Shyness vs Social Anxiety – how to tell the difference

While many people experience some shyness and discomfort, especially in new situations or with unfamiliar people. It is generally tolerable once you warm up and relax after a while. Unlike shyness, if you have social anxiety you find it nearly impossible to relax in social or performance setting.

It is not always easy to recognize people suffering from social anxiety because many can be quite competent socially, and some are the most popular kids at school and athletes on the team. They can be very successful, high achievers but they are living with this fear, dread, and constant internal battle that affects many if not all areas of their lives.

They have intense fear of being rejected, criticized, judged, or simply perceived unfavorably when having to perform. This is a disorder in which a person has an excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations. Anxiety and self-consciousness arise from fear of being closely watched, judged, and criticized by others. They are afraid that he or she will make mistakes, look bad, and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others.

People with social anxiety don't just feel nervous before giving a speech. They worry about the speech for weeks or months beforehand, lose sleep due to anxiety, have intense symptoms of anxiety during the feared situation such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, dizziness, headaches, stomach ache etc. often resulting in a panic attack. The symptoms usually do not subside but get worse as the situation progresses.

The most distinguishing feature between social anxiety and shyness is that social anxiety debilitates one's functioning and not just socially. It can impair one's work functioning, it can stunt a person's ability to grow and take risks due to the fear associated with possible failure or embarrassment. It can cause conflict in family life. You may think this person doesn't care because they don't call or want to see you, when really they are frozen in fear with these feelings of anxiety. It can have a devastating impact on your education, career success, financial independence, and relationships.

With children, it can interfere with academic achievement, school attendance, social hobbies and making friends. Furthermore, the lack of self-confidence that social anxiety sufferers deal with, creates a lack of assertiveness which can sometime lead to children being seen as victims and easily bullied. It can also lead to depression, thoughts of suicide as well as lead to other anxiety disorders as well as substance abuse.


40 million people in North America will experience an impairment because of an anxiety condition this year. Only 4 million will receive treatment, and of those, only 40,000 will receive proper treatment.


Anxiety helps us get out of harm's way and prepare for important events, and it warns us when we need to take action. But if you experience anxiety that is persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, and overwhelming and if it's an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it can be disabling. When anxiety interferes with daily activities, you may have an anxiety disorder

Here are some examples of situations that create a high level of anxiety for people suffering from social anxiety:

  1. Eating or drinking in front of others
  2. Writing or working in front of others
  3. Being the center of attention
  4. Interacting with people, including dating or going to parties
  5. Asking questions or giving reports in groups
  6. Using public toilets
  7. Talking on the telephone

Symptoms are:

  1. Intense anxiety in situation
  2. Avoidance of social situations
  3. Physical symptoms of anxiety, including confusion, pounding heart, sweating, shaking, blushing, muscle tension, upset stomach and diarrhea

The good news is that there is treatment available. Cognitive Behaviour therapy is the most widely recommended treatment. It helps people understand where this anxiety began, why they may be prone to it and how to deal with it. With CBT they will learn relaxation and mindfulness training, assertiveness training, role-playing, relaxation techniques, social skills training, and cognitive restructuring to identify their negative thinking patterns and learn how to reframe and diminish those thoughts.

The average person thinks 80,000 thoughts a day and most of these thoughts are usually negative.Most of these thoughts are the same thoughts they thought yesterday, last week, last month, last year. Social anxiety is a very unpleasant and energy draining problem. Because it is so unpleasant most people don't seek therapy because they don't want to deal with it and hope by avoiding it, it will somehow go away. The truth is it doesn't go away, avoiding it just gives it more power and then you end up in a continuous loop of feeling overwhelmed and powerless. Isn't it time to break the cycle?

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