Shyness vs social anxiety: Are they the same?

Shyness vs social anxiety: Are they the same?

Reviewed by:
Michael Roman, MD
Staff Psychiatrist
at Talkiatry
March 22, 2024
In this article

It's completely normal to feel nervous in social situations. The butterflies in your stomach when you show up to a friend's party, or before a first date are a natural response. If those feelings are regular and intense and the fear of judgment is causing significant anxiety in your daily life, it may not be just shyness. It could be social anxiety. In this article we’ll talk about how they differ, the symptoms of social anxiety disorder, and when to seek treatment.


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Key difference between shyness and social anxiety

Is social anxiety the same as being shy? Although there are similarities between shyness and social anxiety, shyness is considered a personality trait, while social anxiety is a mental health condition that is considered a type of anxiety disorder.

According to the American Psychological Association, shyness is someone’s tendency to feel awkward, tense, quiet, and passive in social situations, particularly with people they are unfamiliar with. While a shy person can experience physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, or an upset stomach, being shy is not defined as a condition or disorder. Shyness is a trait that can be managed and even grown out of, particularly for children as they mature.

Social anxiety, on the other hand, is considered a mental health condition. While it can include shyness and you can experience nervousness about a social situation, a person with this disorder experiences fear and anxiety to the point where it disrupts their quality of life, including their daily tasks and relationships. For example, if you have a social phobia you might not take a job interview if it requires social interaction, or you might ignore an invitation to a party because you’re afraid you might have a panic attack.  

Even though there is some overlap between the two—such as feeling uncomfortable and insecure in social settings, as well as some physical symptoms—social anxiety can become chronic, resulting in a person’s evasion of normal tasks that require person-to-person interaction.

What are the symptoms of social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety disorder typically starts in late childhood. Over time, social anxiety can become more prominent for adolescents and young adults, and even carry into adulthood. The most common symptoms include:

  • Fear of being judged negatively by others
  • Anxiousness about embarrassing or humiliating yourself in front of others, often leading to avoidance and not talking
  • Intense fear of interacting with strangers
  • Anxiety when anticipating an event or activity
  • Expecting the worst possible situation to occur
  • Physical signs of embarrassment like blushing, sweating, trembling, upset stomach/nausea, dizziness, increased heart rate, and muscle tension
  • Analyzing how you acted during a social setting and picking out the flaws
  • Avoiding new situations and common everyday experiences that require social interaction, including school, work, dating, and events

In short, the root cause of social anxiety is a person’s fear of situations in which they may humiliate themselves. If you have social phobia, you may be highly self-conscious and expect the worst of any given situation, which tends to lead to avoidance of social scenarios. That can even include going to work or school, being in relationships, and attending social gatherings—essentially any other environment where interacting with strangers is a possibility. Less noticeable signs of a socially anxious person include avoiding eye contact, never eating in front of others, not going to the bathroom in public, and never shopping at a store in person.

Social anxiety disorder vs generalized anxiety disorder

Social anxiety can become debilitating, but unlike generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), it is specific to social situations. Someone with social anxiety disorder may not feel intense anxiety in other areas of their life.  

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is when you experience a persistent feeling of anxiety or dread. Unlike social anxiety disorder where you feel anxious about social situations, GAD is a constant anxiety that runs like a ticker tape in the mind. It is a disorder that develops slowly, and typically starts around the age of 30. (Although GAD can also develop in children or younger adults.)

Symptoms of GAD include worrying about everyday things, having trouble controlling feelings of nervousness or fear, startling easily, feeling restless, having a hard time focusing, and being constantly on edge.

On the other hand, when you have a social anxiety disorder you may experience respite when you’re not in social settings and feel more calm and settled when you aren’t interacting with others. Other everyday tasks, like working independently, taking care of finances, household chores, or even taking care of your health, do not ignite feelings of anxiousness or fear in the same way you’d experience with GAD.  

It’s also possible to have both, or for social phobia to stem from generalized anxiety disorder. Talking to a licensed mental health professional, like a psychiatrist, can help you learn more and figure out what you may be experiencing.  

Here's more on when to see a psychiatrist

Treatment for social anxiety disorders

Being shy or feeling self-conscious is a common and expected response to social situations. However, if a person’s shyness triggers physical and emotional reactions such as panic attacks, intense fear of interacting with strangers, and introversion, it could be signs of a social anxiety disorder.  

