There is nothing simple when it comes to a mental health condition. Lines are blurred and it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate symptoms of a mental health condition from behaviours or emotions that are just typical of someone’s personality. People who have not had experience with an anxiety condition may ask, what is the difference between shyness and social anxiety?

First and foremost, shyness is a personality trait. Shy people don’t like the spotlight or being at the centre of a conversation, but social situations don’t cause them significant and ongoing distress and can be overcome. It is not unusual at all and most of us will feel shy in certain situations. Walking into a party or event where you don’t know anyone, starting a new job or being sung happy birthday by the whole office.

Social anxiety, or social phobia, is characterised by high levels of distress that lead to avoiding social situations altogether. It often emerges when a person enters their late teenage years or early twenties.

Situations that are commonly feared by people with social anxiety include:

  • Talking in front of others
  • Going to parties
  • Talking to strangers
  • Eating, drinking, writing or using a phone in front of others
  • Using public toilets
  • Using public transportation
  • Waiting in line

A man has social anxiety at a party

Entering the feared situation usually creates an immediate anxiety response. The symptoms of social anxiety include:

  • Quickening heart rate
  • Feeling nauseous or sick to the stomach
  • Hand tremors
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Blushing
  • Difficulty speaking (or speaking very softly)
  • High levels of self-consciousness and a feeling of embarrassment
  • Constant fear of other people judging them
  • Avoiding social situations altogether

Here is how a Beyond Blue forum user describes her experience with social anxiety:

I am 27 years old and I feel like I have no friends. I have always been very shy but I feel that ever since I finished school I have struggled to make lasting friendships. It is getting worse as I get older. I get nervous and tongue tied whenever I speak to people now because I feel as if they will just think I am a weird loser with nothing interesting to say. I have no social life at all. I go to work and I go home. I never have interesting things to say on a conversation because I don't do anything. I don't like to leave the house because I get anxious that people will look at me and think I am ugly or that I will do something embarrassing that someone will see. All I want is to be ‘normal’.

Social anxiety is often treated using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This involves changing a person’s thinking patterns and the way they approach certain situations. With professional help, people dealing with social anxiety are trained to identify negative thoughts and challenge them. For example, the above person would work on not jumping to the conclusion that all people will “think I am a weird loser” or “think I am ugly”. Slowly but surely, she can stop avoiding social situations and enjoy interactions with friends and family without constant self-criticism and judgement. According to a 2016 study in Norway and England, cognitive behavioural therapy resulted in nearly 85 per cent of the participants noting significant improvement. However, the study also found that only a third of people with social anxiety seek professional help. Social phobia is often not recognised because people with this condition tend to feel very uncomfortable in clinic waiting rooms and do not like to talk about their fears. 

Support groups can also be quite helpful, as people with social anxiety can talk to other people with the condition in a safe, moderated environment without fear of judgement. Together they can share feelings and techniques for overcoming the condition. This is also the purpose of the Beyond Blue forums.

You can learn more about anxiety and take the anxiety checklist here

Related reading: Four ways to deal with social anxiety in the moment

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