Introversion, Shy, Socially Anxious: What’s the Difference?

“Introvert”, “shy”, and “socially anxious” are commonly used interchangeably to describe individuals who prefer to keep to themselves or who aren’t very outgoing and sociable. While they may have similar characteristics, the three terms mean different things. Being able to differentiate between them will allow you to develop a deeper understanding of others, helping you build a greater sensitivity towards individuals who do suffer from social anxiety in particular.

The terms introvert and extrovert were popularized by Carl Jung in the early 20th century. Introverts may only seem shy on the exterior because they are typically soft-spoken and reserved. However, not all are shy; introverts find other people and over-stimulating environments to be tiring, and regain energy by resting and being alone. They tend to prefer an evening with a good friend over attending a large party. They are thoughtful, thinking before they speak, and they also prefer to observe rather than participate in discussions.

Compared to shyness, introversion is not a characteristic that is outgrown or developed, but is rather a trait that is inherent in an individual. In contrast, extroverts are people who are energized when surrounded by others, and who enjoy social situations and interacting with others. They prefer to spend time with others than to be alone. At the same time, introversion and extraversion are on opposite ends of a spectrum; there are plenty of individuals who fall in between. Ambiversion is a term that describes people who feel comfortable with social interactions, but who may also talk less and treasure time alone.

People who are introverts often describe themselves (or are described) as shy, but shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shyness has, at its heart, a fear of negative judgment by others. Think of the difference this way: If asked to a party, an introvert might think about whether they wanted to expend their precious supply of social energy. A shy person, however, might think about how others at the party would perceive them. As author Susan Cain explained in “Quiet,” her landmark book on introverts: “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.” One stays home from the party from preference, in other words, and the other from fear.

Unlike introversion, shyness is better understood as a response, rather than a state of being. It’s the social discomfort we feel whenever we worry about measuring up or appearing out of place or awkward. Nearly everyone has felt some degree of shyness at least once. However, severely shy individuals may have further issues with building relationships at school or at work, possibly leading to social anxiety.

Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, does have an element of shyness to it. However, the main difference between the two, is severity.

Severity in the level of anxiety:
Mild anxiety levels in social situations is in keeping with shyness. High anxiety levels in social situations is more in keeping with social anxiety disorder.

Severity in the degree of avoidance:
Little or no avoidance of social situations, is in keeping with shyness. However, avoidance which interferes with life is characteristic of social anxiety disorder. For example, a person suffering from social anxiety may avoid going out, or meeting people, or drop out of school, or avoid careers they are capable of. It interferes with their life now, and in what they want to do in the future.

Severity in the persistence of symptoms:
Generally someone who is shy will feel uncomfortable when meeting someone for the first time. This usually gets better with time, as they become more familiar and comfortable in that social setting. However, someone with social anxiety disorder may continue to be anxious even when they get to know the other person better.

The most distinguishing feature between social anxiety disorder and shyness is that social anxiety disorder debilitates one’s functioning, and not just socially. In adults, social anxiety can impair one’s work functioning and cause conflicts in family life. In children, social anxiety can interfere with academic achievement, school attendance, social hobbies, and making friends. Furthermore, the lack of self-confidence of social anxiety sufferers tends to result in poor assertiveness skills, and often leads to other psychiatric conditions, such as depression, other anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.

Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, has been shown to be effective in treating social anxiety disorder. Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants can also help in some cases. If you are struggling with SAD, reach out for help from your doctor or a licensed mental health professional.

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6 Things Not to Say to Someone with Social Anxiety

social anxiety
Fear. Apprehension. Avoidance. Pain. Anxious about what you said. Terrified you did something wrong. Anticipating others’ disapproval. Scared of rejection and of not fitting in. Worried about how to enter a conversation, afraid you won’t have anything to talk about. Living in constant fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by others, leading to frequent feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression. This is what it is like to live with social anxiety. All day. Every day.

