Most people have felt some apprehension or discomfort when meeting new people or being in a situation where they’re not comfortable. These feelings tend to go away once you start a conversation with that new person or when you’ve been in that new situation for a period of time.
For most shy people, the issue is one of low self-esteem and/or insufficient social development. If low self-esteem is the root problem behind shyness, learning more about yourself and your abilities and talents may take care of the situation. Becoming more comfortable with self and realizing you do have skills and abilities helps you grow in self-esteem. If the root problem of shyness is lack of social skills, getting out in social settings and paying attention to what others do, then trying it out yourself will often be enough to get you past your shyness.
But there are people who never get comfortable around others or in social settings. They may get anxious about things that are coming up months in advance. They tend to constantly wonder, even worry, over the possibility of being evaluated or scrutinized in some way. Just thinking about social situations can be enough to bring on anxiety.
These are the people who have to answer the question, Am I shy or do I have social anxiety?
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is one of the most prevalent emotional disorders among Americans. One estimate is that up to 7% of the population in the U.S. has social anxiety. Sometimes also called social phobia, social anxiety is a condition in which you experience an intense, pervasive fear of being judged by others. This fear reaches the level of intensity that leads to people avoiding even the possibility of being in a situation where they can be judged.
With social anxiety disorder, those situations that others handle with apparent ease become paralyzing for you. The fear is so intense you literally can’t function. And this fear can generalize to other areas of your life, not just the social one. Even when you may come to realize your fears are not rational, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. You continue to feel anxious.
Social anxiety can develop into a vicious cycle of fears, avoidance, isolation, and thoughts of fearful situations. The anxiety that comes with this disorder feeds on itself and grows stronger.
The desire to avoid situations that make you this anxious becomes so strong that you may avoid all situations and have no social contact whatsoever. The more you avoid those situations the more you have to guard against them. This means you think about them more and more, leading to increased anxiety just because of thoughts about those situations.
The person with social anxiety disorder may get to the point of feeling so much anxiety they will call in sick to work or school if there is something they must do that would place them in a situation that would trigger their social anxiety. It’s easy to see how disabling this condition can become.
The social situations that trigger this kind of anxiety may be different for different people. Some may have no problem meeting new people, but literally freeze up at the prospect of getting up in front of a crowd and saying something. Others may not have a problem giving speeches, but can’t make small talk for fear of embarrassing themselves or others.
Causes of Social Anxiety
Researchers and clinicians are not sure what causes social anxiety. There is some possible genetic basis to the disorder. It does tend to run in families, but is this a product of genetics or learning?
It’s possible to learn to be anxious in social situations if you grow up with a parent or close relative who has this disorder. Watching them from your early years can implant those behaviors deeply within your developing brain. This could explain why some family members develop social anxiety and others don’t.
But the same could be said of genetics. One family member may inherit the genetic makeup that leads to social anxiety, which another family member does not.
Related to possible genetic causes are changes in certain brain centers that may be related to the feeling of anxiety. Whether these changes come from accident, illness, or being born with these brain structures operating differently, no one knows. But if these structures cause the person to feel anxiety more acutely, it can develop into social anxiety.
Other researchers believe social anxiety develops from people misreading the social cues given out by others. Social cues like facial expressions and body language can be misunderstood to the point of the person attaching the worst possible meaning to those cues. And these meanings are almost always personally directed at the individual misreading them.
Another possible reason for developing social anxiety is the lack of social skills. This lack may result in being embarrassed or humiliated, leading to fear of the same thing happening again. The person may feel so bad about what happened that he or she decides not to be put in that situation again.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
To help answer the question, "Do I have social anxiety?", the symptoms of the disorder need to be discussed. Just having discomfort in meeting people or going into unfamiliar social settings doesn’t mean you have social anxiety. This is possibly shyness and doesn’t typically get in the way of your daily functioning.
Feeling jittery before giving a talk to a group is normal. These “butterflies” usually go away once you get started in the talk. But people with social anxiety are so overwhelmed with fear, they can’t even think about giving a speech. They may worry and fret about it for months before.
Common symptoms of social anxiety include:
- Significant worry and apprehension for days, weeks, or months before an event.
- Intense fear of being judged, evaluated, or watched by others, whom the person may not even know.
- Overwhelming feelings of self-consciousness and discomfort in everyday situations.
- Great fear that you will do something to embarrass yourself.
- Significant fear that others will see you’re anxious.
