The Difference Between Social Anxiety and Shyness, According to a Psychologist

Photo: Getty Images/Thomas Barwick
Perhaps you've waited all of quarantine for authentic social connection—hugs, maskless conversations, eating outdoors because it's beautiful...not because it's a safety hazard to chow down inside. Yet now that you're mingling with others, you feel decidedly self-conscious, uncomfortable, even panic-y. You may be wondering: Do I have social anxiety, or am I just shy following a year with limited human interaction?

Let's get something straight from the jump: Being socially anxious isn't the same as simply being standoffish. "Shyness and introversion are personality traits," says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder"Shy people have some of the same thoughts [as a socially anxious person], but a gentler version, and they can often accept themselves as they are. Introverts are people who are tired out by socializing and recharged with time alone. They don’t necessarily fear partying, they just know it will tire them out eventually."

Social anxiety, by contrast, is rooted in a fear of being judged or rejected by people, or of embarrassing yourself around other people. Much like scopophobia, a fear of being seen by others, social anxiety can be "paralyzing enough to stop you from living your life," says Dr. Daramus.

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How to tell if you have social anxiety

At a glance, a shy person may feel uncomfortable or afraid to pipe up in conversations, and an introvert may want to bail on a party well before 11 p.m. But they don't necessarily develop an on-the-spot, negative self-concept that drives them to feel physically ill. When it comes to social anxiety, Dr. Daramus says to look for typical physical symptoms of anxiety, which can include:

  • A queasy stomach
  • Tense muscles
  • Cold hands and feet
  • A headache
  • Chest pain
  • A sense of panic and feeling unsafe

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for these physical symptoms, but in the moment, the kind of coping mechanisms that ease anxiety can help. Intentional breathwork, for example, is a meaningful way to soothe the parasympathetic nervous system when it goes into this state of panic. But of course, breathwork alone isn't the key to addressing anxiety issues. You may need to develop an arsenal of coping techniques that help you feel safe—and FYI, there's nothing wrong with hitting up the bathroom for a few minutes to collect yourself. Trust me, it is a signature MGG party move.

If you're trying to deal with social anxiety longterm though, not just in the moment, there are other practices to try. For example, Dr. Daramus points out that virtual reality is an emerging treatment for people who suffer from serious social anxiety— you can put someone in a virtual party or conversation and let them practice skills before moving on to real life. But the best way to really deal with social anxiety, honestly, is getting out there and socializing.

"Social anxiety is often treated with exposure therapy, meaning that you start out by becoming more comfortable with a small challenge, like a two-minute chat, then move on to bigger social challenges," says Dr. Daramus. "You learn skills along the way and practice them."

That means that if you see social anxiety symptoms start to bubble, it may be your body telling you to scale back your social adventurousness...but not stop it completely. Be very intentional in how you warm up your social muscles. Hang out with the people you're closest to, socialize in low-contact settings. Be intentional in making more small talk with the people around you, like the bodega guy. I guarantee you, anyone who works a job where people drunkenly order sandwiches at 3 a.m. is not going to judge you.

If your social anxiety becomes truly paralyzing, it may help to talk with a mental health professional about confronting these fears. But know that you're not alone.

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