Social Anxiety vs. Shyness: What Is the Difference?

A shy girl.

When your anxiety starts affecting your life and daily routine, you probably have a social anxiety disorder. (Image: Kiosea39 via Dreamstime)

Shyness is expected in certain social situations. For example, most people have short-term nervousness when going out on a new date or doing a presentation. But when your anxiety starts affecting your life and daily routine, you probably have a social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety is a form of anxiety disorder that is characterized by extreme fear in social situations. Also called social phobia, it causes people to feel like others are constantly watching and judging them. People with this disorder also feel anxious when doing something they think is embarrassing, such as eating, sweating, blushing, or appearing clumsy.

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So how is social anxiety different from shyness?

What is shyness?

Shyness and social phobia share several characteristics. And unfortunately, this makes it difficult to know that you or your loved ones have developed a psychiatric condition. So learning more about shyness is essential before you understand social anxiety. 

Researchers believe both biological and environmental factors cause shyness. For example, children of overprotective parents may develop a shy nature and inadequate social skills.

Common signs of shyness include withdrawal from social settings, blushing, sweating, or increased heart rate. The person may also worry about other people’s judgment.

But shyness is not a disorder; it’s a personality trait. Some people are shy without the long-term negative emotions of social anxiety.

Researchers believe both biological and environmental factors cause shyness.
Researchers believe both biological and environmental factors cause shyness. (Image: Motortion via Dreamstime)

When shyness is social anxiety

Most people with this disorder are indeed shy. However, not every introvert or shy person has social anxiety. Some reserved people are happy and don’t see it as a negative trait.

As mentioned, the effects of social anxiety are persistent and severe. Social phobia may affect a person’s ability to interact with people outside their immediate social circle. And this may stop a person from achieving their true potential in life.

Human beings are social creatures. That’s why most people with social anxiety understand that their nervousness is irrational, though they can do nothing about it. Even some extroverts have this problem. So if social settings ultimately hold you back, you probably have social anxiety.

Common signs of social anxiety

It’s essential to seek help if you have this disorder. Social phobia has debilitating psychological effects such as:

  • Over-evaluating your performance in social situations.
  • Worrying too much about an upcoming meeting or event — sometimes for days or weeks.
  • Trying to hide in the background in cases where you should be the center of attention.
  • Excessive anxiety sometimes leads to panic attacks.
  • Getting depressed or negative emotions after any perceived public mistakes.
  • Avoiding work or school.
  • Relying on alcohol or drugs to socialize or speak in a public event.

Unfortunately, most people don’t seek help because they believe social anxiety is an extreme form of shyness. They then avoid normal activities that guide our daily lives. For instance, you may bypass using a public restroom, eating in public, shopping, or attending job interviews. 

If feelings of nervousness do not go away, it’s essential to seek help because there are significant differences between shyness and social anxiety. In addition, shy people are likely to find ways to cope with their nervousness by themselves.

With social phobia, the fear is more extreme, and the level of avoidance increases. It also affects your day-to-day activities, which may stagnate your progress.

Avoiding treatment or help for social anxiety can lead to more significant problems like depression or drug addiction.
Avoiding treatment or help can lead to more significant problems like depression or drug addiction. (Image: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz via Dreamstime)

Overcoming social anxiety

It’s possible to overcome social anxiety. Social phobia may be more than just shyness, but that does not make it impossible to overcome. On the contrary, avoiding treatment or help can lead to more significant problems like depression or drug addiction.

It takes several small steps to climb the ‘anxiety ladder.’ For example, you can seek professional help, challenge negative thoughts, focus on others and not yourself, and learn to control your breathing, among other interventions.

Step by step, you can overcome social anxiety and realize your goals.

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