In addition to these emotional symptoms, there are physical symptoms that are experienced:
- Trembling and shaking that will be visible to others
- Upset stomach and even nausea
- Feeling of not being able to get your breath
- Your heart races
- Sweating and hot flashes
With these emotional and physical symptoms can come behaviors you adopt to deal with them:
- Having a drink before attending social events to calm your nerves
- Avoiding those social situations that lead to the unnerving fear
- Always taking someone with you to social events “just in case”
- Staying in the background or hiding in corners to avoid contact that could be embarrassing
Negative cognitions, thoughts, can also be symptoms of this disorder:
- “I know this will turn out badly.”
- “People will look at me and know I’m feeling anxious.”
- “If I try to speak, my voice will shake and people will laugh.”
- “Others will know I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
- “People will think I’m boring because I don’t speak up.”
When Does Social Anxiety Happen?
Social anxiety can happen at different times and in different situations for different people. Some of the situations that can bring on social anxiety include:
- Meeting someone you don’t know
- Speaking in public, even in front of people you know
- Entering rooms where others have already gathered
- Going on dates, even if you really want to date the other person
- Going to public bathrooms
- Making eye contact with other people
- Eating in front of others
- Going to work or school
- Starting conversations or making small talk
- Becoming the center of attention
- Getting scolded or made fun of, or thinking this has happened
- Having others watch you while you’re doing something
- Having to talk with someone “important”
Effects of Social Anxiety
Most of the time, people who suffer from social anxiety withdraw and isolate themselves, hoping to never have to experience the tremendous fear that comes with social contact. The unfortunate thing is, while isolation does prevent exposure to social situations and anxiety, it also brings on its own set of problems.
Withdrawing leads to deteriorated relationships with others. If you’re never out, you don’t have the opportunity to develop a good relationship with other people.
In addition, isolation can bring on:
- Negative thoughts
- Low self-esteem
- Increased sensitivity to criticism
- Deteriorating social skills
Tests for Social Anxiety
There are several screening tests for social anxiety that can be found on the internet. Keep in mind these are screening tests, not definitive evaluations. If you choose to complete one or more of them, you can get an idea of whether or not you fit the criteria for social anxiety disorder.
Here is an example of such a test:
Screening for Social Anxiety Disorder https://www.adaa.org/screening-social-anxiety-disorder
Ways to Deal with Social Anxiety
Seek professional help. While difficult, this is about the only way to rid yourself completely of social anxiety. There are numerous effective therapy approaches that can help.
Focus on other people. Most of the time, when people with social anxiety are in situations that bring on anxiety, they’re concerned with how they feel, what they’re doing, what others are thinking. By changing your focus to what others are saying, you’re distracting yourself and easing your anxiety. You can’t focus on two things at once, so focusing on others keeps you from focusing on yourself.
Learn to control your breathing. When people are anxious, they tend to breathe shallowly, leading to almost panting breaths. This can lead to changes in body chemistry that can actually increase your anxiety.
Learning to breathe more slowly and increasing the amount of oxygen you get into your lungs can help you deal more effectively with your anxiety. One technique to learn is “belly breathing.” This involves using your diaphragm to breathe instead of your chest muscles.
Sitting down, put one hand on your stomach just below the end of your breast bone. When you breathe, try to make this hand go up and down. Practice will ultimately make this method of breathing second nature.
Face your fears instead of avoiding them. Avoiding things that cause you anxiety can ultimately lead to you never leaving your home. Facing your fears is much more effective. This can be difficult. Continually telling yourself that anxiety is uncomfortable, but can be handled can help. You may need someone to keep encouraging you to continue facing fears.
Challenge your negative thinking. Become aware of your thinking. Monitor to see whether you may be engaging in one or more of these thinking styles:
- Reading other people’s minds. Do you “know” what others are thinking? Do you read others’ non-verbal signs and think you know what they’re thinking?
- Predicting the future. Do you think just because something happened one time, it will always happen? Do you just “know” that something bad will happen soon?
- Blowing things out of proportion. This is also known as catastrophizing. An example would be if people notice you’re anxious, it would be terrible or horrible.
Choose to be more social. Another difficult decision, this is an active choice to put yourself in social situations. You’re choosing to interact with others more than you have in the past. One thing you can do to help in this regard is to take classes in assertiveness or social skills.
Volunteering to do something you enjoy doing is another way to be more social. This could be anything you enjoy, as long as it puts you in contact with at least a few people at a time. Having something in common with these other people will make it easier for you to be social.
There is a difference between shyness and social anxiety. But both are treatable conditions. Social anxiety is a very limiting condition that requires some professional intervention. There are many approaches that are beneficial in helping you. Don’t hesitate to get help.
What Is Social Anxiety Disorder? http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/mental-health-social-anxiety-disorder#1
Screening for Social Anxiety Disorder https://www.adaa.org/screening-social-anxiety-disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder-and-social-phobia.htm
Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/index.shtml