Research suggests that roughly 9% of the Australian population will suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder at some point in their lifetime, with just under 5% experiencing it in any 12-month period.
But are shyness and social anxiety the same?
It is perfectly normal to feel anxious in social situations, especially when we feel we are being watched or evaluated by others. Making a speech at a wedding, delivering a presentation to your peers, or attending an interview are all likely to cause a bit of nervousness leading up to and during the event.
Shyness vs Social Anxiety
Those who are shy will often feel awkward or tense during social encounters, and may even experience physical symptoms such as a flushed face, sweating, and/or a pounding heart. But despite this, most people will eventually warm up to the situation, and find that they can cope with and even start to enjoy themselves.
For someone with social anxiety however, almost any social situation can be extremely stressful.
Everyday activities such as making a phone call, walking to class or work, eating or drinking in public, or asking a store attendant for assistance can be overwhelming. When exposed to such situations, the individual is concerned that they will act in a way, or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated by others (ie will be humiliating or embarrassing; will lead to rejection or offend others).
Often, they will overestimate the negative consequences of social situations. As a result, they will either endure it with intense fear or anxiety, or avoid the situation. This avoidance can lead to social isolation, which causes even more distress and impairment in other areas of functioning.
Although many people who are shy also have social anxiety disorder (SAD), it is not a prerequisite.
Many who are shy do not experience the negative emotions and feelings that accompany SAD (such as the anxiety or distress). Similarly, people who suffer from SAD don’t all consider themselves shy.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is associated with a range of factors including:
- Temperament – Children identified as behaviourally inhibited, or fearful of negative evaluation, may be predisposed to developing SAD;
- Environment – Childhood maltreatment and adversity (eg bullying) are considered risk factors for SAD;
- Family history – SAD appears to be inheritable, with first degree relatives having two to six times greater chance of developing the disorder.
The Social Anxiety Cycle
Socially anxious people often hold negative thoughts about themselves and their ability in social situations. They might assume the worst case scenario (‘What if..’), put pressure on themselves to act a certain way (‘I should/shouldn’t have…’), and doubt their ability to cope with the feared situation.
As mentioned earlier, socially anxious people will either endure the situation with fear or anxiety, or avoid it as best they can. Sometimes this is not possible, and they might try subtle ways of avoiding their fears (eg diverting the attention away from themselves, avoiding eye contact, remaining quiet in conversations, or drinking alcohol for extra courage).
These safety behaviours, although understandable and effective in the short-term, serve to maintain their anxiety as it stops them from having positive experiences that might disprove some of their unhelpful thoughts
Treatment for Social Anxiety
Most of the time, socially anxious people realise that their thoughts and feelings are somewhat irrational, and know that people aren’t critically judging and evaluating them all the time. But despite this knowledge, they continue to feel this way.
The good news is, social anxiety is very treatable! Depending on your individual needs, treatment might entail:
- education about anxiety;
- learning relaxation strategies;
- social skills training;
- behavioural interventions (eg gradual exposure to feared situations, letting go of safety behaviours);
- and cognitive interventions (eg identifying and challenging your fears, shifting your attention to the present). However, if symptoms are severe, some types of antidepressant medications can be helpful.
I think I might be socially anxious, what do I do now?
It can be difficult for someone with social anxiety to seek help, because seeing a professional requires that they interact with someone in a social situation. It’s important to remember that mental health professionals are not there to judge you. You are welcome to bring a friend or family member to your first session if it helps you overcome the initial anxiety of meeting your therapist. If you can do it alone, view it as a first step to facing your fears!
For more information and help with the management of social anxiety, consider making an appointment for counselling.
Author: Katherine Vuong, B Beh Sc (Hons), MAPS.
Please Note: Katherine Vuong is not currently practising at Vision Psychology, however if you call us on (07) 3088 5422 we would be happy to suggest another therapist at our practice with experience in this area.
- American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. DSM-V.
- Crome, E., Grove R., Baillie, A., Sunderland, M., Teesson, M., & Slade, T. (2015). DSM-IV and DSM-5 social anxiety disorder in the Australian community. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49(3), 227-235. doi: 10.1177/0004867414546699
- Shyness… Or Social Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved via https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/shyness-or-social-anxiety-disorder
- Social Phobia. Retrieved via https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety/types-of-anxiety/social-phobia