How To Tell When Your Shyness May Be Something Bigger

Certain social settings naturally lend themselves to feelings of mild anxiety or unease. Most people feel at least a little uncomfortable on a first date, for example. But when most social situations cause you to feel persistently self-conscious or nervous, you may be chronically shy (via Healthline). The American Psychological Association defines shyness as the "tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people." While shyness can feel like a hindrance in a largely social world, it's not an inherently bad thing you need to address if it's not negatively affecting your life. In fact, mild shyness comes with certain benefits, including not rushing into relationships or trusting people too quickly.

Due to the physical symptoms of shyness, as well as feelings of self-consciousness, it can be difficult to tell the difference between shyness and social anxiety, which you should address. According to the NHS, social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a "long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations." Social anxiety is driven by a fear of rejection and disapproval from other people, and often affects a person's ability to function in social settings. While it's possible to experience both shyness and social anxiety at once, it's especially important to recognize the latter. When ignored, this condition can lead you to avoid social settings altogether, which can cause a chain reaction of problems in your life.

Signs you have social anxiety

Many of the symptoms of shyness are also present in cases of social anxiety disorder. These include mild physical symptoms such as blushing, sweating, or even stomach cramps, as well as negative self-talk. However, the key difference is that social anxiety disorder is a recognized mental health condition. It goes beyond shyness by affecting a person's ability to function in social settings, causing intense levels of fear, and leading to extreme avoidance (via Verywell Mind). The disorder often leads a person to worry about experiencing anxiety itself in social situations, out of the fear that others will notice that anxiety and then cast judgment on them (via Mayo Clinic). As such, people with social anxiety tend to avoid situations where they're the center of attention or where they might embarrass themselves.

The University of Melbourne explains that shyness is manageable, a normal component of personality, and does not cause significant levels of distress. By contrast, social anxiety disorder does cause distress to the person experiencing it. The fear and anxiety they experience also tends to be disproportionate to the actual situation, and these feelings persist for longer than six months. If you often experience extreme fear rather than just awkwardness in social settings, worry about those situations well in advance, and go to great lengths to avoid them, you may have social anxiety disorder. Though debilitating, the condition is common, and there are several proven ways to manage it.

Dealing with social anxiety vs. dealing with shyness

Speaking to Cleveland Clinic, psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD, explains that the specific methods used to overcome social anxiety will depend on "your individual personality and how much the disorder is affecting your life." Cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, is one of the most effective strategies. This involves training yourself to think and feel about situations differently. Another strategy is gradually exposing yourself to situations that bring on your social anxiety. This is called "situational exposure" and involves identifying what social scenarios you fear and then exposing yourself to easy versions of those scenarios while slowly working your way up to harder versions. For example, if you fear parties with large crowds, start with attending a smaller gathering with only a few people. As you get more comfortable in less confronting situations, you can eventually tackle harder ones. Help Guide points out that, if possible, it's best not to avoid the situations you're nervous about entirely; avoidance usually leads to the fear getting worse.

Shyness, on the other hand, can usually be dealt with using techniques such as adopting confident body language, breathing deeply, and practicing mindfulness (via Better Help). However, in both situations, being kind to yourself and turning to others for support can help you to overcome the issue. Regardless of how they manifest in your life, both shyness and social anxiety disorder are common, treatable, and nothing to be ashamed of.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.