Social Anxiety vs. Shyness: How to Tell the Difference

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Anxiety Disorder
Read Time: 6 Minutes
Written by:Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

Published On: September 22, 2023

Medically reviewed by: Famous Erwin, LMHC, LPC, CAM 2

Reviewed On: September 28, 2022

Updated On: September 28, 2023


Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a mental health condition that causes extreme fear, worry, and self-consciousness in social situations. People with this social phobia often avoid social encounters and activities due to persistent thoughts about being judged or rejected by others. Shyness, on the other hand, is a personality trait that can cause nervousness or uncomfortableness in new or unfamiliar situations, but being shy generally doesn’t interfere with daily functioning and relationships.

People commonly confuse social anxiety vs. shyness, but it’s essential to recognize the distinctions between the conditions if we hope to manage them effectively. To do this, we must look at the definitions of each and explore their symptoms and manifestations. It can also help to discuss temporary vs. chronic shyness to understand this personality trait better.

The major differences that distinguish shyness from social anxiety include:

  • How impaired your ability to function is
  • How intense your fear is
  • The level of avoidance you’ll go to

By examining things like intensity, impact, duration, and underlying causes, you’ll know which condition may be affecting your personal relationships and overall well-being. Understanding the difference between social anxiety and shyness can help you seek proper support or treatment options.

Defining Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is a defined type of anxiety disorder that makes you feel or have an intense and persistent irrational fear of social settings and environments. There are several types of social anxiety, one being that you worry you’re constantly being judged and watched by others around you. This fear can lead to extreme distress and often results in avoidance of people or social encounters.

An estimated 40 million adults in the US suffer from anxiety disorders, and about 15 million (7%) specifically have social anxiety disorder. The good news is that social anxiety, while not curable, is very treatable. With the right guidance, you can learn how to overcome social anxiety and fear.

iconExpert Insight

“Given the intensity of symptoms related to social anxiety, people can begin to avoid situations to not feel this distress. Understanding that social anxiety can be disruptive to one’s daily life is a first step to getting support to manage symptoms.”
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R), BC-TMH Jill Daino

Symptoms of social anxiety

People with social anxiety disorder can have physical, emotional, and mental indicators of their condition. Common social anxiety symptoms include accelerated pulse rate, perspiration, intense — usually unfounded — dread of being evaluated harshly, pessimistic ideas, and extreme self-consciousness when in or anticipating upcoming social settings.

What it feels like to have social anxiety

  • Physical symptoms: Rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea, or upset stomach.
  • Emotional symptoms: Intense fear or worry about being judged by others in social situations, feeling embarrassed or humiliated for no reason, experiencing panic attacks.
  • Cognitive symptoms: Having extremely negative thoughts about yourself and your ability to perform in social settings, being excessively self-conscious, and over-analyzing every aspect of an interaction.

It’s common for people with social anxiety to adopt certain behaviors as coping mechanisms. They might avoid eye contact, appear fidgety, or speak softly and mumble their words. Fortunately, some types of therapy — for example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or exposure therapy for social anxiety — can help someone manage this mental health condition.

Understanding Shyness

Shyness is a personality trait or temperament characterized by discomfort, awkwardness, and nervousness in social interactions. Being shy can negatively impact personal relationships and make it difficult to connect with new people. Shyness is usually exacerbated in unfamiliar settings or when around new people.

It’s important to note that shyness is not considered a mental health condition — but that doesn’t mean it can’t seriously affect your quality of life and relationships.

What it feels like to be shy

  • Feeling uneasy around others
  • Observing rather than participating in social settings
  • Physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, or racing heart
  • Fear of negative judgment from others

Extreme shyness can be similar to indications of social anxiety disorder and may benefit from the support of a skilled therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in helping someone identify and learn to manage triggers so they can overcome their shyness.

iconExpert Insight

“Most people have had the experience of feeling shy at some point in their life, and while for some, this can have a significant impact on their daily life, it is important to remember that shyness is not a mental health condition.”
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R), BC-TMH Jill Daino

Temporary vs. chronic shyness

Temporary shyness will come and go and isn’t as debilitating or distressing as chronic shyness. Chronic shyness is potentially much more severe. It usually doesn’t go away and can be disruptive because it prevents you from developing and maintaining deep, meaningful, rewarding relationships and connections.

Differences Between Social Anxiety and Shyness

Despite being similar in terms of when, why, and how someone might feel symptoms, social anxiety vs. shyness is actually quite different. The most notable differences between shyness and social anxiety are how intense feelings are, the impact on your life and well-being, and the causes.


Social anxiety involves an intense and all-encompassing dread of being harshly judged by others in social settings. The intensity level is much more extreme for people with social anxiety than it is for those who are shy.


Social anxiety can be debilitating. It can affect the ability to function in everyday settings like school, work, or relationships. Shyness, on the other hand, is more of a mild discomfort, but most people can still function in social settings.

Underlying causes

It’s widely accepted that underlying causes of social anxiety and shyness exist.

Social anxiety: Genetics and childhood experiences (like being bullied) can play a role in developing SAD, and studies show that people with SAD may have an overactive amygdala.

iconExpert Insight

“While there is no one root cause of social anxiety disorder, understanding family and genetic history, childhood experiences, and your social environment can help you better understand what might contribute to your experiences with social anxiety. Having this understanding will also help guide your treatment with a licensed mental health professional — you do not have to figure this out on your own.”
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R), BC-TMH Jill Daino

Shyness: Genetics and upbringing can influence shyness. Children raised in families where introversion is valued might become shy. People who are shy tend to be self-conscious and often have low self-esteem.

Find Help with Talkspace

Social anxiety and shyness are not the same, despite what many people think. If you have an intense fear or avoidance of social situations, physical symptoms like sweating or trembling, and negative thoughts about yourself in those situations, it could be social anxiety. Whether you need help understanding the difference between shyness and social anxiety, or you already know you have social anxiety and are looking for help managing it, Talkspace is there for you.

You don’t have to live with the crippling fear — help is available, and with Talkspace, it’s convenient and affordable. Learning more about online therapy with Talkspace can be the first step in managing your social anxiety. With the right coping tools, techniques, and medications for social anxiety, you can overcome the fear that’s been taking over your life and keeping you from being the best version of yourself. Get started today by matching with a Talkspace therapist.

See References

Jill Daino

Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH, is a clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience as a therapist, clinical supervisor, and program director. She works to support quality clinical care at Talkspace. Her work as a clinician and trainer focuses on the mental health impact of body image concerns and eating disorders across the lifespan.

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