Shyness and social anxiety are different, though many people use the terms interchangeably. Shyness is common, and it refers to feeling uncomfortable in social situations. Often, if someone feels shy, they can still motivate themselves to perform when needed. Social anxiety, however, is an anxiety disorder that can affect someone’s quality of life.
What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety refers to a cluster of physical and emotional symptoms that range from mildly distressing to downright debilitating during social interactions. Some people experience this anxiety in all social situations while others may face it in only one or two social settings, such as meeting new people, speaking in public, or going on a date.1
People with social anxiety experience feelings of uncertainty and self-consciousness in social interactions. They fear rejection and negative judgment from others. Subsequently, they might avoid certain events or undergo intense anxiety when attending them.
How Common Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder is one of the most prominent psychological conditions impacting about 7.1% of the adult population in the U.S. It is estimated that approximately 12% of American adults will experience social anxiety at any given time in their lifespan.2 Cases continue to increase at incredible rates globally, particularly among young adults between the ages of 18–24.3
Social anxiety disorder is more prevalent among women, especially young adult women and adolescent girls.4
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
Symptoms of social anxiety typically emerge during social settings, and could include:5
- Racing heartbeat
- Migraines or headaches
- Chest tightness
- Panic attacks
- Feeling of numbness
Social Anxiety & Co-Occurring Disorders
Up to 90% of people with social anxiety disorder have an another mental health condition.6 Unfortunately, those with co-occurring disorders often experience symptoms more intensely, a lower level of functioning, higher risk for suicide, and poorer treatment outcomes.
Common comorbid disorders of social anxiety include:6
- Major depressive disorder and social anxiety
- Other anxiety disorders particularly separation anxiety disorder (SEPAD) and specific phobia
- Substance/alcohol use disorder
- Avoidant personality disorder
Common mental health disorders that have a high risk of developing SAD include:6
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Eating disorders
What Is Shyness?
Characteristics of shyness, which include passiveness and limited eye contact, can be mistaken for insecurity, anxiety, or depression; but shyness isn’t necessarily a negative. While some people have a stronger inclination toward shyness, it’s fairly typical to feel uncertain in new situations. The trait often emerges in childhood; some grow out of it and others find their shyness dissipates as they get more comfortable in certain social situations.
Characteristics of Shyness
Common characteristics of shyness include:7
- Being quiet and passive around others
- Avoiding or limiting eye contact
- Avoiding uncomfortable social situations
- Displaying nervous behaviors, such as touching your face or twirling your hair
- Feeling like you don’t belong or fit in with others
- Feeling insecure or annoyed with yourself for being shy
- Having a desire to be perfect in your social interactions
- Excessively rehearsing how you want to behave/what you want to say to others
- Being hesitant to try something new
Symptoms of Shyness
Physical symptoms of shyness include:
- Racing heartbeat
What Are the Main Differences Between Shyness vs Social Anxiety?
There is quite a bit of overlap between social anxiety and shyness, but shyness is a personality trait that doesn’t require treatment. Social anxiety is a mental health condition that can worsen over time. Someone with social anxiety may feel extremely nervous in social situations, but present as extroverted and confident. Other people might not even be able to detect their anxiety.
Shyness tends to be more apparent, although it often presents as situational. In other words, shyness tends to flare at certain times. A person is more likely to feel shy when they are in novel situations, but as they become accustomed to the event or the people, they feel more at ease. Social anxiety can also be siatuational, but the anxiety often persists before, during, and after the event.
Examples of the Difference Between Shyness & Social Anxiety
Symptoms of social anxiety and shyness may look different depending on the person’s age and mental health status, but recognizing how they present themselves can help you understand you or a loved one’s well-being.
Examples of Social Anxiety
- Doubt and uncertainty: Someone might seek constant validation and reassurance from others or beat themselves up after a performance, even if you thought they did a great job.
- Social awkwardness: For example, a person might talk too quickly or slowly. They may interrupt others or only provide very basic, one-word responses because they feel so nervous.
