Humans and Health

Social Anxiety: It’s More Than Just ‘Being Shy’

Two people sat with their hands folded
Ella Pilson

We all know someone who is shy, and many of us are familiar with having ‘imposter syndrome’ during our university lectures and seminars, and many of us dread having to do presentations. But when does this shyness turn into social anxiety? What are some of the symptoms and causes of social anxiety, and how can it be eased? Is there a misunderstanding surrounding shyer people? Ella Pilson investigates. 

Social anxiety, also known as a social phobia, is an anxiety disorder characterised by extreme distress and fear in social situations, making everyday interactions difficult. A lot of characteristics displayed by those who are shy, such as low self-esteem, fear of judgement from others,  and  being uncomfortable around strangers, all overlap with social anxiety. However, the huge difference is that being shy is a personality trait,  whereas social anxiety is a mental illness. 

Unlike shyness, social anxiety is long-term, where one may feel worried before, during and after a social interaction

This means that those with social anxiety experience extreme stress in social situations and try to avoid them where possible, and have an overwhelming fear of being embarrassed. This can have a huge impact on a person’s life –  social interaction is necessary in most work roles and is important  for forming relationships. Feeling intense stress in these circumstances often causes those with social anxiety to feel isolated. Unlike shyness, social anxiety is long-term, where one may feel worried before, during and after a social interaction. 

Some of the most common symptoms of social anxiety include: fear of incompetence and criticism, avoiding eye contact, blushing, trembling, panic attacks and finding being watched  difficult. These negative schemas are often linked to other mental-health issues, such as other anxiety disorders and depression. In fact, a population-based study found that 66% of those with SAD had one or more additional mental health disorders, with clinical depression being 1.49- 3.5 times more likely to occur in those with SAD.

What Causes Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety, like many mental-health disorders, often has a genetic predisposition. It also can be caused by environmental factors and can be triggered by social and cultural influences. For example, a large proportion of those with social anxiety develop it from a young age – 50% of those with the disorder are said to develop it by the age of 11, rising to 80% by the age of 20.

Socially anxiety can also stem from negative experiences, for example during school and education, where one may experience bullying, rejection and an overall feeling of not “fitting in”. Those who felt scrutiny and neglect from their peers at school are said to have a greater tendency towards social anxiety in the future. 

Social anxiety can often begin with a negative thought about oneself which is then paired with something conditional in the environment, such as speaking in front of others. This also links to self-concealment, where those with the disorder may not want those around them to identify their anxiety in fear of showing weakness. The avoidance of social interactions in order to protect oneself ultimately reinforces these negative schemas, creating a distorted mental representation not only of themselves, but of others. 

How Can Social Anxiety Be Eased?

There are some ways that are said to help ease social anxiety.  A positive finding from research on the disorder is that “nearly 70% of individuals suffering from SAD may be successfully treated with cognitive therapy”. There are a range of support groups both online, such as ‘Talkspace’ and ‘Betterhelp’, and in-person, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Targeting the behavioural and cognitive aspects in these therapies are said to help alleviate negative patterns of thinking in social interactions. Charities such as Anxiety UK or Mind also offer services for those with social anxiety and can provide a good support network.

Keeping a diary can also help identify the triggers and negative thoughts that occur before certain social interactions. Relaxation and breathing exercises and taking a moment to clear your mind can also have benefits. 

For what may feel like an unpleasant five-minute presentation to some, for others is a culmination of weeks of anxiety and overthinking

How Do We Perceive ‘Shyness’ in Society? 

It can be difficult for those who feel more confident to understand the challenge that some social interactions can be for someone who is more shy. For what may feel like an unpleasant five-minute presentation to some, for others is a culmination of weeks of anxiety and overthinking.

Is there generally an overwhelming bias towards those that are more extroverted? Have we come to view shyness as a weakness? According to psychologist Chloe Foster, extroverted people tend to experience more feelings of excitement, enthusiasm and joy than those who are introverted. 

However, cultural disposition is also a massive factor. In America, confidence and extroversion is much more valued, whereas in some parts of Asia, such as Japan, being more reserved is viewed as a better quality. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain shows that being shy shouldn’t be viewed as something that needs to be treated – the loudest voice is not always the one you should listen to the most.

There is power within everyone, and with the right help and support, social anxiety can be eased

Shyness is a spectrum, with some only being timid in certain social interactions. This means we cannot generalise – a shy person may be introverted, but not always. They might be extroverts whose anxiety prevents them from being sociable, for example. This exemplifies that society needs a mix of people and that there definitely are positives to being more reserved in nature – often being more observant, better listeners, being more able to form deeper connections and being more likely to think before speaking. While it is important to recognise social anxiety as a mental illness, where aid should be encouraged and it should be treated seriously, being a more reserved person is okay too and you should never feel forced to change who you are.

Ultimately, not all of those who are shy develop social anxiety, nor do they hate being around people. It’s just about being aware of personality differences and creating an atmosphere that lacks judgement, where people feel comfortable and accepted. Celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp and Jennifer Lawrence all have experienced social anxiety, showing that it’s possible to overcome these feelings of anxiety and be a more introverted person in the public realm. There is power within everyone, and with the right help and support, social anxiety can be eased. 

In the UK, “over 8 million people are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time” and a staggering “67% of employees aged 16-24 also experience anxiety”. If you feel you need any support with the issues raised in this article,  please check out the NHS website and their self-help guides.

Ella Pilson

Featured image courtesy of Priscilla Du Preeze via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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