• Mary

When Shyness Becomes Social Anxiety

Jane, 14, tells her mum that she feels jittery and nervous whenever her teacher asks her a question or two in class. She would wish the ground could open up and take her away. She also finds it taxing interacting with her classmates during study discussions for fear of saying the wrong things and being embarrassed.

John, 16, her older brother is quite the opposite. John just went off to college and finds it a bit hard interacting with other students and was often found alone in his class and his room in his first few weeks in school. Although he too does not like being on the spotlight in his class, he has no problem giving a wrong answer when asked questions in class or speaking in a study group discussion.

The Difference between Social Anxiety and Shyness

Social anxiety and shyness are often confused with each other or considered different words for the same thing. However, they differ essentially. The stories above about Jane and John describe what social anxiety and shyness are respectively.

Social anxiety, or social phobia, is a mental health condition in which an individual has an excessive fear of being in a certain social situation, such that they would experience intense distress when they are exposed to such situations. This is often for fear of being embarrassed or judged by others. This is what Jane is dealing with.

Shyness, on the other hand, is not a mental health condition. It is a personality trait that is characterized by an avoidant behavior when in an unfamiliar place, as with John in the story above. This often reduces as you become familiar with your surroundings and the people around you. Shyness is a normal behaviour in psychology that affects everyone at some points in their lives.

However, when shyness becomes debilitating and significantly impairs your behaviour around people, and leads you to avoid that situation almost all the time, it becomes social anxiety.

Causes of Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is a form of anxiety triggered by social situations. Examples of situations that trigger this phobia include:

· Talking to a group of people, such as in a presentation or seminar.

· Attending a social gathering, such as parties or conferences

· Having to interact with other people.

· Using public transportation

· Waiting inline

· Eating, drinking, or answering a phone call in front of other people.

John may have had slight difficulty socializing with others in his first weeks at school, as with many of us when we just got to college, he has no problem being or speaking in a group of people.

Social anxiety is an aspect of psychology that is often unrecognized and under-diagnosed because affected persons feel uncomfortable talking about it.

Symptoms of Social Anxiety

Being exposed to these situations often triggers an acute stress reaction, which is the body’s flight-and-fight response when exposed to a potential stressor. This stress reaction produces physical and psychological symptoms intended to help you escape from the seemingly harmful stimulus. These include:

· Fast heart rate

· Heavy breathing

· Tremors

· Shakiness or jitteriness

· Blushing

· Being dumbfounded or speaking too slowly or too quickly

· Pervasive fear of being judged or embarrassed

· Excessive self-consciousness

· Increased sweating.

If these reactions are triggered in the absence of a harmful stimulus or disproportionately to the offending stimulus, it is considered an anxiety response.

Treatment for Social Anxiety.

The most effective treatment for social anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a technique that teaches an individual to re-evaluate their thoughts and actions, eliminate negative thoughts and behaviours, and replace them with positive ones. Medications are not effective for treating social anxiety since they do not address the root of social phobia.

Using CBT techniques, Jane can replace thoughts of being judged or embarrassed in class with “It is not out of the ordinary to get a question wrong in class and that gives me the opportunity to learn the right answer”, For instance, CBT also helps Jane pay attention to her symptoms when in such social situations and immediately tackle them with positive behaviours, such smiling while making her presentation or making the first move to interact with others in the classroom.

CBT helps to rebuild one’s perception of themselves and their environment, creating a healthier balance between their identity and social perception.

Social anxiety and shyness differ in many ways. Shyness may be a normal personality trait characterized by a slightly awkward response in unfamiliar places or a gathering of unfamiliar people; however, when shyness results in severe distress in such social situations, such that you constantly fear and avoid such situations, you may have social anxiety.


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