees with the importance of facing social anxiety head-on and giving it the attention it demands. "It’s fine to first fact-check the distortions that your anxiety is telling you about how everyone is going to be looking at you and judging you (when in reality, they are too busy either with their own thoughts or just going about their own business to be judging you), but then go out and prove that worry wrong," she says. "Ask questions at work, or go to Starbucks and intentionally falter with your order, and realize that nothing bad actually happens."

Chansky counsels her clients to increasingly "take up time and space" by asking questions or by saying "I don’t know" to a question and discovering that nothing catastrophic occurs.

If you find that you are struggling to manage social anxiety symptoms, you might choose to seek out a therapist for guidance, or attend a support group for people living with similar fears.
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Member Comments

Great! Thanks! Report
And sometimes anxiety is a chemical imbalance in the brain that no about of therapy and positive thinking will help. It's ok to require meds. We need to normalize talk of mental illness, be aa comfortable as we are when we talk about physical ailments. The brain is also an organ that can be ill.

Remember: if you can't make your own neurotransmitters
, store-bought is fine. Report
I'm an Aspie with ADHD, so social anxiety is a constant in my life. I'm never going to lose it (it's not learned, it's part of who I am), but I have learned to work around it... somewhat. Thanks for the article! Report
Thanks for the great info. Report
Great information! Report
I was always a shy person, probably still am, but it is mostly that it takes me time to warm up to people. I live alone now and may not see anyone all week until I go shopping or to farmers market with my eggs. I get a kick at smiling or saying Hi to people at the small Walmart in the next small town, makes so many of them grin back at you. Report
I am rather shy and an introvert but have no problem going to different functions or shopping. Sometimes I even say hello to people in Walmart and they say hello back. I am not a social butterfly by no standards or a people person . Report
I always feel extra anxious in social situations because I feel like I'm being judged for being fat. I have always felt less-than due to my weight, and having to go out in public has been unpleasant because of it. Report
Great info! Thanks for sharing!!!!!! Report
I know that I have social anxiety. I cannot be anywhere where there is a crowd. Having to go shopping is the worst for me. Small crowds still make me nervous but not as bad as shopping Report
Thanks for sharing this one!!!!!! Report
Thanks for this! Report
Ok Report
Thanks Report


About The Author

Melissa Rudy
Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.