- Manifestation of physical symptoms: You might spot someone having a panic attack or turning bright red when talking.
Examples of Shyness
- Blending into the background: For instance, a child in school may avoid raising their hand or socializing with others on the playground. They might spend most of their time engaging in solitary activities (like reading) or associating with only one friend.
- Avoidance in adults: A shy adult may keep to themselves at work. They may limit social interactions and avoid situations where they need to perform. Usually, they will prefer to spend their time with close friends or family.
- Situational: It’s not uncommon for parents to feel confused as to why their bubbly, energetic child is so reserved at school. Similarly, a shy person might be loud and talkative at a party, but only if they know the other people in the room.
Can Shyness Turn Into Social Anxiety?
Shyness can turn into social anxiety if it causes someone to routinely avoid, worry, or analyze social interactions. If someone feels anxious about their shyness, they may develop negative thought patterns about inferiority or incompetence. Over time, these thought patterns can trigger anxiety symptoms.
Social anxiety is common; the research shows that it impacts nearly 7% of the population at a given time.8 This chronic condition can emerge at any point in someone’s life, and may accompany other conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, or substance use disorders.
Potential Causes of Social Anxiety
There isn’t a single cause for social anxiety; instead, researchers have identified several probable risk factors like having family with social anxiety or a history of trauma.9 Shyness alone isn’t an inherent risk, although severe shyness can be an underlying factor. Still, many shy people learn how to adapt to their environments intuitively.
Here are several risk factors for social anxiety:
- Having a first-degree relative with social anxiety
- Negative parenting experiences (abuse, overprotection, insensitivity, anxious parenting)
- Poor attachment to others
- Having another anxiety disorder
- History of trauma
- Poor peer relationships
- Low self-esteem
Screening for Social Anxiety Disorder
If you suspect you may have social anxiety disorder, discuss your concerns with your PCP who can rule out medical reasons for your symptoms and then refer you to a qualified mental health professional for an evaluation. A psychological expert can make a formal diagnosis of SAD based on your accounts regarding your symptoms and struggles.
If you think you may have social anxiety disorder, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I frequently avoid social situations and interactions because I’m constantly and chronically worried about people criticizing or judging me?
- Do I usually blush, sweat, fidget, or have any other physical reactions in social situations? If so, am I afraid that other people will notice?
- Do I avoid all types of situations or just specific settings? If so, which ones?
- Do I obsess, overanalyze, or rehash every single detail before or after a social encounter?
- When did I first become aware of my symptoms?
- How are my symptoms affecting my life, including work/school and personal relationships?
- Do I have any past or present diagnosis of a medical/psychiatric condition?
- Do I have past or present problematic substance/alcohol use?
When Can Therapy Help?
If you feel insecure or frustrated with how you respond in social situations, it might be time to seek treatment for social anxiety. Over time, you can learn to feel more comfortable around others. For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on changing negative thought patterns and improving behavioral responses. By learning to do so, you can feel more empowered to handle challenging situations.
If you believe your social anxiety or shyness is connected to a trauma, you may benefit from a structured, trauma-focused treatment like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). EMDR therapists help clients become less sensitized to distressing material. Over time, traumatic memories may seem less invasive.10
Finding the Right Therapist
No matter your circumstances, it’s important to choose a therapist who understands your personal experience. You can start by browsing through an online therapist directory and setting up consults with potential candidates.
Remember that it’s normal to feel anxious about starting therapy! This is especially true if you struggle with shyness or social anxiety. Try to accept the fear, but be encouraged that therapy can be very effective. After the first few sessions, the right therapist should be able to support you in feeling safe and comfortable.
Final Thoughts on Social Anxiety & Shyness
Living with social anxiety or shyness may seem frustrating and discouraging. Rest assured that you are not alone in how you feel. Getting support and seeking the right treatment can help boost your confidence. Moreover, talking to a trusted loved one or licensed professional can make a meaningful difference in how you perceive yourself and social situations.