Shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder: Similarities and Differences

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Feeling shy in social situations is common, but understanding when shyness becomes a social anxiety disorder is crucial. Understanding this difference helps identify when normal nervousness becomes a mental health concern.

What is social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is a mental health condition and a type of anxiety disorder characterized by an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others. 1 This fear can be so severe that it interferes with daily activities like work, school, and personal relationships.

People with social anxiety disorder often worry excessively about social situations and may go to great lengths to avoid them. They fear their actions or appearance will lead to embarrassment, humiliation, or rejection.

Symptoms of social anxiety

Social anxiety disorder affects both emotional and physical well-being. Here are some common symptoms:

Physical symptoms

  • Rapid heart rate: Feeling your heart race or pound, especially before or during social interactions.
  • Sweating and trembling: Excessive sweating and noticeable shaking are experienced when faced with social situations.
  • Nausea and stomach discomfort: Feeling nauseous or upset before or during social interactions.
  • Blushing: People with social anxiety experience this as a common symptom. Frequent blushing or turning red can add to embarrassment.
  • Muscle tension: Experiencing tightness or tension in muscles due to anxiety.

Emotional symptoms

  • Intense fear of social situations: A persistent and overwhelming fear of being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated in social or performance situations is often seen in someone with social anxiety.
  • Excessive self-consciousness: Constantly feeling watched and evaluated by others, leading to acute self-awareness and discomfort.
  • Anticipatory anxiety: Worrying excessively about upcoming social events, sometimes weeks or months in advance.
  • Fear of rejection: A strong fear of being negatively evaluated or rejected by others, often resulting in avoiding social interactions.

Behavioral symptoms

  • Avoidance of social situations: Going out of the way to avoid social interactions thereby, limiting personal and professional opportunities.
  • Difficulty speaking: Trouble talking in social settings, often leading to stuttering or difficulty finding words.
  • Escaping social situations: Leaving events early or avoiding them altogether to prevent feelings of anxiety.

What is shyness?

Shyness is a personality trait involving discomfort or nervousness in social situations. 2 Unlike social anxiety disorder, shyness is not a mental health condition but a common experience many people encounter at different times.

Characteristics of shyness

Here are some key characteristics of shyness:

Social discomfort

  • Nervousness around others: Feeling nervous or uneasy in new situations or around people they don’t know well.
  • Avoiding eye contact: Often avoiding eye contact during conversations.
  • Soft-spoken: Speaking quietly or hesitating to speak up in group settings.

Hesitation in social interactions

  • Slow to warm up: Taking longer to feel comfortable in new social situations.
  • Reluctance to initiate conversation: Struggling to start conversations, especially with strangers or large groups.
  • Difficulty with spontaneous social interactions: Finding unplanned social encounters challenging.

Physical symptoms

  • Blushing: Often blushing when feeling embarrassed or self-conscious.
  • Sweating and trembling: Experiencing mild sweating or trembling when nervous.
  • Stomach discomfort: Feeling stomach discomfort or nausea in stressful social interactions.

Behavioral patterns

  • Preference for solitude: Preferring solitary activities or small groups of close friends over large gatherings.
  • Avoidance of attention: Avoid situations where they might be the center of attention.
  • Selective participation: Participating selectively in group settings, engaging only when comfortable.

Emotional experiences

  • Fear of judgment: Worrying about being judged or criticized by others.
  • Low self-esteem: Experiencing self-doubt and feeling inferior to more outgoing peers.
  • Feeling of inadequacy: Believing they are not interesting or engaging enough in social settings. 

Shyness vs social anxiety: The main differences between shyness and social anxiety

Shyness and social anxiety might seem similar, but they are different experiences with unique effects on daily life and mental health. 

Intensity of fear and discomfort

  • Shyness: Shy individuals feel mild to moderate discomfort in social situations. These feelings are usually manageable and do not prevent participation.
  • Social anxiety: Those with social anxiety disorder feel intense fear in social situations. This fear can interfere with daily activities, leading to avoidance of social interactions.

Impact on daily life

  • Shyness: Shyness may cause hesitation or discomfort but generally does not interfere with daily life. Shy individuals can still maintain relationships and perform well.
  • Social anxiety: Social anxiety disorder can severely affect daily life. It can hinder performance at school or work and lead to chronic avoidance of social situations.

Emotional response

  • Shyness: Shy individuals may feel nervous or awkward in social settings, but their emotional responses are usually short-lived and lessen as they become more comfortable.
  • Social Anxiety: People with social anxiety disorder experience persistent and intense emotional distress, such as panic attacks and excessive worry. These emotions can be overwhelming and long-lasting.

Avoidance behavior

  • Shyness: Shy individuals may avoid uncomfortable situations, like speaking in front of a large group, but they can usually overcome their shyness when necessary.
  • Social anxiety: People with social anxiety disorder often avoid social situations, leading to isolation and a restricted lifestyle. This avoidance can increase anxiety and make it harder to overcome.

