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Am I Just Shy, or Might I Have Social Anxiety?


“Social anxiety” is a term that gets thrown around loosely these days. After two years of the pandemic, many people find themselves feeling awkward at social gatherings and are rusty on how to interact with others IRL (in real life).


Some even joke that they don't want to go to a birthday dinner or an outing with coworkers because their “social anxiety” is kicking in. Well, what exactly is social anxiety?


One thing is for certain, clinically diagnosed social anxiety differs from typical shyness or “awkward turtle” moments. Common symptoms of social anxiety can include:


- Discomfort about being judged or embarrassed

- Emotional nervousness

- Behavioral avoidance

- Physical symptoms


Below are a few criteria for a formal social anxiety disorder diagnosis, according to the DSM-5:


- Marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others. Examples include social interactions (e.g., having a conversation, meeting unfamiliar people), being observed (e.g., eating or drinking), and performing in front of others (e.g., giving a speech).

Note: In children, the anxiety must occur in peer settings and not just during interactions with adults.

- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.

- The individual fears that he or she will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated (i.e., will be humiliating or embarrassing; will lead to rejection or offend others).

- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

- The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation and to the sociocultural context.

- The social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.


People with social anxiety aren’t just shy; they are functionally impaired by fear of how others perceive them and/or how they show up in social situations. For example, one’s intense anxiety about sweating profusely in public places may prevent them from going to work since the fear of being perceived as someone with poor hygiene by their colleagues is enough to keep them at home. Missing days of work in the summer due to this fear may ultimately cost this person their job.


Not sure if you meet the criteria for social anxiety disorder? Working with a licensed mental health professional can help. You can email intakes@cmhcweb.com to schedule a session with a therapist at Chesapeake Mental Health Collaborative. Common treatment options include psychoeducation, exposure therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. The National Social Anxiety Center (https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/) also has great resources for constructively managing social anxiety.


About the author

Shannon Wilson is a proponent of destigmatizing mental health, normalizing healthy boundaries, and empowering clients to "go deep" in their therapeutic experience. She integrates down-to-Earth communication with evidenced-based interventions to provide a safe, welcoming, and transformative environment for people to grow. For self-care, Shannon finds connection and centeredness in nature, music, and spiritual practices.

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