What’s the difference between shyness and social anxiety? Though this might sound like the setup for a bad joke, social anxiety disorder is nothing to laugh about. It’s rough out there for anyone who suffers from this insidious, often-overlooked condition, feeling a fear of going out into society and being amongst people on a day-to-day basis. Multiply that exponentially for youth and adolescents with social anxiety, as their world is complicated to begin with. How do we know if you or someone you love us dealing with social anxiety disorder, or something else (still challenging) such as shyness, introvert personality, or a mild form of anxiety that’s more common in one’s teen years? That’s what we’ll delve into in this article, separating the challenges and then focusing on what’s often associated with social anxiety disorder (also called “social phobia”) and how to go about treating it.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder? Is It the Same as Being Shy or Introverted?
Let’s start with what it isn’t.
We generally view human beings as split amongst introvert and extrovert personalities. When speaking of personality traits, there is no judgment cast here, no “good” or “bad.” Having said that, modern society does have a tendency to reward those with extrovert traits. Being “popular” in school, for example, is usually something reserved for extroverts. After all, if you’re an extrovert, you’re aligned with terms like “people person,” “social butterfly,” “likeable” and whatnot. Introverts, meanwhile, are often synonymous with words like “shy,” “reserved,” “hard to get to know,” – or worse, “loner” or “antisocial.” In fact, mountains of research and evidence shoot down these notions. Extroverts can and do have challenges just like anyone else, often feeling the pressure to be “on” all the time and falling victim to their “success.” Introverts, meanwhile excel in all kinds of areas, enjoying success in school, the workplace, relationships and much more. And yet the stereotypes still persist in our society. Extrovert adults tend to do better in job interviews and many work situations, even though this is often the result of perceived ability rather than actual performance. Introverts, meanwhile, many times find themselves challenged by the flip side of these same situations. And that’s among adults, who are usually expected to be rational, experienced and (gasp) wise. Imagine what the world is like for introverted youth and adolescents! School becomes a popularity contest, social situations are awkward, and relationships (friendship or romantic) can be tougher to forge. Can introverts experience anxiety? Absolutely! Is anxiety in social situations always the result of introverted personality? No. Not at all. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they are two separate psychological phenomena that have a certain amount of overlap.
What about extroverts? Can they also be shy? Yes! On the scale of introverted and extroverted personalities, there are people who fall under the label of “shy extroverts.” While they often stay out of the limelight and aren’t as apt to need/want to be the centre of attention, shy extroverts do tend to thrive in the company of people. So it could be less common to see social anxiety among this group of people. “Extroverted introverts” are another category. Their experience tends to be a little more… mixed. They might seem comfortable talking to people, for example, but deep down inside, often times they’d rather not. Their social nature is limited, and after a fixed amount of time being around other people, many in this bunch purposely “get away” and take some “me time” for themselves to recharge. People often think of these types as “extroverts,” thus the expectation is that they’ll have an unlimited amount of patience, tolerance and even (shudder) fun being around other people. This can and does cause some friction, and some of that even leads to what might be seen as social anxiety.
What’s true about all these personality types, however, is that while the anxiety caused is real, it can be controlled, and many (if not most) people go on to survive and even thrive.
How is It Different from Shyness or Mild Anxiety?
While the anxiety stemming from various personality ‘clashes’ is largely controllable, Social Anxiety Disorder is a while other ballgame. The DSM-5 defines social anxiety disorder as:
A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.
That’s just the first part. There are several follow-ups and qualifications to this:
- Exposure to the feared situation causes anxiety
- The person recognizes that this fear is excessive
- The feared situations are avoided
- The avoidance interferes with the patient’s normal routine or occupational/academic functioning
- The fear, anxiety or avoidance is persistent, lasting six months or more
- The fear or avoidance is not due to substance abuse or another medical condition / mental disorder
(courtesy of the Social Anxiety Institute)
While experts debate how this definition could be improved, for our purposes it gives a broad idea of the disorder and how we can start to tackle it.
It’s important to recognize that, unlike simple introversion where the pressure of a social situation has more straightforward workarounds, there is no simple solution to social anxiety disorder. Why? The symptoms are worse and more prolonged. The anxiety that is caused by these fears can be practically paralyzing. Patients experience anxiety attacks which mimic “panic attacks” in many ways. The avoidance, if prolonged, can have consequences such as failing behind on the job or in school work, sometimes even resulting in failure or termination. Physical effects are also possible; though they may be called “psychosomatic” or stemming from the mental rather than physiological side, the symptoms are real and can be quite limiting (headaches, stomach aches, etc.).
In teens and youth, symptoms and signs include:
- Quiet, keeps to himself/herself, withdrawn
- Hesitant, passive
- Fear of being embarrassed or humectated
- Nervous habits and non-verbal behaviour
- School work suffers
- Doesn’t participate in class
- Avoids classmates outside class, sits alone, etc.
- Has few friends or acquaintances
- Avoids eye contact
- Might avoid going to school altogether
As you can imagine (or may even be experiencing), this can quickly put one at a disadvantage. Falling behind in school, if left unchecked or unresolved, can have a detrimental impact. Social and development (which are more and more seen as just as important for later on in life) also suffer.
How Ottawa Youth Counselling Can Help
The good news is that social anxiety disorder can be overcome!
The first step is recognizing the problem. The next steps involve getting help and setting forth on a program of recovery.
The generally-accepted standard of practice is to treat the patient with therapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), family therapy (with parents), etc. Medication can be another option, though we prefer to discuss the whole picture and not rush to this avenue.
In addition to therapy or counselling, we encourage everyone – parents, siblings, teachers, et al – to be extremely supportive with the person who is suffering from social phobia. Keep channels of communication open. Check in with them, even if they seem like they’d rather you didn’t. Remember, this condition takes over the mind and makes the patient not want to speak with anyone, friends and family often included. But be there nonetheless! Just be sure to do so in ways that are supportive, nurturing and positive. Try to encourage your son or daughter to engage in social situations – in moderation, of course, walking before running – without being overbearing or “insisting.”
If you’re reading this and realize that it’s you who suffers… to you we’d like to say:
- You’re not alone!
- You’re not “weird” or “different” or a “loser”
- You’re not doomed to feel this way forever
- You can overcome what you’re feeling
- Your friends and family are there to help
- So are we.
To find out how you – or your son or daughter – can overcome social anxiety disorder in Ottawa, get in touch with us today. The road to recovery and wellness starts here.