Self-perception and thoughts

  • Shyness: Shy individuals might worry about how they are perceived but usually do not have pervasive negative thoughts. They can often overcome self-doubt.
  • Social anxiety: Individuals with social anxiety disorder often have persistent negative thoughts. They may feel flawed, unlikable, or incompetent, leading to constant self-criticism and fear of rejection.

Long-term consequences

  • Shyness: Shyness does not usually lead to long-term issues. Shy individuals can develop coping skills and become more confident over time.
  • Social anxiety: Without treatment, social anxiety disorder can cause long-term problems like depression, substance abuse, and other anxiety disorders. Persistent fear and avoidance can severely affect the quality of life and mental health.

Can shyness turn into social anxiety?

Shyness and social anxiety are different, but shyness can sometimes turn into a social anxiety disorder. 3 Here are some factors that can contribute to this change:

Increased stress and pressure

  • Social expectations: Increased expectations at school, work, or social settings can heighten anxiety in shy individuals.
  • Performance demands: Public speaking or presentations can push shy individuals toward more intense anxiety.

Negative experiences

  • Bullying or criticism: Experiencing bullying, harsh criticism, or rejection can reinforce feelings of inadequacy and fear, potentially leading to social anxiety.
  • Embarrassing situations: Shy individuals who have faced embarrassing experiences may develop a heightened fear of repetition, leading to avoidance and increased anxiety.

Lack of support

  • Limited social skills: Without support in developing social skills, shy individuals may struggle with social interactions, increasing their anxiety.
  • Isolation: A lack of supportive relationships can worsen feelings of loneliness and fear, making it harder to overcome shyness and increasing the risk of social anxiety.

Family influence

  • Parental modeling: Anxious or overly critical parents can increase a child’s anxiety in social situations.
  • Overprotection: Overprotective parenting can prevent shy individuals from facing social challenges, reinforcing their fears and contributing to social anxiety.

Underlying mental health conditions

  • Genetic predisposition: A family history of anxiety or other mental health disorders can increase the likelihood of a shy individual developing social anxiety.
  • Co-occurring conditions: Conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can compound shyness and contribute to the onset of social anxiety disorder.

Coping mechanisms

  • Avoidance behavior: Shy individuals who avoid social situations may reinforce their fears, increasing the likelihood of developing social anxiety.
  • Negative self-talk: Persistent negative thoughts and self-criticism can erode self-esteem and increase anxiety, contributing to social anxiety disorder.

Environmental factors

  • High-stress environments: Frequent social demands in a high-stress environment can worsen shyness and lead to social anxiety.
  • Life transitions: Major changes, like moving, starting a new job, or entering a new school, can increase stress and anxiety, potentially turning shyness into social anxiety.

Treatment for social anxiety disorders

Social anxiety disorder can be managed with a variety of treatments. Here are some common options:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • How it works: CBT helps you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors. You’ll learn to challenge irrational fears and gradually face social situations, a common method used in therapy for social anxiety.
  • Benefits: It provides practical tools to manage anxiety and build confidence.


  • Types: Includes SSRIs, SNRIs, and benzodiazepines.
  • How it works: These medications help regulate mood and provide short-term relief from anxiety symptoms.
  • Benefits: Medications can reduce anxiety and improve daily functioning, especially in severe cases.

Exposure Therapy

  • How it works: Gradual exposure to feared social situations helps reduce anxiety over time.
  • Benefits: This therapy builds confidence and reduces avoidance of social situations.

Group Therapy

  • How it works: In a supportive group, you can share experiences and practice social skills.
  • Benefits: Group sessions provide a sense of community and opportunities to practice interacting with others.

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

  • How it works: Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation help manage anxiety.
  • Benefits: These techniques reduce overall anxiety and improve emotional well-being.

Lifestyle changes

  • Healthy habits: Regular exercise, a balanced diet, adequate sleep, and limiting caffeine and alcohol can support mental health.
  • Social skills training: Learning communication and assertiveness skills can help.
  • Benefits: Lifestyle changes improve overall well-being and social confidence.

Final thoughts

Completion anxiety can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to face it alone. Recognizing the signs and seeking help when needed can make a big difference in managing your anxiety and improving your daily life.

If you’re struggling with procrastination and perfectionism, our anxiety treatment program in Arizona offers the support and tools you need. Reach out to us today to take the first step towards a more balanced and fulfilling life. We’re here to help.

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  1. 1. National Institute of Mental Health. (2022). Social anxiety disorder: More than just shyness. National Institutes of Health.
  2. 2. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Shyness. American Psychological Association. Retrieved July 1, 2024, from
  3. 3. Blöte, A. W., Miers, A. C., Van den Bos, E., & Westenberg, P. M. (2019). Negative social self-cognitions: How shyness may lead to social anxiety. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 63, 9-15.