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Home arrow Health arrow Mental Health arrow Social Anxiety vs. Shyness: What's the Difference?

Social Anxiety vs. Shyness: What's the Difference?

Written by Edibel Quintero, RD
Fact checked by Rosmy Barrios, MD
Last update: October 10, 2023
6 min read 1072 Views 0 Comments
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Do you struggle with crippling shyness? If so, you might wonder whether your feelings are something more than just shyness. This article explores the main differences between being a shy person and living with a mental health condition called social anxiety disorder (SAD).

Social anxiety vs shyness

Many people are naturally shy. It is a common personality trait that some people experience daily or only on occasion. Shyness is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does share some common characteristics with social anxiety disorder – a diagnosable mental health condition.

If your shyness is severe, you might wonder if you are dealing with something more than a personality trait. If your shyness is a persistent fear that affects daily life and significantly impacts your quality of life, your shyness may be a sign of social anxiety disorder.

This article discusses shyness and social anxiety disorder to determine the differences.

What Are the Differences Between Social Anxiety and Shyness?

Shyness and social anxiety share some key similarities but are very different things. While a person with social anxiety can feel shy, a shy person does not necessarily have social anxiety. Assessing how they differ is crucial to ensure you seek the necessary treatment.

The key difference is that shyness is an emotion that may come and go, whereas social anxiety is a recognized psychiatric condition. Another difference is severity. While shyness can affect specific situations, social anxiety can profoundly impact your quality of life.

You can separate the two by assessing the severity and impact on a person’s life.

What Is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety, also called social phobia or social anxiety disorder (SAD), is a mental health disorder. It is categorized as persistent fear and anxiety about social situations that is so severe it disrupts daily life. Exposure to social situations will usually provoke fear in people with social anxiety disorder, whether they will or won’t be under scrutiny from others.

A person with social anxiety disorder tends to worry that they will face judgment, humiliation, or embarrassment at the hands of themselves or others should they attend social settings. The intense anxiety may cause them to avoid situations and social interactions entirely.

Social anxiety disorder can be a chronic condition that causes profound stress. It can control your life, interfering with work, school, relationships, and general tasks. Finding effective treatment is fundamental to coping with and managing your social anxiety disorder symptoms.

What does social anxiety look like?

If you have social anxiety disorder, you might worry excessively before, during, and after social situations. It is more than experiencing shyness. You might feel completely overwhelmed at the thought of entering a social situation or interacting with other people.

Symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:

  • Constant negative emotions and fearing the worst when it comes to social situations
  • Fear of being judged negatively
  • Fear of embarrassment and humiliation
  • Self-consciousness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Paranoid thoughts and worrying about what others think of you
  • Fearing that others will notice your physical symptoms, such as blushing and sweating
  • Avoidance of social interactions, such as speaking to new people
  • Avoidance of situations that draw attention to you
  • Persistent anxiety before a social activity or event
  • Anxiety and fear during the social activity or event
  • Concern after the event and analyzing your social behaviors
  • Worry about everyday activities, such as talking on the phone, going to the supermarket, or talking to strangers
  • May have difficulty with interpersonal situations
  • Avoiding eye contact

You might also experience physical symptoms, such as:

Causes of social anxiety

Identifying the exact cause of social anxiety disorder is not always easy. Like most mental health issues, it tends to result from biological and environmental factors. Potential causes of social phobia include:

#1 Genetics

Anxiety disorders and other conditions can be genetic. You might be more likely to develop SAD if it runs in your family. However, you might learn this behavior from others.

#2 Environmental factors

You might develop SAD after experiencing a traumatic event in early life that left you feeling embarrassed, humiliated, or traumatized. For example, it could arise from abuse, bullying, or public embarrassment. Those who have repressed childhood trauma may suffer from depression and chronic anxiety symptoms later in life. An overprotective parenting style may also lead children to develop anxiety issues.

