The Difference between Social Anxiety and Shyness

by admin on October 18, 2012

Social anxiety

To quote from Dr David Carbonell’s website social phobia “means that you tend to panic in social and performance situations because you fear a public humiliation, rejection, and/or disgrace. A person with social phobia might fear such activities as:

  • public speaking
  • meetings
  • playing sports or musical instruments for an audience
  • standing up in a wedding
  • eating in a restaurant
  • using a public bathrooms
  • writing in front of another person, for instance, while cashing a check or checking into a hotel.

Social Phobia can also include more generalised fears about dating, parties, and other social activities. As is the case with specific phobia, people with this problem generally view their fear and avoidance as excessive and unreasonable, but that knowledge by itself does not enable them to overcome it.”

Do please consider visiting Dr Carbonell’s website if you haven’t done so already.  There you’ll find accurate and very reassuring advice about managing all types of anxiety.  Please notice that on my website and here in this article, I used the word ‘manage’ not ‘cure’ or even diminish and reduce anxiety.  I agree absolutely with David Carbonell that the focus on reducing anxiety, or panic attacks keeps you a prisoner of what he terms the ‘Panic Trick.  To quote Dr Carbonell again:

They may use a variety of relaxation techniques, such as imagery or self hypnosis, but use them as if they were tools designed to kill anxiety, rather than as ways to feel more calm. In other words, they try too hard to relax, and they try so desperately that they don’t relax at all…

There’s an old story about a farmer who sent his son to get the animals back in the barn. The son managed to get the cows, chickens, and horses in without too much trouble, but was completely unable to get the donkey in the barn. He tried pushing the donkey. He tried pulling. He tried yelling. He tried hitting the donkey. The donkey resisted all his efforts, and stubbornly remained outside the barn. Finally, the son returned home to tell his father of his failure with the donkey. Whereupon, the father went out to the barn with the son, pushed the donkey away from the barn, and the donkey, ever resistant, ran right into the barn.

Fear is usually like that, and social anxiety can be a real donkey.

The harder you try not to be afraid, the more embroiled you will become. So the first step in getting over this fear is, paradoxically, becoming willing to be afraid. (emphasis mine). You don’t have to like it…you don’t have to plan on always being afraid…but you will do much better in your recovery when you can develop an accepting, or willing attitude. This means not fighting it; not trying to hide it; and not blaming yourself for it.

I’ve written an article entitled  Panic Attacks: This Truth Will Set You Free which you can read by clicking on that title.

Basically, my article reiterates the wisdom of Dr Claire Weekes, the wonderfully empathic and compassionate Australian General Practitioner who devoted much of her life to helping people manage their anxiety and panic.  Dr Weekes talked and wrote about doing the opposite of what the onset of panic makes you want to do, namely tense up against its symptoms.  She explained that we must instead welcome the symptoms of panic as though they are an old friend.  Only by relaxing into what you fear – yet another attack of anxiety or panic – will that fear lose its power over you.

The difference between social anxiety and agoraphobia

Social anxiety is an intense fear of social situations. It is different from panic attacks, agoraphobia and more general anxiety because a person with agoraphobia can be quite at ease in many social contexts: their anxiety and panic is specific to certain settings. 

While the symptoms of fear and panic in either agoraphobia or social anxiety are very similar, a person with social anxiety will be more focused on symptoms which could be visible to others – symptoms such as turning red in the face, trembling, sweating, and so on. This reflects the underlying fear of looking foolish and fearful in front of others.

In fact, the most obvious difference between social anxiety and agoraphobia is that the situations and activities which trigger social anxiety are those in which others are present, and/or activities which the person fears will lead others to notice and judge her or him. A person with agoraphobia is likely to be the social life of the party but could panic in the supermarket.

People with social anxiety may fear making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, or looking foolish. They may feel extremely shy and anxious in situations where they have to interact with others, such as parties, the lunch table, or when they meet new people. They may be overly self-conscious about their clothes or hair, worrying that they might be criticized or teased, or that they might stand out or be noticed. With an extreme form of social anxiety called selective mutism some people, particularly adolescents, may be too anxious to talk at all in certain situations.

Confusing social anxiety with shyness

Although there may be an overlap between the types of anxiety and being shy, that is by no means always the case.

The most obvious distinction between being shy and having social anxiety is that many shy people go on to become famous for the most social activity of all – acting.  For a list of celebrities and famous public figures in history who were or are shy – and therefore most definitely not people with social anxiety – click on this link ? Shy Celebrities.

The most common social phobia is a fear of public speaking.  Although this problem is often thought of as shyness, the two are not the same.  Shy people can be very uneasy around others, but they don’t experience the extreme anxiety in anticipating a social situation and they don’t necessarily avoid circumstances that make them feel self-conscious.  In contrast, people with social phobia aren’t necessarily shy at all.   They can be completely at ease with people most of the time, but particular situations, such as walking down an aisle in public, or making a speech, can give them intense anxiety.

Social phobia disrupts normal life, interfering with career or social relationships. For example, a worker can turn down a job promotion because he can’t give public presentations. The dread of a social event can begin weeks in advance and symptoms can be quite debilitating. Just as shy people do not have a phobia about certain situations, people with social phobia aren’t necessarily shy at all.  They can be completely at ease with people most of the time.

Finally, just about all the symptoms which define one of the terms I’ve just set out overlap with each other.

How social anxiety can affect your life, or the life of someone you love

People with social anxiety find it to be a terrifying experience to interact with unfamiliar people, give any type of public presentation, or even be publicly noticed. For example, the office may be planning a birthday party for the socially-anxious person — and instead of this being a pleasant and happy experience — it will cause great anticipatory fear and dread — because they will be on display… front of all those people…..and then they fear they will do something to make a fool of themselves……

The person with social anxiety is sometimes viewed as ‘quiet’, ‘shy’, or ‘introverted’. They are continually concerned that other people will notice their anxiety and they will be humiliated and embarrassed as a result.  Most people with social anxiety disorder hold down jobs that are well beneath their capabilities and capacities because they fear

  • job interviews,
  • working in a position where there is too much public contact,
  • being promoted to a position where they would have to supervise other people and
  • being in a role where they have to present reports verbally to others.

When socially-anxious people isolate themselves as much as possible and are somehow enabled to stay at home and not work, their social contact can drift down to the immediate family or to absolutely no one at all.

Helpful Resources

For help with further information, and to find a qualified therapist in Australia, visit Catherine Madigan’s website Shyness and Social Anxiety Treatment Australia . Catherine Madigan is a registered clinical Psychologist. Through her Melbourne Practice, she specialises in helping people overcome the negative effects of social anxiety.

  • Gary Eckstein

    Thanks for the interesting information Jeannette.

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