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Social anxiety is not the same as excessive shyness

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Chris Alaimo / Silhouette Staff

This past Friday I went to dinner with a few friends and a bunch of strangers after a social activist event hosted by United in Colour, McMaster’s Black Feminist Club. At the bus stop, I waited patiently a few metres from two attendees of the event. I tried to remain inconspicuous and I pretended not to have seen them, but I had. I knew they were there, somewhere beyond my field of vision – I could feel what felt like a menacing presence.

On the overcrowded bus, we stood but a few feet from one another. I could not bear to make eye contact or strike up a conversation. What would they say? Oh god, what would they think? I yearned to talk to them but I couldn’t manage it – I felt like everyone was looking at me. “They’re going to call me ‘fat’ and ‘stupid’,” I thought. “They’re all going to laugh at me and hate me.”

I got off the bus when they did. I could not entertain the thought of walking more than a few steps with these surely judgmental, hateful, rude strangers, so I lumbered around before deciding to go to the restaurant. As I arrived at the restaurant, I felt the sudden onset of nausea, light-headedness, and the uncontrollable desire to escape.

Resigned to my inability to enter the restaurant, I sat across the street, adjacent the parking lot, feeling dejected, alone and frustrated.

After minutes of sitting alone in the cold, I approached the restaurant entrance again. As I curled my fingers around the door handle, my muscles tensed up and I froze momentarily. Propelled by the anxiety that standing at the door too long provoked, I rushed inside. But there were my two travel companions, seated with the friends I was meeting. “Oh, god, no” I thought.

And yet it turned out that my travel companions are actually very considerate people.

The experience I described above is typical for me and is a form of social anxiety disorder. Let me say a little bit about social anxiety. According to psychologist Thomas Richards, Director of the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety is “the fear of social situations and the interaction with other people that can automatically bring on feelings of self-consciousness, judgment, evaluation and inferiority.”

The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders IV describes social anxiety as a “marked and persistent fear of one or more social and performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.” The individual with social anxiety disorder “fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.” Adults with social anxiety disorder recognize that their “fear is excessive or unreasonable.”

The socially anxious person avoids the “feared social or performance situations are avoided or else are endured with intense anxiety or distress.” Finally, the distress or avoidance “in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.”

There is one myth about social anxiety and social anxiety disorder that I would like to dispel. The myth says that social anxiety is just exaggerated shyness. This myth encourages the idea that anxious people are merely weak-willed pushovers. It is partially because of this myth, I think, that well-intentioned people offer the relevant but insensitive and patronizing advice like, “Don’t worry about it!”, “Just do it” and “Face your fears.”

Social anxiety (disorder) and shyness are not the same things. The relationship between the two is more complex. The American Psychological Association defines shyness as “the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people.” They note that in cases of severe shyness, “people may have physical symptoms…; negative feelings about themselves; worries about how others view them; and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.”

The feeling of awkwardness, for me, as a socially anxious person, is a consequence of my situational fears that sometimes interrupt the natural flow of conversation and my fear that their anxiety will manifest itself.

Shyness can progress and become social anxiety, with the newly developed social anxiety exacerbating the initial shyness, forming a vicious feedback loop. Thus shyness, for the socially anxious person, can be a cause and an effect of social anxiety. It depends on the individual. You’ll find that some socially anxious people are not, in fact, shy in social or performance situations that do not induce fear.

So stop telling me that I’m just shy.

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