Is social anxiety just another name for being really shy?

Almost everyone gets a little anxious or embarrassed in front of other people now and then, though some of us are more shy than others. Although there is some discomfort, for many people shyness is a manageable emotion. Sometimes though the anxiety can be so intense that it stops us from doing the things we enjoy, or starts interfering in our daily lives.

Fear of social situations is common especially in people who tend to think negative thoughts about themselves and who worry what others think of them. (It’s great to be confident, assured and not give a damn what others think – but few people are really like this all the time.)

Because shyness can affect one area of our life and not others, it’s possible for shy people to appear outgoing to others looking in from the outside. Most of you have heard of actors who go on stage and deliver a brilliant performance, but are shy and timid in their real life. Some of you will be able to relate; maybe you’re able to be more outgoing at work than you are in your personal life, or vice versa. But why?

When we’re at work, we have a role to play and that role legitimizes us in our own eyes and the eyes of others and we feel confident and not shy or anxious in this role.

We may not be shy in our personal life or at least with our close family and friends, as these are the people who know us well. We feel safe, comfortable, and not judged. We know and trust them. Anything outside of this familiar territory may be frightening and shyness can be an indication of our fear of the unknown or the worry of what others may think.

For some of us, shyness is serious enough to be given a name – or two names in fact – social phobia, also known as social anxiety. This is an ‘extreme’ form of shyness where in social situations, the experience is one of intense anxiety, with symptoms like blushing, sweating, trembling, dizziness, heart palpitations and a dry mouth. Social anxiety usually develops by the mid teenage years and is actually quite common – about one person in ten experiences it at some time or other. About half of these people will experience anxiety in all social situations, whereas the other half only when it comes to specific situations: public speaking, a presentation or some other event when they’re called on to perform. If left untreated Social anxiety can add to the onset of other problems such as, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol misuse, and sometimes suicide feelings.

Social anxiety can cause people to not function as competently as they might otherwise, for example, a high school student might be so overwhelmed by the fear of standing up to give a report, that they cannot complete the assignment and fail classes. People with social anxiety have been known to go to great lengths to avoid situations where other people are present – not just social gatherings, but school classes and work meetings. Fearing they will be embarrassed or humiliated, they don’t turn up, or if they do, they don’t get involved. They may sit at the back of a meeting room or avoid going to the lunch area at work, hoping not to be noticed. Some people, in spite of being very competent, curb their careers, by staying in positions that are well below their capacity because they’re afraid of applying for a promotion or going out and looking for a better job. In other words, being shy can complicate your life, but having social anxiety can stop it in its tracks.


Nobody knows for sure why one person suffers from it and another doesn’t. It could be partly in the genes – toddlers who are shy are more likely to be shy as adults (though most shy children don’t go on to suffer shyness in adulthood). Or it could be partly due to the way a person is brought up – someone with overprotective and very critical parents may be more likely to develop social phobia. Or perhaps it’s due to abnormal responses in brain pathways that govern emotional responses, or combinations of all three.


Nearly everybody feels awkward in social situations at some time or other. How do you know if your anxiety is serious enough to seek professional help? In the New England Journal of Medicine there was a handy little test to tell whether your anxiety is serious. Don’t be anxious, take the test.

Consider these three statements in turn:

  • Fear of embarrassment causes me to avoid doing things or speaking to people
  • I avoid activities in which I’m the centre of attention
  • Being embarrassed or looking stupid is among my worst fears.

Now give yourself a rating for each statement from 0 to 4, where 0 is not at all, 1 is a little bit, 2 is somewhat, 3 is very much, and 4 is extremely. A total score of 6 or more means you could have a problem and you may benefit from talking about it with a health professional, the authors say.


  • high levels of anxiety when exposed to the feared situation (sweating, dizziness, blushing)
  • fear that others are scrutinizing or judging you in a negative way
  • feelings of self consciousness and inadequacy
  • an overwhelming feeling of wanting to escape
  • avoidance of the feared situations which can lead to social isolation from family, friends and society
  • reliance on drugs and alcohol to get you through the feared situation.


  • speaking in public
  • speaking to someone of the opposite sex
  • meeting new people
  • using the telephone
  • being the centre of attention
  • eating and drinking in public
  • exams
  • performing
  • being watched doing something
  • talking to someone important (for example: your boss)
  • job interviews.


  • quietly and passively
  • avoiding eye contact
  • avoiding social situations
  • speaking quietly
  • nervous behaviours, such as touching your hair or face a lot.


  • fast heart beat
  • dry mouth
  • shaking
  • sweating
  • feeling faint or dizzy
  • butterflies in your stomach or feeling sick
  • feeling like the situation is unreal or you are removed
  • fear of losing control, going crazy, or having a heart attack.


  • negative thoughts about yourself, the situation, and others
  • wanting to be perfect to avoid judgment
  • blaming and beating yourself up, particularly after a social situation
  • believing yourself as weak and others as powerful
  • thinking: “I don’t fit in” or “I’m unattractive” and so on.


  • embarrassed
  • self-consciousness
  • silly
  • low self-esteem
  • sad
  • lonely
  • depressed
  • anxious/ worried.


Unfortunately, many people with social anxiety don’t seek treatment, or suffer from it needlessly for years before they do. Social Anxiety can be treated with psychotherapy and there are several methods that are very effective.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a way of changing your thinking about feared events so that you approach them in a more rational way, with less anxiety. For example, rather than thinking: “I’ll be so nervous, I’ll make a compete fool of myself, they’ll laugh at me”, you’re encouraged to think: “It’s okay to be nervous, people expect it, and in fact they’ll be supportive and sympathetic because they want to listen to what I have to say”.

CBT helps replace negative thought patterns with more realistic ones – based on what is likely to happen rather than what you fear might happen.

Some psychologists also recommend other types of therapies such as exposure therapy, where you imagine yourself in the situation that makes you anxious, and with the aid of relaxation techniques, learn to overcome your fear.

Mindfulness Practice is being increasingly recognised as an effective therapeutic tool to treat many conditions and is recommended as another treatment for all forms of anxiety.

Gestalt Therapy is an wholistic, experiential, and mindfulness based therapy that combines the effectiveness of both CBT and Mindfulness Practice to assist clients to increase their capacity for self-reflection and awareness of their thoughts and beliefs, emotions, and behaviours.

If you feel that your shyness or social anxiety is keeping you from doing the things that you want to do and would like to know more about psychotherapeutic treatments please contact Diana by telephone or email.

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