How is social anxiety different from just being shy?
Mental Health

How is social anxiety different from just being shy?

Written by Aprajita Dixit
Published: December 5, 2022

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A Counselling Psychologist, Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist who specialises in child's psychology and child's development. Double RCI licensed (MA Clinical Psy & ADCGC(RCI) and MPhil in Clinical Psychology(RCI)) & a gold medal winner with more than 5 years of work experience.

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Table of Contents
arrow-right What exactly is social anxiety?
arrow-right How to cope with social anxiety?

Imagine this scenario – you’re going out with a friend whom you have known for a very long time. You both decide to grab a meal together. While in the restaurant, your friend happens to bump into another friend. When they introduce you, you feel shy, you exchange small talk with them but you continue to feel slightly awkward and you barely talk. Now, imagine another scenario. You go out shopping with your mother and you see a group of people from your class hanging out together. As you cross them, you refrain from making eye contact because you are intimidated by their overwhelming number. You prefer to simply walk by instead of trying to create any conversation. In both the above scenarios, social interactions affect your behaviour in a way that you become conscious, awkward and tense; in layman’s terms, you feel ‘shy’. Feeling shy is very common and quite natural. Very few people don’t feel shy at all or have the ability to cope with it almost instantly.

Ever so often, people use the term ‘anxiety’, in passing language, to describe shyness. However, they are two different states of being. While shyness is temporary and has a less severe impact on the behaviours of the person and their physical well-being, anxiety is more serious and has more severe implications. Anxiety is an intense, persistent and excessive feeling of worry, fear and unease about everyday activities, although it might even be triggered only under specific situations. The person experiencing anxiety may experience all or most physical symptoms like increased heart rate, sweating, agitation, nausea, constant fidgeting and the like. One must remember that anxiety is a very normal bodily response to challenging or unexpected situations, in fact, it is even good to a certain degree. Anxiety becomes a point of concern and attention only when it starts interfering with daily life Activities.

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What exactly is social anxiety?

People who experience anxiety while socializing deal with social anxiety. It must be kept in mind that this is not something that a non-expert can assert. Only after sufficient tests and interactions can a professional certify whether a person is experiencing anxiety or whether it is just shyness in front of new or an overwhelming number of people. Although social anxiety and shyness have multiple overlapping symptoms, they can be differentiated on a certain basis. One of the most crucial ones is the degree of fear and awkwardness the person experiences. Usually, someone who is simply shy of social interactions can cope with the fear in a healthy and appropriate way by either excusing themselves to get some fresh air or taking a little bit of time to gel in with the people around them. They often find ways of becoming comfortable as they become more and more familiar with the circumstances. However, someone with anxiety is more likely to face uncontrollable fear and awkwardness to the point where they cannot physically control it. They might experience trembling, panic attacks, breathlessness or other such symptoms. Different people with social anxiety have different ways of responding to it depending upon how severe their social anxiety is but overall, it definitely impacts the quality of life of the person. For someone with social anxiety, their quality of life is a lot more compromised than the quality of life of a person who is simply shy because they tend to completely avoid interactions, choose to isolate themselves and limit a lot of their opportunities.

Every time a person is seen facing any kind of difficulties in their daily lives, which are not purely due to recent physical ailments, the source can often be traced back to when they were in their developmental stage. A similar introspection can be done while trying to understand social anxiety too. Childhood, particularly the early years, before the age of five, are extremely crucial to who a person becomes as a grown individual. Amongst a range of other skills, it is also a time when the child develops social skills. It can be said that people with social anxiety might have been unable to develop appropriate social behaviours, which aggravate with time. Nonetheless, this is not a universal cause of social anxiety. Sometimes people experience traumatic events which lead to the development of social anxiety too.

How to cope with social anxiety?

Having spoken about social anxiety and what people with social anxiety experience, here are a few ways in which you can positively impact the person experiencing social anxiety.

1. The foremost task is to be aware and vigilant. When you see someone finding it extremely difficult to interact or socialize, fidgeting, sweating and looking extremely uncomfortable, that might be a sign that they need help.

2. The second step would involve intervention and taking some sort of measure to comfort them in that situation. This could mean taking them aside or somewhere less overwhelming, calming them down, getting them water, patting their backs, and encouraging them to take slower and deeper breaths. Distracting them could also work. Perhaps making them watch a video or asking them to count. Continuously talking to them, asking them what they are feeling and creating a safe environment is a good idea.

3. In the long run, in case they have not already sought professional help, you must encourage them to. It can be difficult to experience such strong feelings and bodily reactions in day-to-day activities. A mental health expert can systematically help them bring their reactions more under control. Since every person has a different cause and reaction, there is no singular uniform solution and an expert can curate a more person-focused intervention strategy.

Other such solutions involve motivating them to exercise daily, reducing their consumption of caffeine, consuming nutrient-rich food, practicing breathing techniques and the like. Starting interactions with small sets of groups or even just a single individual could be a steadier way of improving social anxiety.

All in all, being shy is definitely not the same as experiencing social anxiety. As a result, it is supremely important to focus on our jargon while conversing to ensure we do not use these terms interchangeably. When someone is simply shy, they often either become comfortable in an unfamiliar situation with time or find ways to distract themselves without feeling the need to completely avoid the situation. However, people with social anxiety are unable to cope with socialization and have varying emotional and physical reactions. Anxiousness is normal and even expected until it starts interfering with daily activities. Someone who experiences social anxiety has to make a lot more compromises in their life which is why it is important for them to seek help immediately. All difficulties can be reduced, it is only a matter of taking that first step. Encourage and assist someone you know with social anxiety to take that first step.

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The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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