Mental health conditions are often misunderstood, particularly by those who don’t experience them. It’s easy to put personality traits in the same basket, even when there are key differences. For example, someone who is shy may also be perceived as being introverted, while someone who has social anxiety may be dismissed as being overly shy.
In reality, social anxiety is not just a personality trait; it’s a mental health condition that can benefit from treatment. Please note that the information in this article is general. For further advice, contact a mental health professional.
Before we talk about what social anxiety is, let’s have a look at what social anxiety is not.
Shyness is characterised by feelings of awkwardness or nervousness around other people. Think of cartoon characters like Piglet or Bashful the dwarf; they weren’t afraid, but they were obviously uncomfortable when approached. Shy people usually want to interact with others, they just aren’t sure how to do it.
Introverts are commonly classed as people who prefer to be alone; or at least prefer to spend less time in social situations or large groups. There’s an assumption that introverts are also shy, but that’s not necessarily the case. Introverts are often quite capable in social situations; they just prefer and appreciate their alone time. An introvert may feel drained of energy after socialising, and need time alone to recharge. While extroverts feel most energetic around others, introverts may find that energy tucked away in a good book, writing or reflecting by themselves.
People can be both shy and introverted, but having one of these traits does not mean that you will have both. Shyness and introversion should not be confused with social anxiety, which can have a very serious ongoing impact on a person’s life.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia) is a type of anxiety that goes beyond being shy or introverted. People with social anxiety don’t just get nervous about the idea of being in crowds or out in public. They experience strong fear of criticism or embarrassment in social situations even where they are not the focus, such as eating in public or making small talk.
Here’s a quick summary on the common characteristics that make each category different:
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:
- Being overwhelmed by fear or afraid of criticism in a social situation
- Avoiding situations where you may experience social anxiety
- Anxiety often disrupts your day-to-day activities at work and in public
- Physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, hot and cold flashes, and tightness in the chest
The symptoms of social anxiety disorder can build on themselves and worsen. For example, typical symptoms of anxiety like sweating, blushing, or nausea can be very difficult to overcome for a person with social anxiety. That, in turn, can make them feel worse.
According to Beyond Blue, 10.6% of Australians aged 16 or over are affected by social anxiety at some stage of their life. Although there is no ‘cure’ for social anxiety, there are ways to treat it. Anxiety treatment is highly individualised, and each person responds differently. Talk to a mental health professional about your options, and he or she can work with you to develop the most effective treatment plan.
If you’re not sure where to turn, there are a number of professionals who can help treat social anxiety, including:
- Your GP
- Psychologists and psychiatrists
- Mental health nurses
Treatment for social anxiety often draws on multiple treatment methods and may include the following:
- Psychological treatment, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)
- Medical treatment, such as antidepressant drugs
- Lifestyle changes, such as relaxation training and exercise
As part of social anxiety treatment, your mental health professional will likely help you develop a plan for reducing your anxiety. You’ll learn tips and tricks to handle social situations, keeping what works and eliminating what doesn’t. Here are three tips that may be helpful:
- Create a routine
Give yourself time to work, spend time with friends and family, and do the things you enjoy. Finding balance may not come easily, but establishing a routine can help you develop positive, healthy habits.
2. Set goals
Set a combination of large and small goals. For example, you may start by setting the goal of buying a carton of milk at the supermarket, then work your way up to attending a sporting event.
3. Face your fears
This may be one of the hardest parts of recovery from social anxiety: facing your fears head-on. While it’s tempting to avoid scary situations, creating a plan to face them one step at a time can be much more effective.
Recovering from social anxiety looks different for each person. For some, it may happen relatively quickly but for others it may take quite some time. Support from family and friends can also have a big impact on recovery. It can be hard to know how to help someone experiencing social anxiety, but there are some things you can do:
- Support the person in seeking professional help
- Seeking out accredited resources for friends and family members
- Get advice from the person’s treatment provider
- Don’t trivialise the person’s feelings and fears
- Recognise that the person has a mental health condition and has not brought it upon themselves
Understanding the differences between social anxiety, introversion, and shyness may help you to recognise symptoms in yourself or others. If you think you or someone you love might have social anxiety, reach out to a mental health professional for information on what to do next.