We’ve all experienced a feeling of timidness when meeting new people or preparing for a big speech. For the nearly 15 million Americans who live with social anxiety disorder, those feelings can become all-consuming and immobilizing.
Social anxiety is an “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Over a third of people with social anxiety disorder delay reporting their symptoms for a decade or more, the group says. Often, they assume the anxiety will just go away in time.
Because the symptoms can look like just a bad case of nerves, it’s all too easy to misunderstand social anxiety. We asked two experts to dispel some common misconceptions about the disorder. Here are a few things about social anxiety that many people get wrong:
1. Social anxiety is different from shyness.
Shyness is more of a character trait, whereas social anxiety is an interruption in the flow of your daily routines, said Victor Schwartz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University’s School of Medicine.
“When extreme shyness interferes with functioning or impedes someone from making progress in their life, then it’s a problem,” noted Schwartz, who also serves as chief medical officer at The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit suicide-prevention organization. “If it’s not interfering with your functioning then it’s likely not social anxiety.”
All humans are bound to experience feelings of discomfort, uncertainty, or shyness when stepping into a new social situation for the first time, explained Kevin Caridad, a therapist and CEO of the Cognitive Behavior Institute in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. He noted that social anxiety can have a particularly strong impact on a person’s social life.
“People with social anxiety will stop going to social events, avoid hanging out in larger groups or won’t go to the store,” Caridad said. “They don’t leave the house or can’t get a job because they have these thoughts and beliefs that are very distorted.”
2. Social anxiety is a mental illness.
Social anxiety is a form of anxiety and is thus considered a mental health condition. In fact, social anxiety can cause some of the same symptoms that accompany generalized anxiety disorder, Schwartz said.
“Physical manifestations of social anxiety can include feelings of a heart racing, feeling sweaty, short of breath, and feeling faint,” he added. “Some people actually have a hard time identifying anxiety and recognizing what it is.”
The symptoms can vary from person to person ― as can the severity of symptoms, said Caridad. Some people with social anxiety can continue to live life as normal, but others experience symptoms that impact their quality of life.
3. Social anxiety can be treated.
There are more options than ever when it comes to improving mental health, and that includes possible treatments for social anxiety.
“The only real way to improve is by getting the help you need,” Caridad said. “There’s cognitive therapy, therapists, and national resources available. And now, we’re also using technology and video therapy so we can start by helping people at home and then help them to begin to leave their homes.”
Treatment options will vary depending on the individual. Schwartz noted that in some cases, people will succeed at treating social anxiety on their own. But it’s a good idea for people who suspect they may be experiencing social anxiety to consult a professional.
“Ideally find someone who is knowledgeable in anxiety problems and has experience in addressing those,” Schwartz said. “The single best indicator that you found the right therapist is feeling comfortable personally with them.”
Both experts advised that it may take time for treatments or therapy to begin working, but the first steps in getting better are getting the right information and asking for help.