Beyond Shy: What is Social Anxiety? 

 March 4, 2021

By  counselingwithnatalie

Imagine this: you’re standing outside the doors of an office building about to walk in and start a new job. You don’t know anyone working there and will be introduced to a bunch of new people over the next few hours. You feel your heartbeat quicken and your palms get a little sweaty, but you push forward, open those doors, and walk through.

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe the anxiety gets to you. You start shaking and suddenly feel sick to your stomach and you run back to the safety of your car where you can drive back to the comfort of your home. Maybe this happens in other situations as well. You need toothpaste but instead of going to buy it at a store and having to interact with the cashier, you order it online to be delivered to your doorstep. When the package arrives and the mail carrier rings your bell you wait a full five minutes before going out to get it to ensure that they are long gone. You stand at the window and wait until your neighbor’s car leaves their driveway before you go out to your own so you don’t have to risk making small talk before work. Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you just might have social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a type of anxiety disorder triggered by social situations. It affects an estimated 7% of American adults and often begins in childhood. It is thought to be caused by a mix of genetics, brain structure, and environment. People with SAD will often do everything they can to avoid social situations and may worry about meeting new people or having to interact with strangers for weeks before the event occurs. Another type of SAD is performance anxiety which is triggered by situations such as giving a speech or acting on stage in a performance. While it is normal and very common to get nervous about public speaking, SAD is an extreme level of anxiety that disrupts daily life and functioning.

SAD includes both physical and psychological symptoms. Below are some
commonly experienced ones, but this is not an exhaustive list and everyone will have their own unique experience.

•shaking hands or nervous fidgeting
•inability to sit still
•blush or red face
•rigid body posture
•rapid heartbeat/heart palpitations
•feeling of dread in the pit of the stomach
•heightened sensitivity to environment and surroundings
•inability to maintain eye contact
•excessive worrying
•inability to relax
•fear of judgment from others
•self-consciousness and feeling awkward

A common misconception is that SAD and shyness are the same things. While they do share many common traits, SAD and shyness differ in the severity of symptoms and the impact they have on someone’s life. Someone with shyness will often feel nervous immediately before meeting someone new, but someone with SAD will worry about it for days or weeks before. Additionally, someone with SAD may turn down job offers and avoid leaving their homes for days or weeks at a time in fear of social interaction while people who are shy are less likely to go to such great lengths to avoid social situations.

Though only about 50% of people with SAD seek treatment, it has been shown to be very beneficial in most individuals affected by it. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has shown to be effective. In CBT, people are taught new ways of thinking about and behaving in social situations. Group therapy can also be helpful. In group, people can practice using social skills with others affected by SAD and find other people who they may relate to. Some medications have also proven to be helpful for some individuals, including SSRIs like paroxetine and sertraline. Some are also prescribed
anti-anxiety medications or beta-blockers, but these are usually only prescribed for infrequent or short-term use.

Living with social anxiety disorder can make someone feel alone. Many people who qualify with a diagnosis recognize these signs and symptoms in themselves but dismiss it as just shyness and never seek treatment. Help is available and with treatment, many people have improved their outlook and quality of life. If these symptoms apply to you, don’t hesitate to reach out, whether it be to a close friend, family member, school counselor, or therapist.

By Samantha Srichai, Content Contributor


Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness. (2021). NIMH.

Social Anxiety Disorder. (2021). MHA.

Social anxiety disorder (social phobia). (1998-2021). Mayo Clinic.

Differences Between Shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder (2020). Very Well Mind.


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