Even the most outgoing people occasionally experience social anxiety. It is a normal emotion, part of being human. Everyone feels at least a tinge of it during potentially awkward situations like a first date.
Social anxiety is not inherently bad either. The instinct can prevent us from disclosing too much when meeting new people or communicating in public forums. This benefit allows us to manage our image and be cautious when opening up to strangers. A healthy dose of social anxiety is protective, not detrimental.
Then there is social anxiety disorder [SAD]—the point where the emotion passes the threshold from helpful to inhibitive. The challenge is defining this boundary between a response to specific social situations and a mental illness. It can be difficult to discern because both mental health professionals and people who live with SAD use the term, “social anxiety,” to refer to social anxiety disorder. This tendency leads some to believe “social anxiety” is a synonym or shorthand for the disorder.
Nevertheless, there are clear distinctions between the tendency to feel social anxiety and the actual disorder. Therapists typically diagnose social anxiety disorder by assessing how much the illness is causing distress and limiting social activities and relationships.
Someone who is shy might experience social anxiety at a party, for example. A person who lives with social anxiety disorder, despite being interested in the event, would most likely refuse the invitation or make an excuse not to go. The same logic applies to dating. People with SAD often abstain from romantic relationships, even if they want to find a partner.
Social anxiety disorder changes how people cognitively process social situations. During events and gatherings, worries about how others might be negatively evaluating them consume people with SAD. They can think of little else, which makes them unable to take pleasure in new conversations and experiences.
In her article about signs of social anxiety disorder, therapist Samantha Rodman offered a few more examples of maladaptive behavior and thinking patterns that are common among those with the condition:
- Using anxiety to deny interest in social events
- Being terrified to go out when their appearance changes (breakouts, haircut, etc.)
- Expecting people to not be friends with them
- Many excuses for not dating
- Denying feelings of loneliness
- Believing people—even those they know—secretly look down on them
- Excessively editing social media updates before posting, still thinking they don’t look good and will invite judgment
- Acting differently when anonymous
- Thinking it is normal to fear judgment constantly
- Secretly wondering what life would be like if they were more social and confident
To warrant a diagnosis, these signs need to be persistent. Therapists typically only diagnose a client with SAD if their social anxiety symptoms have been present for more than six months. This requirement allows clinicians to exclude people who experience temporary social anxiety, often in response to a traumatic event.
If these descriptions of social anxiety disorder sound familiar, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for an official diagnosis. Proper treatment can help you learn to have fun at social outings and foster better relationships.