By Christa Banister
Trust me, we’ve all been there.
You’ve been asked to give an important presentation at work with all your coworkers present. Or maybe you’ve finally agreed to that blind date with the “perfect” guy or girl your friends have been raving about. Perhaps you’ve accepted an evite where you’ll know next to no one and have second thoughts about attending altogether. You may feel anxious, sweaty, even a little nauseated in any of these scenarios. And yet, that discomfort, that momentary shyness, is completely normal whether you’re an introvert, extrovert or somewhere in between.
But for those who deal with social anxiety disorder, previously known as social phobia, a condition that’s commonly misdiagnosed and affects approximately 8 percent of the population each year, it’s not simply shyness or having more introverted tendencies that makes social interactions so terrifying.1 It’s far more complex, pervasive and manifests in a myriad of ways — ways that actually limit one’s ability to navigate seemingly ordinary life situations.
Do I Fit the Profile?
While there’s no substitute for seeking a professional opinion, there are a few questions worth considering if you’re wondering whether you fit the profile of someone with social anxiety disorder.
- Either before, during or after a social engagement, do you have derogatory thoughts about yourself? Do you label yourself a “loser,” think you sound “stupid” or “boring” or wonder how “nervous” or “crazy” you probably sound to others?
- Do you set a time limit of how long you’re willing to “stick out” a social gathering? Do you have to medicate or partake in “liquid courage” before a feared social occasion? Do you always need to have a friend or “safe person” nearby?
- Is making eye contact with others difficult? Do you find yourself disconnected and thinking about anything else but the event you’re at or the people you’re with? Do you find it difficult to assert yourself or share your opinion? Is your fear causing excessive sweating, hives, blushing, dizziness or tightness in your chest?
- Is your fear preventing you from being successful in school, your chosen field or interpersonal relationships? Do you find yourself saying “no” to activities and invitations that sound like fun out of fear you’ll embarrass yourself, won’t be able to engage in meaningful conversation or that you’ll clam up? Are you struggling with everyday errands that involve small talk with the bank teller, the checker at the grocery store or a restaurant server?
- Are your thoughts out of step with reality? Do you decide a meeting will be a disaster before it even happens with no actual data to back it up? Do you give more regard to your own feelings and perceived maladies than actually listening to someone else when you’re conversing? Does the spotlight utterly terrify you, even if you’re being recognized for something positive?
Distinguishing Social Anxiety From Shyness
The main difference between social anxiety and, say, the situational shyness described earlier is when the fear of being judged or rejected becomes so great, so debilitating, that it prevents you from engaging socially altogether, or in some cases, costs you promotions at work, success in school or meaningful relationships, romantic and otherwise.2
According to the most recent manual of mental health disorders known as the DSM-V, there’s nothing short-term or temporary about social anxiety disorder. An official diagnosis of social anxiety disorder indicates that someone’s anxiety or fears are decidedly out of step — in frequency, duration or both — with the situation he or she is facing with symptoms persisting for six months or more.3
Ranking behind only major depression and substance abuse, social anxiety disorder is the third most common psychiatric disorder, and sadly, only 1 percent of patients dealing with it are diagnosed and treated. Often lumped in with depression rather than being addressed as a separate issue, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, group therapy and other long-term professional treatment options can be a real game-changer in calming the fears of anyone living with social anxiety disorder.4
1 Shaw, Gina. “Just Shy or Social Anxiety Disorder.” WebMD, Accessed December 21, 2017.
2 Brancatisano, Emma. “The Difference Between Social Anxiety, Shyness and Introversion.” Huffington Post AU, May 12, 2016.
3 Markaway, Barbara. “Do You Have Social Anxiety Disorder?” Psychology Today, January 3, 2014.
4 Lydiard, R. Bruce. “When Does Shyness Become a Disorder?” Psychiatric Times. March 1, 2002.