You may have noticed there are times in your life when you feel more self conscious or apprehensive than usual. Maybe it’s when meeting new people or starting your first day at a new job. In these situations, you might be overcome with feelings of shyness and find yourself having difficulty making conversation, maintaining eye contact and worrying about what others are thinking of you.
These feelings of shyness may be temporary and occur only occasionally in specific situations, but for others, these feelings may be more persistent. For people who are prone to often feeling shy, they may avoid speaking or drawing attention to themselves in social situations, they may prefer small groups or avoid social contact as much as possible. Feelings of shyness can be very intense and uncomfortable, and often shy people want to connect with others but feel inhibited.
Whether it’s temporary or ongoing, everyone experiences feelings of shyness at times. This is completely normal. For psychologists and their clients, it is an interesting question to ask when does shyness become a problem such that it interferes with the person’s engagement in activities and relationships that contribute to quality of life. When the balance tips towards high levels of disruption, it is possible that the individual has social anxiety disorder (which has also been called social phobia).
Social anxiety disorder is defined as a persistent fear of social or performance situations in which a person is worried that they will be negatively judged by others. They recognise that the fear is excessive, but they still avoid situations that trigger their anxiety or endure the situation while being significantly distressed. This avoidance and/or distress has a significant impact on their overall functioning.
Shyness does share features with social anxiety disorder. For example, similar to social anxiety disorder, shy people tend to feel increased anxiety, inhibition and reticence in social situations and also have a fear of negative evaluation from others. The main difference, however, is that social anxiety disorder results in more significant levels of avoidance and distress which has a greater impact on functioning and quality of life. Social anxiety disorder is also more associated with other conditions, like depression.
Shyness is considered a normal characteristic of personality and is quite common. For example, in one study, almost 50% of adolescents described themselves as shy. While there are similarities between shyness and social anxiety disorder, research has shown that most people who are shy do not meet criteria for social anxiety disorder. One study found that 82% of people defined as shy, did not meet criteria for social anxiety disorder.
So in summary, we can consider shyness and social anxiety disorder as existing on two ends of a continuum. And while there is no clear and precise point in which shyness becomes social anxiety disorder the further towards the end of the continuum you progress towards social anxiety disorder the more intense, distressing and disruptive to your life the symptoms are likely to be.
If you notice that social situations cause you significant anxiety and you feel like avoiding them, it’s worth speaking to a Clinical Psychologist. Psychologists are trained in evidence-based treatments that work to help you learn to manage and overcome these feelings. Treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are two such therapies.
Effective treatment can get you back engaging in the world, rather than being controlled by your anxiety.
To book an appointment with one of our psychologists at the Centre for Clinical Psychology, call (03) 9077 0122.