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How to Overcome Shyness and Social Anxiety

Shyness can be a stressful emotion to deal with, especially when social interaction is an inevitable part of life. Socializing can become even more difficult when social anxiety is present. While shyness and social anxiety are not the same, they are related and have many similar aspects.

This post looks at shyness and social anxiety, their causes, distinguishing features, and the associated risks of leaving them untreated, and ultimately outlines some valuable ways to overcome shyness and social anxiety.

What is shyness?

A 2010 study categorized shyness as an emotional feeling that encompasses varying levels of self-evaluation, generally from a negative perspective. In particular, these negative feelings towards oneself occur in social settings where other people are present.

Being shy can fluctuate in severity. Some people may only experience slight shyness in specific situations, such as when meeting new people or having a job interview. On the other hand, some people may experience chronic feelings of shyness in most social situations.

Shyness can be felt in affective and cognitive processes of constant self-doubt and negative emotions towards oneself. It can also be felt in behavioral and physical experiences of shyness, such as the inability to speak up in social situations, sweating, and trembling. Shyness can make it difficult for people to function in everyday situations where other people are present, and if this becomes quite severe it may be beneficial to consider if there may be a deeper element of social anxiety.

Common causes of shyness

Inherited genes

Studies have found a significant influence of inherited genes on shyness. This means that there is a higher likelihood of experiencing shyness and becoming a shy person if someone in your family is also shy. However, genetics do not account for all causes of shyness, and you may still become a shy person if the genes are not present in your family.

Environmental influences

The environmental influences that we are surrounded with from childhood to adulthood can also play a significant role in the development of shyness (The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology). These environmental influences may involve having overbearing siblings or parental figures that may have hindered the ability to be independent in social situations growing up. Other environmental aspects could involve being bullied in childhood and other traumatic experiences and social conflicts that may have contributed to having a negative self-image.

Environmental influences can continue to affect the development of shyness as individuals continue into adulthood. Being exposed to rejection and other traumatic experiences in adulthood can still influence the development of shyness as an adult.

Traumatic experiences

Traumatic events can be considered a type of environmental influence that impacts the development of shyness. Traumatic influences include events that have made individuals feel negatively toward themselves in social situations. Traumatic events can include severe bullying, conflict at home, and specific situations where you may have been humiliated because of your social actions. These traumatic experiences can create an association between social situations and feelings of shame and disappointment in oneself that make you more inclined to be less socially active in the future (Early Childhood Research Quarterly).

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is an anxiety-based mental disorder that is essentially a phobia of social situations. Social anxiety can be considered a more intense extension of shyness and can evoke extreme feelings of panic and anxiety (Annual Review of Clinical Psychology). Individuals who experience social anxiety will experience intense fear of being judged, humiliated, or negatively viewed in social settings to the point of inducing extreme mental and physical distress (The Lancet).

Individuals with social anxiety will feel genuine fear about being in social situations, and a key feature of social anxiety is that the perception of the social fear is seen as a larger threat to the individual than it genuinely is. Socially anxious people are likely to avoid social situations altogether as a way of avoiding the intense anxiety that follows them (4). Individuals suffering from social anxiety are also likely to face impairment of functioning in daily life, such as struggling with work or school.

Social anxiety is not as simple as being a bit afraid in social situations or feeling nervous when meeting new people or speaking up in big crowds. It is important to note that social anxiety is a consistent feeling of anxiety that arises in social situations and takes time to remedy.

What are the symptoms of shyness and social anxiety?

The Diagnostic Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) uses the following symptoms to assess social anxiety.

  • Being in any type of social situation brings on feelings of anxiety the majority of the time.

  • When in social situations, most of the time the individual feels anxious or fearful.

  • Fearful in at least one (or multiple) social situations, such as; talking to people or speaking up around them.

  • The perception of social situations as a threat is higher than the actual threat.

  • The individual feels as though social situations will incur negative results, such as being embarrassed or viewed extremely negatively by others.

  • The anxiety felt in social situations is consistent and has been around for around 6 months.