#3 The brain

Research shows that different activation of certain parts of the brain that regulate anxiety, including the amygdalae, the insulae, and the dorsal anterior cingulate, may play a role.

Some people with social anxiety might also have other conditions affecting their mental health, like depression or other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or panic disorder (PD). These additional conditions may worsen social anxiety symptoms.

What Is Shyness?

Shyness is an emotion that causes feelings of awkwardness, discomfort, and fear or apprehension. Many shy people continue to lead normal lives and engage in an active social life. They don’t tend to have the intense, negative emotions that accompany social anxiety.

Some people might feel shy only in specific scenarios, like meeting new people or speaking in public. While shyness can cause some distress, it does not usually consume the individual’s life. They may overcome their shyness after becoming more comfortable in a particular setting.

What does shyness look like?

If you are a shy person, you might feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar social situations. You might be quiet, introverted, and less outgoing than others, especially around those you don’t know.

The main symptoms of shyness include:

  • Feeling nervous around strangers and new people
  • Feeling self-conscious
  • Timidness
  • Bashfulness
  • Being quiet
  • Hesitation to try something new
  • Taking a longer time to warm up to the people you meet
  • Concern about what others think of you

Can Shyness Turn Into Social Anxiety?

Most shy people get on fine with their lives. Often, their shyness is only apparent in social settings and does not affect daily tasks, such as work, relationships, or general activities. They might be surprisingly loud and outgoing when in the presence of close friends and family.

While shyness does not put a person at risk of social anxiety disorder, it can become an issue if it becomes more extreme and begins to control their world. Negative thoughts and feelings can naturally trigger anxiety symptoms. If you start to worry excessively and overthink socializing with others, your shyness might gradually turn into social anxiety disorder.

Moreover, avoiding social interactions may cause you to feel lonely and disconnected. It’s essential to recognize the signs so that you can overcome shyness before it becomes a social phobia. Talk to a mental health professional if you are worried about worsening shyness.

How to Deal With Social Anxiety?

You can tackle social anxiety disorder in several ways. First, it is important to receive a diagnosis of social phobia from a mental health professional. They can assess your symptoms and identify whether there might be other problems causing or contributing to your anxiety.

Overcoming social anxiety disorder is important for self-esteem and mental well-being. Treatment options depend on the severity of the disorder and how much it impacts your ability to function. Psychotherapy and medication are the most effective treatment options.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most popular therapy for SAD and other anxiety disorders. It involves facing your fears and working to change your behaviors and thought patterns. Your doctor might also prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

You can also focus on reducing stress and anxiety levels at home with activities like yoga and stretching. Eating right, sleeping well, and remaining physically active can also help. You could start by walking a mile a day or even joining a fitness class with some close friends.

A Word From a Psychologist

As shyness and social anxiety share some key characteristics, you might struggle to differentiate between the two. However, they are two separate things, and recognizing whether you are simply shy or battling an anxiety disorder is crucial for your mental wellness.

Most people can live a happy, healthy life with shyness and don’t allow it to influence their behaviors. Meanwhile, social anxiety disorder can have a profound impact on how you live. Seeking therapy can help you regain control and stop your thoughts from ruling everything.

Leaving social anxiety disorder untreated may lead to self-destructive behavior, such as substance abuse. You should seek support from a licensed professional to understand your symptoms of social anxiety disorder and how to work through them healthily.


So, are you shy, or do you have social anxiety disorder?

If you’re content with your shyness and it doesn’t affect your ability to function in everyday life, don’t worry! Shyness is normal and is likely just a part of your personality. But if your shyness seems more like a social phobia, talk to your doctor for a professional diagnosis.

Remember, you can work on shyness and social anxiety to improve your well-being. Focus on goal setting and positive strategies to improve how you feel.

Written by Edibel Quintero, RD
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
The article was fact checked by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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Written by Edibel Quintero, RD
Fact checked by Rosmy Barrios, MD
Last update: October 10, 2023
6 min read 1072 Views 0 Comments

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