Life Beyond Therapy: What is social anxiety?

As a psychotherapist, lots of clients ask me if shyness or social anxiety is normal.  It’s a tricky question: aren’t we all a little shy in new situations? Most of us are, but some people are energized by a room full of strangers and find it stimulating: “Oh, wow, all these new people. How cool is that?”

If this is not you, never fear, it’s not true for most of us. Let’s look at shyness and social anxiety and see if we can understand them better.

Social anxiety is an intense fear of criticism from and/or rejection by others. You feel insecure, not good enough for other people, like there’s something wrong with you. As a result, you feel fear and anxiety in social situations. This fear is so great that you may feel anxious just thinking about social situations and will go to great lengths to avoid them.

Shyness is the less-intense cousin of social anxiety: you feel uncomfortable or awkward when you’re around other people, especially in new situations or with unfamiliar people. You’re afraid to say or do what you want. Smiling, starting conversations, being relaxed and making eye contact with others are not easy for you.

Shy folks may seem distant during conversations. Ironically, trying too hard to help a shy person join in a social situation can backfire, making them feel worse by drawing attention to them and reinforcing the idea that there’s something wrong with them.

Shy people feel reticence and hesitation in social situations; people with social anxiety experience panic and intense anxiety. What can we do about this stuff?

If you are shy or afraid of social situations, consider this:

Acknowledge the conflict between your desire to belong and your fear of rejection

Set specific, manageable goals (e.g., go to a party) and reasonable means to attain them (go with a friend who will give you moral support)

Challenge negative thoughts about yourself  (e.g., “I’m terrible at talking with attractive men/women.”)

Remember that shyness and social anxiety are common and universal experiences for most of us: you are not alone!

Be mindful about using alcohol and drugs to temporarily lower social anxiety

The two most common ways to reduce shyness and social anxiety are psychotherapy and medication.

If you’re working on your shyness/social anxiety, psychotherapy not only gives you a place to explore your needs and behaviors in a safe environment, but it also provides you with skills to increase your social risk-taking and self-acceptance. A good therapist will give you support and help you to reduce your self-blame and shame.

I often use cognitive therapy techniques in helping clients with shyness and social anxiety. I help you learn how to guide your thoughts in a more rational direction when you feel anxious or scared of social situations. This kind of therapy helps you to (slowly) become more comfortable in situations that once caused you anxiety. I also teach clients relaxation and stress management techniques (like breathing methods] and muscle relaxation) specifically designed to reduce social anxiety and shyness.  

Different types of medications are used to treat social anxiety disorder: anti-depressants like Paxil or benzodiazepines like Librium, Valium, and Ativan. A good psychiatrist is the person to talk with about these.

In the long run, we are all pretty much stuck with our personalities, aren’t we? Bold people don’t usually become quiet; shy people rarely metamorphosize into attention-seekers. But, we can all learn to work with what we’ve got: to minimize unrealistic fears and maximize our enjoyment of life.

If you’re shy, find a balance in the social world that works for you. Many shy people are wise and thoughtful. They may not dance on the bar, but they usually have deeper, more meaningful qualities that make them worth knowing. Work with your shyness so you don’t end up isolated. Make peace with it: intense social lives are not for everyone. Some of us prefer a quieter life.

On the other hand, severe social anxiety can be emotionally crippling. Get help with it. Don’t suffer unnecessarily. People do like you and want to be with you. Don’t let distorted thinking keep you home alone. Find ways to break out of the box.

About Michael Kimmel: 

Born in northwestern Ohio (the oldest of four children), Kimmel grew up in a small farm town. Eventually, he escaped the farm and made it to the big city of Cincinnati, where I earned a B.A. in Personnel and Group Development.

After graduation, Kimmel moved to London where he worked at a punk clothing store in Covent Garden. During much of his 20's he lived in Egypt, Denmark, Greece and (the former) Yugoslavia and hitchhiked all over Europe. After returning to the USA, Kimmel earned a Master's Degree in Developmental Psychology while interning for Sesame Street in New York City.

In San Francisco, I was the Clinical Director for the Homeless Children's Network and a counselor for Aptos and Potrero Hill Middle Schools while earning my second Master's Degree. In San Diego, I've worked as a licensed psychotherapist for Kaiser Permanente (Point Loma Psychiatry), Psychiatric Centers at San Diego and San Diego Hospice. I opened my private practice in 2002, primarily serving the Southern California LGBT community. Click here for more Life Beyond Therapy.



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