Somewhere between one-third to one-half of the population identify as introverts, who are more likely than extroverts to report feeling shy in social situations. Shyness can be described as feeling awkward, concerned, or embarrassed in social settings. Even the most extroverted of people could feel shy every once in a while. Yet, although most people experience shyness on occasion, not everyone meets the criteria for social anxiety disorder (SAD) or even understands the key differences between normative shyness and social anxiety disorder. So, what exactly is the difference?
- Social anxiety disorder involves being unduly fearful of social situations that involve being closely observed and scrutinized. Examples include a first date, a job interview, a performance, or extending a greeting and introduction to an unfamiliar person. Of course, all of those situations can induce anxiety in anyone, but in a person with social anxiety disorder, the anxiety is overwhelming.
- Another aspect of social anxiety disorder is the fear that someone will pick up on the anxiety that they are feeling and that they will alienate others because of it – which is definitely not the case in normative shyness.
- Social interaction causes significant distress and anxiety on a consistent basis in someone with SAD. This distress isn’t something that can be controlled or ignored in someone with social anxiety disorder.
- A person with social anxiety disorder will either avoid social interaction as much as possible or when not possible, deal with the interaction with much apprehension. A person who is simply shy will not go to this extreme to avoid feeling awkward or to escape possible embarrassment.
- The person with SAD experiences strong negative feelings of anxiety surrounding social interaction. These feelings are much stronger than the situation at hand merits.
- This pattern of anxiety lasts longer than six months.
- SAD significantly impairs the life of the sufferer in at least one important area, such as being able to hold a job or have meaningful relationships – a definite difference from simply being shy or awkward around people.
The above list of criteria is what doctors and mental health professionals are looking for when determining whether or not a person has social anxiety disorder. While SAD tends to be chronic throughout the course of a person’s life, with debilitating symptoms, improvement of these symptoms is possible. Those with social anxiety disorder can learn to improve their symptoms with cognitive behavior therapy, meditation, graduated exposure therapy, and medication if desired.
A common theory about what causes SAD is that it is based on a person’s childhood experiences with trauma, specifically how that person has come to interpret his or her experiences with said trauma. How people have come to interpret their traumatic experiences in their childhood years can become a common theme in how they come interpret all experiences in their daily lives, which can lead to psychological disturbances like social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder is very misunderstood and often dismissed as shyness when the truth is, SAD is about much more than the occasional discomfort and awkwardness. The good news is that people can learn to identify beliefs and values which trigger their symptoms of SAD and learn to adopt healthier beliefs and values that can lead them towards feeling calmer and more confident in their daily lives.