why am i so shy?

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder, often referred to as Social Phobia, is a common mental health problem, a debilitating challenge, impacting not only one’s social life but also their professional and personal well-being. 

Well-behaved children and social anxiety

Social anxiety in childhood often gets mistaken for shyness or just being a “well-behaved” kid. However, children who seem overly compliant might be just too afraid of “messing things up”. It is important to remember that a well-behaved child does not necessarily mean a mentally balanced, happy one.

Sometimes children with anxiety disorders may appear mature beyond their age. They get praised for not causing problems, for avoiding attention, and for keeping things to themselves. This cycle is self-reinforcing, the child learning that being the quiet one is a virtue. Unfortunately, being a quiet one may also mean missing out on normal social development, which must involve some rule-breaking behaviours (and facing the consequences), and some social back-and-forth. Catching up, once they miss this critical learning, can be a real challenge. 

For anyone with social anxiety, being in social situations can feel like a never-ending internal battle. The relentless negative thoughts keep coming, questioning everything they may say or do. Adults with social anxiety might be unsure when to laugh and when to stay quiet, and every social interaction may put their minds into overdrive. This constant self-doubt is all too familiar for those dealing with social anxiety.

Social anxiety disorder is a real mental health problem, and it is far more burdensome than just shyness. People may feel physically sick even when texting someone, or get overly anxious when trying to make eye contact. Starting conversations often becomes a daunting task, and speaking up can be nearly impossible, leading to being withdrawn from important conversations. 

What is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Social Anxiety Disorder is characterised by an intense fear or worry about social situations, especially when people feel they would be observed or judged by others (meeting a group of new people, presenting at work, or even eating in front of others). This fear can be so overwhelming that it can lead to avoidance of social situations, often impacting multiple areas of life, such as work, education, and relationships.

Performance Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder

Some individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder experience performance fears. These fears are most pronounced in professional settings, particularly for individuals like musicians, dancers, performers, athletes, or those who frequently engage in public speaking. For them, the fear typically centres around their performance in these situations. These problems become obvious in school and academic settings where regular public presentations are required.

Symptoms of social anxiety

The fear or anxiety experienced by individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder typically manifests in multiple ways. People often fear that they would be thought of as an anxious, weak, “crazy”, boring, or unlikable person. They often worry about physical symptoms, such as blushing, trembling, sweating, or stumbling over their words, which they believe will lead to others thinking less of them. However, these symptoms are often not as obvious to others as it is to people with the disorder.

How common is social anxiety?

In any year, approximately 7% meet the criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder, and it is limited to a specific age group. While this rate typically drops later in life, it affects children, adolescents, and adults as well.

what triggers social anxiety?

The most typical age people get diagnosed with the disorder is around 13 years, with most people starting to experience some of the symptoms between 8 and 15 years of age. The onset is often linked to initial social avoidance and shyness and sometimes starts after a particularly stressful or humiliating event, such as being bullied at school.

social anxiety vs shyness?

It is important to differentiate between Social Anxiety Disorder and shyness: shyness is a common personality trait and not necessarily pathological. In fact, in some societies, shyness can even be expected. However, there are crucial differences:

  1. Shyness is a typical and natural part of many individuals’ personalities. It may lead to some discomfort in social situations but doesn’t necessarily impair one’s daily life or functioning. Shy people may feel hesitant or reserved in social interactions, but it doesn’t cause considerable distress or trouble with their work, relationships, or other important areas of life. Importantly, only a small subset (about 12%) of shy people have severe enough symptoms that meet the diagnostic criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder. 
  2. Social Anxiety Disorder goes beyond shyness. When the fear of social situations is so intense that it negatively influences many areas of a person’s life, including work, relationships, and mental well-being, a diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder should be considered.

Is social anxiety part of generalised anxiety?

It would be logical to think that social anxiety is just a subset of generalised anxiety. While they both manifest as extensive worries and some physical symptoms, they are quite different.

  1. In social Anxiety Disorder,  the primary focus of anxiety is social situations. People with this disorder experience intense fear and anxiety when they fear that others are watching or evaluating them. The worries, therefore, often center around perceived social skills and performance, and how others perceive them.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder involves excessive worrying, but the focus is not limited to social situations. People often experience pervasive, chronic worries about many aspects of life, such as health, work, family, relationships, and social situations. Importantly, the anxiety goes beyond social performance and appears in many, non-social contexts as well. The Worries are not exclusively related to the fear of negative evaluation by others. People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder may worry about their social performance, but these worries are just one aspect of the overall anxiety.