  • The individual struggles to function throughout ‘normal’ daily tasks such as work or school.

  • Social anxiety is not caused by other pharmaceutical or medical conditions.

There are also other symptoms of social anxiety that commonly occur outlined in the Severity Measure for Social Anxiety Disorder. These symptoms include:

  • Physical expressions of stress and anxiety such as; Body shakes, stomach pain, fast-paced or troubled breathing, racing heart rate, sweating, and lightheadedness

  • Behavioral effects such as; Avoiding social situations altogether, minimizing social behavior when in social settings (i.e., not talking around others), practicing how exactly to behave before a social event

  • Cognitive expressions of social anxiety, including; Consistent frightfulness fear, nervousness, and/or anxiety in social situations, and an overwhelming focus on being embarrassed or negatively perceived by others in social situations.

The symptoms of shyness are similar to those of social anxiety, however, on a less-severe scale. The symptoms of shyness focus more on temporary reactions to being in social situations. These can include physical expressions of stress and emotional worries of being humiliated or embarrassed when in social settings (APA).

What are the causes of shyness and social anxiety?

The causes of shyness and social anxiety are interlinked and have many commonalities. Shyness is often caused by inherited genes, environmental influences, and/or trauma. This can also be true for social anxiety.

Social anxiety has biological influences and studies suggest that social anxiety can be inherited through genes (The Lancet). So, if someone in your family struggles with social anxiety, there is an increased likelihood that the gene may be passed down.

Brain structure also plays a part in the causation of social anxiety (The Lancet). The amygdala is a section of the brain that is responsible for the regulation of fear. Individuals with social anxiety may have an overactive amygdala which consequently causes a more sensitive response to fear.

Like shyness, social anxiety can also be caused by environmental influences and traumatic social experiences (Journal of Anxiety Disorders). Many of the environmental factors that have been linked to causing social anxiety include childhood events and parental influences. For example, protective or overbearing parenting techniques can contribute to a decreased encouragement of sociability and social interaction as a child. On the other hand, individuals who have felt shamed, rejected, or experienced negative outcomes because of their social behavior from family and friends growing up have also been linked to developing social anxiety.

Distinguishing between shyness and social anxiety

Shyness and social anxiety share a lot of common ground. However, it is important to understand that they are two different things. One of the key differences that distinguish social anxiety from shyness is the presence of anxiety (Current Psychiatry). Shyness can be understood more as a feeling that may come and go, whereas social anxiety is a mental disorder that is consistent day-to-day.

Shyness can be considered a smaller aspect of social anxiety, but when the feeling of being shy and being unable to participate in social interaction becomes severe and hinders your ability to socialize without anxiety, that’s when it may become social anxiety.

What are the risks of not overcoming shyness and social anxiety?

Struggling with social shyness and social anxiety can make it extremely difficult to function in day-to-day life. Socializing is a significant aspect of human life and occurs very frequently. Consequently, living a life where any type of socializing is completely removed is almost impossible. So, when you are struggling with social anxiety or being shy, it can often affect your ability to carry out normal tasks such as going to school and going to work, or even interacting with the cashier at the supermarket till. Shyness and social anxiety make these tasks stressful and as a result, create major mental and physical challenges.

Social anxiety can also increase the risk of developing panic disorder. Panic disorder is a type of anxiety-based mental illness that causes you to have panic attacks in situations where you feel scared or anxious. Panic disorder can be extremely stressful and draining both mentally and physically. When social anxiety becomes quite severe it is common for people to experience panic attacks (The Lancet ).

Socializing is essentially a guaranteed part of life in one way or another, but it is also extremely important for your general well-being. If social anxiety and shyness are left untreated there is a significant risk of the individual not gaining the multiple benefits socializing offers. Having a social phobia or being a shy person also minimizes your ability to participate in important social situations and experience many of life’s special moments.

The risks associated with untreated shyness and social anxiety can be debilitating and add major stress to everyday life and can decrease your quality of life. It is important to seek professional help when dealing with social anxiety to combat these risks and improve well-being.