If you or a person you know is experiencing what may be a social anxiety disorder, here’s how to reach an official diagnosis—as well as some guidance to seek treatment and support.

Diagnosis

First, seek a professional for an official diagnosis. Symptoms of health conditions can sometimes look similar, so it’s important not to diagnose yourself. A health care provider can conduct a mental status exam to take note of any aspects that can trigger anxiety symptoms for a patient. A discussion of symptoms during specific situations, as well as self-reported questionnaires and a review of common symptoms, will also help to determine an official diagnosis.


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Psychotherapy

One of the most common forms of treatment for this disorder is psychotherapy. Specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you counteract the negative self-talk and develop coping skills to be able to interact more comfortably in social situations. Social skills training and role playing are common in CBT to give the patient opportunities to practice these new mental tools.

Medication

Medication may also be helpful for people with severe social anxiety, and the most common medications prescribed by healthcare professionals are SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood and emotion, and SSRIs increase levels of serotonin in the brain which helps to decrease the intense anxiety you may experience.

Everyone responds differently to medication and a psychiatrist can work with you to find a treatment option that’s right for you. If you’re ready to reach out for support, consider Talkiatry. We provide in-network, virtual care—and you can schedule a first visit within days. Our psychiatrists will work with you to find a treatment plan that fits your needs. Get started with a short online assessment.

5 tips to cope with social anxiety

Along with talk therapy and medication, there are a few expert-approved practices that can be implemented at home to help cope with feelings of anxiousness in social settings.

Try the five senses technique

When feelings of anxiousness arise, concentrate on your five senses to ground you: What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? This helps to calm your mind so you have the mental capacity to refocus on the task at hand, or the conversation happening in front of you.

For more coping tips, check out: 17 grounding techniques for anxiety

Try situational exposure therapy

Situational exposure therapy is a type of therapy where you  gradually face and confront their fears in real-life settings. It’s usually done (and most effective) with the guidance and support of a therapist, but you can also try it out yourself. The first step to this technique is to identify the social situations that make you the most anxious. Experts recommend finding small ways to practice for those big anxiety-inducing situations. For example, if being in a large group setting like a party or a concert makes you anxious, practice being social in smaller settings and work your way up—like small dinner parties or going for a walk in a public park.

Ask people you are comfortable with to help

As mentioned, social anxiety stems from fear of embarrassment in social situations. Asking friends or family you trust to be honest with you in these particular situations can help to overcome the negative self talk that comes with this disorder. Regularly being social with people you trust and getting their validation can also help with avoiding isolation.

Increasing your awareness of substance misuse

When experiencing intense anxiety, some people may turn to substances like alcohol to cope. Relying on substances too heavily can lead to an addiction. Research shows a very strong link between substance use and anxiety disorders, whether that’s social anxiety, GAD, or some other type, like OCD, panic disorders, or post-traumatic stress. Substances can include alcohol, marijuana, even stimulants like caffeine for some. If you have questions about substance use and anxiety disorders, it is best to talk to your healthcare team to determine what is best for your particular needs.

Attend a support group or try group therapy

Group therapy and support groups can be comfortable places to practice situational exposure and for finding comfortable people you can trust. Talking with like-minded people and skilled professionals can help you with addressing the deeper roots of this disorder.  It might also instill a new social confidence in you that can make day-to-day life a little more manageable.  

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

Dr. Michael Roman is currently a Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. He completed his adult psychiatry residency training at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Roman is a board-certified Adult Psychiatrist and a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN).

Dr. Roman’s clinical practice centers primarily around medication management and psychopharmacological treatment approaches. He also specializes in a variety of psychotherapeutic modalities which he utilizes in conjunction with medication management in order to provide patients with the best possible treatment outcomes.

Dr. Roman’s curiosity for the studies of the human mind began with pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He was intrigued by the way our mind, body, emotions, and behavior were intertwined to comprise our everyday life experiences. His interest in the intricacy of the human mind was deepened in medical school, and he received his medical degree from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He completed his adult psychiatry residency training at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Roman treats a wide spectrum of patients, but his primary clinical focus is treating mood disorders, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and PTSD. Dr. Roman also specializes in treating substance use disorders and possesses clinical expertise in implementing high quality motivational interviewing and motivational enhancing therapy.

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