Social anxiety disorder: Are you shy or is it something more?

Sweaty palms, an accelerated heartbeat and nausea. No, it’s not a heart attack. It’s what some people feel when they have to face a social situation. What you call shy, may actually be social anxiety disorder.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million American adults are living with social anxiety disorder.  And Scott & White psychiatrist, Jane Kang, MD, said the chances of someone getting this disorder over their lifetime are about 10 percent.

So, what is social anxiety disorder and how is it different from just being shy?

“We all have different levels of being social and outgoing,” Dr. Kang said. “A lot of us have moments where we feel shy. It crosses the line into a disorder when that feeling is severe, constant and persistent.”

For example, if you had to give a speech tomorrow, you might be a little nervous. Someone with social anxiety disorder will worry for weeks about giving the speech and not be able to eat or sleep for days.

“People who have [this disorder] want to do social things like going to the movies or taking a public speaking class,” the psychiatrist said. “But because of their fear and anxiety, there’s no joy in doing those things.

Someone with social anxiety disorder feels judged or afraid they will be embarrassed when they are in social situations. And although they know this fear is irrational, they cannot shake the feeling. It’s almost paralyzing.

“A lot of people say, that’s just me, I’m shy. My life is limited because I’m shy. But that shouldn’t be the case.”

And limiting their social lives isn’t the only sign that someone may have the disorder. It may also cause physical symptoms like:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Feeling shaky or sweaty all of the time
  • Stomachache all of the time (especially in children)

But there is hope for these patients if they seek treatment.

“The first place to start would be the primary care doctor to see if they need to see a psychiatrist or therapist,” Dr. Kang said.

If the patient’s symptoms are severe enough to warrant medication, then a psychiatric professional can prescribe something to help minimize their anxieties and help them feel “more like themselves,” she said.

“There are also some specific types of therapy that can help people address why they might feel so afraid and help them to overcome these feelings of being embarrassed.”

The psychiatrist said that if you’re unsure if you’re just shy or if it’s something more, it never hurts to talk to your doctor.

“It’s good to talk to someone objective — outside of yourself — about it,” Dr. Kang said. “Because if you talk to someone you know, they may say, oh, you’re not shy. It’s a good idea to speak to a professional about it.”

If you are having these symptoms, then don’t hesitate to ask for help. According to the ADAA, 36 percent of people with social anxiety disorder report symptoms for 10 years or more before getting help.

“There are a lot of people who think they’re just shy and it’s more than that,” she said. “And they don’t have to suffer. They can be treated.”

Have you ever experienced social anxiety? What did you do to overcome your fears?

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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Social anxiety disorder: Are you shy or is it something more?