Studies have recently pegged Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) as the third largest mental health issue in the United States, after depression and alcoholism. It is estimated that about 7% of the population suffers from some form of social anxiety at the present time. If someone you care about or work with has social anxiety, it’s important to find ways to support that individual, rather than criticize and/or condemn. In no particular order, here are a handful of well-meaning statements you might want to avoid when you’re trying to help a loved one cope with social anxiety.

“Why are you so quiet?”

5 words that people with SAD loathe hearing. We seem to live in a society that values outgoing, loud people over quiet people. Being quiet is somehow not acceptable in our culture, so if you aren’t talkative enough, then you must be “brought out of your shell”. But asking a person with social anxiety why they are quiet is probably the easiest and most effective way of making that person feel worse. Not only are you singling out someone who doesn’t want to be the center of attention, but you’re also bringing attention to that person’s anxiety.

Instead, try asking the other person open-ended questions about topics that they are passionate about. Or better yet, share stories and details about yourself first before asking too much of the person with SAD. Most people who are socially anxious enjoy listening to others more than talking about themselves.

“You need to just calm down.”

One of the most common myths is that an anxious person can calm down on command. But telling someone with SAD to “just calm down” is akin to telling someone with allergies to “just stop sneezing”. The debilitating problem with social anxiety disorder is that the anxiety sufferer simply can’t calm down. If they could, they would. Telling someone to “calm down” is invalidating to the person who is struggling and implies that they are choosing to feel anxious and that they have the ability to flip a switch in their brains and enter a mode of tranquility on command. If only it were that simple.

Instead, ask the other person how you can best support them in the moment or ask, “What do you need?” Offer to do something with them to help alleviate their symptoms, such as taking a walk, going to the gym together, or meditation.

“I totally understand. I felt the same way when I gave my presentation/went to the dentist’s office/had a job interview, etc.”

Unless you have been diagnosed with SAD, never ever say anything like this to someone suffering from social anxiety, because you have no idea how they feel. Just because you have experienced some nervousness before giving a speech or attending a job interview, does not mean that you have a thorough understanding of what someone struggling with an anxiety disorder is going through. And for the record, shyness and social anxiety are two different things. Shyness is a personality trait. Many people who are shy do not experience the difficult, painful emotions and feelings that accompany social anxiety disorder. They live a normal, functioning life and do not view shyness as a negative trait.

Wow, your face is turning bright red!”

Studies show that when people tell you your face is turning red (even if it’s not) you will begin to turn red. When people tell us we are blushing we hear: ‘I’m judging you negatively.’ At least this is what we assume is happening. According to a study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy: “The belief one is blushing brings about negative beliefs about the judgment of others, and might even enhance the blush response itself.” Those with SAD often find that having a redder face causes them a great deal of embarrassment. They want to hide their face in public, which ultimately makes them more self-conscious and possibly creates more anxiety in the future. Avoid pointing this out. It is not something that is within the person’s control, and calling attention to it will only further embarrass them.

“But you don’t seem anxious.”         

It’s not always obvious that someone is suffering from social anxiety. In addition, that person might be on medication or may be trying incredibly hard to overcome their feelings. Although “you seem fine” may actually be intended to sound reassuring, it is invalidating to the person experiencing the anxiety, because they feel like they’re not being heard. Social anxiety is not always visible. Not everyone shakes or hyperventilates when they have a panic attack. Many individuals with SAD have learned to hide their anxiety very well. But that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.

Instead, listen to the other person when they tell you how they feel. Ask, “Can you tell me more about your experience?” If they prefer not to talk about it, don’t push them. Listen when they are ready to share.

“Everything will be fine.”

There is no way you can know that. This uncertainty is a big factor that fuels anxiety. When someone says this to a person experiencing SAD, it can feel dismissive—causing them to shut down emotionally, thus preventing any further exploration or conversation about what they’re experiencing. Saying everything will be ok without really exploring the fears and feelings of the person in front of you is as useful as telling them that you are going to give them $10,000 to cheer them up. Unless you have the cash on hand and plan to deliver it, it’s an empty promise.

