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When Does Social Anxiety Become a Disorder?

We live in a social world.

Between social media, social networking, and the importance of personality and individuality in business, never has it paid off this much to love talking to people and making as many contacts as possible.

The Internet has connected large portions of the world, with over three billion users and countless Facebook netizens, Twitter account holders, and Instagrammers. Social equity has become a valued commodity for people and businesses alike and is beginning to become part of an almost abstract gamification process wherein people are psychologically rewarded for getting more followers and making more friends and sharing more content to groom their online reputation, for personal reasons and professional ones.

All this hyper-connectivity and hyper social activity have created a contrast by which the world’s population of less socially inclined individuals are suffering a little bit of a crisis, in which they aren’t sure how to deal with the new world. Everything is so busy and buzzing, and everybody and their mother seems to be vying for a place in the larger social order. It’s only natural, then, that for those with feelings of social anxiety, a new niche has developed where people come to talk about their negative feelings towards the development of social equity as a commodity and a means to compete online. Instead of being freeing, and a means to communicate over long-distance, social technology has a choking effect on them.

While the growth in social technology has basically become a boon for a lot of people, creating possibilities that would never have existed even a decade ago, there’s also a certain loneliness and growing feelings of anxiety developing especially among millennials. It’s not just some sort of hypersensitivity on part of today’s youngsters – there’s a legitimate list of factors increasing feelings of anxiety, such as the fear of missing out and the pressures of being “socially viable” in an all-new, technological way.

With all of that, terms like shyness, anxiety, and introversion have made the rounds nowadays – but unfortunately, they seem to be making the rounds in an interchangeable fashion. Each of those terms has a strict meaning – and people, especially youngsters, need to know the difference between feeling discontent with their place in today’s world and suffering from a mental illness like an anxiety disorder.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a state of severe anxiousness, usually, one where you’re susceptible to fear, paranoia, and irrational worries. Social anxiety, for example, is the worry that you’re being judged and rated by others, usually in a negative way. That fear is so powerful that you’d much rather avoid all social contact than risk feeling like you’re being exposed and ridiculed behind your back.

Social anxiety can apply to a single instance of social interaction, like a family gathering, or school, or public speaking. That means you can be comfortable with nearly every other social setting, but suddenly have an onslaught of worries and negative thoughts when confronted with that specific type of interaction.

Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are a mental diagnosis characterized by a severe set of symptoms based on anxiety and fear, with physical symptoms like hyperventilation, elevated heart rate, shakiness, and even panic attacks. Anxiety disorders can produce an anxiety attack without warning or reason, or, they can be triggered by excessive stress. Sometimes, anxiety disorders are linked to a different mental illness like major depression and manic depression. At other times, anxiety can lead to depression.

The difference is a matter of frequency, severity, and reason. Anxiety – without the disorder part – is triggered. It comes, and it goes again. But in an anxiety disorder, whether a generalized anxiety disorder or something more specific, the anxiety can stay long after the perceived threat or danger has passed. A person can be anxious about anything – it depends on their specific fears, or what they’ve developed the most aversion to. Having a social anxiety symptoms is common, but one can also be anxious about travel, tight spaces, certain animals, or other things. In these scenarios, the anxiety disorder is also known as a phobia.

Differentiating Shyness with Anxiety

Sometimes, a person’s discomfort with certain social situations is conflated with anxiety. There is a difference – it lies in the ability of a person to go through with a social engagement anyways. You can a shy person and still meet others when you must, do public speaking and more without having a breakdown. You can be shy, but still capable of ordering a pizza over the phone without giving yourself a pep talk and preparing mentally for the arduous experience of conversing with a stranger over the telephone.

Where social anxiety is the feeling of fear or paranoia towards others and their intentions, perceptions and thoughts towards you and who you are – in other words, the fear of being eternally and intently judged for every little thing you do, in a very negative sense – shyness is characterized by a certain degree of discomfort in public or very social situations, but not necessarily an abject fear or feeling of anxiousness. Shyness can turn into anxiety, for any number of reasons. But it’s not a prerequisite – you can develop an anxiety disorder as an extrovert – and it is not anxiety, social or otherwise.

A good way to look at it is a very mild form of anxiety. You’re anxious about certain situations, in a negative sense, but it’s not a mind-numbingly challenging prospect. Deeper within the definition of social discomfort, however, lurks actual anxiety – and separately from that is an anxiety disorder, from generalized anxiety disorder to post-traumatic stress, and other forms of anxiety like obsessive compulsive behavior.

Introversion and Social Anxiety

Some people “hate” going out to parties. They just don’t want to expand their friend circle and are perfectly fine with the two or three friends they have. Their idea of a perfect date with their partner involves the two of them in total solitude, with some TV or a nice home cooked meal, rather than out and about in public.

The term hate is being used a bit impetuously here, but you get the point – some people just don’t like people very much, or more aptly, they prefer the company of those they know well rather than new folks. These people tend to skewer towards introversion. We usually describe introversion as social withdrawal, with introverts preferring the company of a small circle of friends or no one at all, to the multitude of strangers at a party or in a crowd.