How can you overcome shyness and social anxiety?

Overcoming shyness and social anxiety can be a difficult task, but with the right tools and professional help, it is possible.

Identify your triggers

Identifying your triggers is an essential part of overcoming social anxiety and shyness. Triggers can be understood as specific events, objects, or situations that enact feelings of anxiety and the symptoms associated with shyness and anxiety. Triggers can be different for everyone and being able to understand what they might be on an individual level is important for knowing what specific areas of help are needed.

Practice Public Speaking

Practicing public speaking can be a useful tool in overcoming social anxiety and shyness (Journal of Education and Educational Development). A common stressor within social anxiety and being shy is the fear of speaking up in front of other people. Practicing public speaking can be useful in creating coping strategies to control the anxiety that arises when speaking up in front of others. This can be done by starting off practicing to speak in front of very small groups and working up to larger crowds. This is a form of exposure therapy that presents the individual with a scenario they fear to build up their confidence and slowly work towards facing their fear. This can be done in person or through a virtual reality exposure therapy program for public speaking.

Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of talking therapy that helps to identify negative thinking patterns and emotions and then works to restructure those thoughts and create mental coping mechanisms to face the anxiety created by social anxiety. CBT is a beneficial and effective treatment for social anxiety and studies have found positive results in individuals practicing CBT to help with symptoms of social anxiety.

Gradually Introduce yourself to anxiety-inducing situations

When working to overcome any type of phobia it is important to not completely remove yourself from situations or objects that you fear as this can build up and make the anxiety worse. Exposing yourself to social situations is a beneficial step in overcoming social anxiety (APA). This is an essential part of exposure therapy where you slowly work up to facing anxiety-inducing social situations in a controlled way so that you can build up your resilience and create coping mechanisms for when you are in those situations.

Ask your support system for a helping hand

Sometimes seeking out help from your support system can seem daunting, but it is always okay to ask for help and be open to receiving it. Having friends and family you can rely on to confide in when struggling with social anxiety is essential. Support systems can be helpful in several ways, whether that be by talking through your feelings, asking someone to help you out with a task you find difficult, or even getting support to seek treatment. Different people will need their support system in different ways, but it is always beneficial and okay to ask for help when you need it.

Adopt an anti-anxiety lifestyle

There are several practices you can adopt to minimize day-to-day stress and anxiety and ultimately help combat the anxiety associated with social phobias and shyness. Prioritizing behaviors such as eating nutritiously, getting enough sleep, moving your body, taking some time away from screens, and taking time for rest and recovery are all important aspects of adopting an anti-anxiety lifestyle.

Seek professional help

Trying to overcome social anxiety can feel like an overwhelming task but professional help is available to make this task a little less daunting. There are different types of therapies facilitated by professionals that can be utilized to help overcome social anxiety and shyness. As mentioned previously, CBT is an effective therapy that can help with social anxiety by analyzing and restructuring negative thought patterns around social situations and creating mental coping mechanisms.

Another form of professional help that can be sought to treat social anxiety is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy can be facilitated by an in-person therapist or through professionally designed virtual programs. Virtual reality exposure therapy for social anxiety works by exposing patients to a virtually crafted social situation that may induce some anxiety. The social scenario begins at a low-anxiety level and uses coaching tools to allow patients to work up to higher-anxiety scenarios. This allows patients to build coping mechanisms for their anxiety and confront their fears in a controlled way. Studies have found VR exposure therapy to be a beneficial treatment of social anxiety and it can also be done in the comfort of your own home with oVRcome’s VR exposure therapy program for social anxiety.

The Bottom Line:

Living with social anxiety or shyness can be a scary thing, and the thought of overcoming the fear of social situations might seem extremely difficult at times. However, taking a minute to read through and understand what social anxiety and shyness are, how they are caused, how they can affect your life, and how they can be helped and treated can help start the journey to overcome them.

It’s important to remember that the journey to improving your mental health can sometimes be tough, but it is possible!

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