Instead, let the person know that it is okay to feel anxious, fearful, worried, apprehensive, etc. There is an element of shame associated with these emotions that makes it hard for some people to even acknowledge them, let alone open up to others about what they’re experiencing. It can be helpful to reassure the other person that you care and do not judge him or her negatively for feeling the way they do.

So, there you have it! By avoiding the use of stigmatizing statements and approaching those struggling with social anxiety with compassion and understanding, you can help to eradicate some of the shame that is associated with this chronic, often debilitating disorder. If you or someone you know is suffering from social anxiety, seek professional help from a licensed therapist and/or support from loved ones.

Contact me todayemail me, or call me at (585) 615-6985 for a free initial phone consultation.

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4 Mindfulness Strategies to Combat Holiday Social Anxiety

Mindfulness to Manage Holiday Social Anxiety
It’s that time of year again. The weather is getting colder, the days are getting shorter, and soon holiday happenings and gatherings will once again commence. The holiday season can be a lot of fun for many people, but for those living with social anxiety, the added social pressures and obligations can feel overwhelming.

According to the DSM-5, social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia) is an anxiety disorder in which a person experiences excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations. Anxiety (intense nervousness) and self-consciousness arise from a fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum (and we are all on there somewhere), mindfulness—the gentle, intentional effort to be continuously present with experience—can help alleviate symptoms of social anxiety and improve quality of life. Here are some mindfulness strategies to implement this holiday season:

Accept that you will be nervous. Because you will be. And that’s okay. Often, when people experience an uncomfortable emotion, such as fear, anxiety, or shame, their initial response is to reject that feeling. They label the feeling as “bad” and do everything in their power to inhibit, suppress, ignore, or conquer the feeling. Understand that feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong. They just are. Instead of avoiding or trying to move away from your emotions, you can learn to gently ‘turn towards’ what you are experiencing and allow the feelings to come and go naturally, without struggling with them. It is only by turning towards your pain and uncomfortable emotions that you will find relief from them—not by turning away.

Stay present. People with social anxiety have a tendency to work themselves up prior to social gatherings and events, remembering the last time they were there, and replaying awkward or embarrassing moments over and over in their heads. Programmed to expect the worst, social anxiety sufferers often experience “anticipatory” anxiety—the fear of an upcoming social or performance situation before it even happens—and will worry for days, weeks, or even months before an upcoming social situation. When your mind ruminates about the past or worries over the future, it has left the present moment. Remind yourself that this is a new day and a new event. Use “I am…” statements to help you remain grounded in the here and now. Tell yourself, “I am brushing my teeth”, “I am parking my car”, or “I am walking into the restaurant”.

Notice your surroundings. Socially anxious people tend to draw their focus inward (on self). Studies have found that people who rate themselves as shy in social situations have poor recall for external details in their environment because they generally look inward, not outward. So, it makes sense to focus outward more to lower anxiety. To reduce the concentration on yourself, engage with your surroundings. Observe the people around you and your environment. Study the pictures on the walls, notice the shapes and textures of the objects in the room, listen to what music is being played, smell the food cooking, observe what people are wearing, what color their eyes are. Engage all of your senses.

Mindfulness of breath. Anxiety can cause hyperventilation, a form of rapid or shallow breathing, which precipitates other bodily reactions (heart palpitations, cold or sweaty palms, etc.) that anxious people may misinterpret as signs of immediate danger. By retraining yourself to breathe differently during anxiety-inducing situations, you’ll send a message to your brain that what you’re experiencing is not life-threatening, and you will feel more in control. Square breathing, sometimes referred to as the box breathing technique, is a simple, easy, and effective way to relieve anxiety or panic and enjoy a few moments of relaxation. Square breathing is practiced as follows:

  • Breathe in for 4 counts
  • Hold breath for 4 counts
  • Fully exhale for 4 counts
  • Repeat 4 times

For those who suffer from social anxiety disorder, the holiday season can prove especially challenging. Putting strategies in place and living more mindfully are the first steps to effectively managing anxiety and enjoying the celebrations. Above all else, remember to be kind to yourself along the way.

Wishing you a mindful holiday season!