Of course, it’s not that simple. While introversion exists, total introverts are rare. People have introverted and extroverted tendencies, and they might find themselves on both sides of the scale when comparing their behavior to usual markers of introversion and extroversion as per the official Myers-Briggs type indicator. When it comes to statistics, it’s fair to say that half of the population favors introversion more than extroversion, and the other half favors the opposite.

However, even in people who skew heavily towards introversion, it’s wrong to assume that social anxiety plays a role in their decision to “stick to the inner world”. Preferences aren’t always dictated by fear or hatred. They’re dictated by the simple equation of, well, what we prefer.

Introversion is neither a marker of social anxiety nor is it a marker of shyness. You can prefer to keep very close company or stay within the comforts of your own home, and still be perfectly capable of socializing in times of necessity. However, when you look at it the other way around, it’s a different story. In cases of social anxiety and anxiety disorders, a person’s preferences aren’t molded around what they feel more comfortable with, but rather, around what they absolutely can’t stand. When you fear something, it defines you, like the lines of a shape on paper define its features and parameters.

As I’ve mentioned, though, social anxiety is different from an anxiety disorder (or more specifically, a social anxiety disorder). Those suffering from a social anxiety disorder have a general feeling of anxiousness – the oppressive kind that constricts your chest and causes a host of other symptoms, including the dreaded panic attack – in social situations. However, being socially anxious can apply to a single scenario. For example, certain extroverts may be outgoing and fond of large crowds and parties in private – but when asked to engage in public speaking or meet clients on a professional basis, they might close, and fear the situation.

The key difference here is that you don’t have to fear social contact to be introverted, although you’re most likely going to skew towards introversion if you have a severe problem with social interaction in general. But if it’s a single type of interaction you fear, there’s no way of knowing where you lie on the scale.

Having clearer definitions for these things – introversion, shyness and social anxiety alike – is important. You need to know when it’s time to seek help, and when what others might consider a problem is just a normal part of a healthy personality, not a disorder that can cripple your chances at a fulfilling life without the proper attention.

Introversion and Shyness Isn’t Mental Illness

So, let’s review. If you’re uncomfortable around others but still function rather normally, you’re shy. There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re still somewhat confident that your shyness won’t bar you from pursuing your goals in life.

If you’re anxious about a certain type of social interaction, then seeking some help or taking online advice on dealing with social anxiety might help you reduce your sensitivity to said interaction, and help you deal with it more normally. Note, however, that anxiety itself is “normal”, in the sense that it’s a reaction to high levels of stress.

If you’re deeply anxious about social interaction in almost any form, then you may have a mental disorder – one that is treatable and can be tackled without medication through talk therapy, self-therapy, and other forms of treatment.

On top of all of that, we’ve got introversion – one side of a spectrum that determines whether you’re more comfortable among many people, or within your own thoughts.

Anxiety disorders can be crippling in the sense that they severely limit what you can do in life – but being shy or withdrawn is a characteristic. If you feel like your shyness is a hindrance to you, then there are plenty of ways to work on that. The best way, of course, is through practice. You can overcome shyness like you can overcome a fear of heights or spiders – exposure and practice. Overcoming anxiety is more like overcoming arachnophobia – it’ll take more than “getting used” to spiders to get that out of your psyche.

Dealing with Social Anxiety

If you’re suffering from social anxiety, the kind that makes you self-conscious and worried about certain social interactions, then the best way to go about dealing with the issue is through exercises like:

  • Visualization
  • Affirmation
  • Mindfulness
  • Relaxation (Yoga and Meditation)
  • Goal-setting
  • Exposure

A visualization is a little tool through which you visualize the situation you’re scared of, empowering yourself by reimagining it over again until you successfully run through a scenario that doesn’t involve anxiousness. Affirmation is sort of like going “I can do this” in different ways, even if you won’t believe it at first. For the truly stubborn, “others can do it just fine, and so can I” is also a valid form of affirmation.

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques are incredibly powerful because they help you focus on what’s more relevant to the here-and-now, rather than worry about some distant future, or scenarios that aren’t even likely to happen. You can even utilize mindfulness right while you’re undergoing an episode of anxiety, by focusing on something mundane around you, like your breath or the sky.

Goal-setting, especially together with exposure, can help you tackle your anxiety a bit at a time by setting goals for yourself – little things, like reciting a poem in front of friends, or taking on more vocal roles at work, until you finally reach that milestone where you’re ready for a bit of public speaking.

Small Ways to Work Through Your Social Anxiety

Looking for ways to work through your social anxiety?

Like anything else, it takes practice to cope or over come anxiety, but with time and dedication you can achieve success. But where to start? Try starting on a small scale – discover little things you can do to ease your worry. For example, if you were nervous about going to an event because you’re thinking about the worst thing that can happen while there, just remember that worst case scenarios usually do not happen.

If you struggle with social anxiety, you may find the following six tips helpful as you work through your social anxiety.

Ways to Work Through Your Social Anxiety

  1. Know that the worst-case scenario usually never happens
  2. Volunteer
  3. Push yourself
  4. Ask questions
  5. Keep showing up
  6. Do the strong thing and seek help

Of course, when it comes to anxiety disorders, these methods can help – but they may be a little overwhelming to attempt while bearing the brunt of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. The best thing you can do is speak to a therapist, to begin with, and discuss your symptoms with them. They can help you decide whether you need medication, and what kind of therapy would work best for your specific case.