By: Stan Popovich
Being an introvert and social anxiety are often confused, but they’re not the same. An introvert is a personality trait. Social anxiety is a mental health condition.
A person who is shy might resist going to a party because they get drained from loud music and too much social interaction. Someone with social anxiety, on the other hand, might feel dread or panic about going to a party. They worry they’ll say something “stupid” or that people won’t like them.
Preferring alone time and being sensitive to overstimulation (introversion) is not the same as fearing social interaction (social anxiety). Keep reading to learn more about the differences between introversion and social anxiety.
What Is An Introvert?
Introverts are more focused on their internal thoughts and feelings than on external stimulation. People who are quiet prefer time to themselves and small group interactions. Crowds and parties can drain quiet people, who usually need time to themselves to “recharge” after social activities.
Being an introvert has a biological explanation. The brain is more sensitive to external stimuli—things like noisy environments and crowds—because of something called the RAS, an area of the brain that regulates arousal. Some people have a higher set point, meaning their brain is triggered more easily by outside stimulation. Extroverts have a lower set point. They’re not as bothered by crowds or loud noise. In fact, extroverts are often energized by social interaction.
5 Signs You’re An Introvert
Introversion and extroversion occur on a continuum. Most people fall somewhere closer to the middle but lean slightly more one way or the other. Here are some signs you’re a little quiet:
1. Being around crowds or large groups drains your energy. If you feel exhausted after a party, concert, or a group outing and need quiet time to yourself to recuperate, you might be shy. Introverts expend energy in social situations, while extroverts gain energy from interactions with others.
2. You have a small group of friends. If you love spending one-on-one time with others and prefer small groups, you might be quiet. A person who is shy usually have a small circle of close friends, while extroverts often have a larger social circle of friends and acquaintances, many of whom they only interact with on a superficial level.
3. You enjoy spending time alone. If a few hours alone with a good book or a solo nature walk is your idea of a good time, you’re in good company with other shy people.
4. You prefer working alone. If the thought of collaborating with others or working on group projects overwhelms you, you might be quiet. This doesn’t mean you don’t work well with others. People who are shy just prefer to work independently most of the time.
5. You find yourself daydreaming a lot. Shy people spend a lot of time in their heads. They have a very active inner mind and like to plan and prepare before taking action. They also gravitate toward self-reflection and research.
What Is Social Anxiety?
“He’s just shy.” “She gets quiet around people.” You’ve heard these refrains before. Maybe your mom or dad even said things like this to describe you as a child. Some people are quiet as kids and grow out of it as they get older. Some people are shy as adults, too.
But others feel outright panic, terror, or dread in social situations. These people have social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia), a type of anxiety disorder that causes extreme fear in social situations.
People with social anxiety disorder find it hard to meet new people. They worry others will judge or scrutinize them. They may also worry others won’t like them. Many people with social anxiety realize their fears aren’t rational, but it doesn’t change the panic they feel about social situations.
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder can be both physical and psychological.
- Physical symptoms include blushing, feeling nauseous, sweating excessively, having a rapid heart rate, trembling or shaking, and having a hard time getting words out.
- Psychological symptoms can include worrying intensely about social situations, avoiding social situations or trying to “disappear” into the background, fearing others will judge you, and worrying excessively about embarrassing yourself.
People with social anxiety may reach for alcohol to face social situations, and they may start to worry about a social event days or weeks in advance. People with extreme social phobias might avoid all kinds of social situations, from parties to interviews to meetings, and even shopping and eating in public.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
Unlike introversion, social anxiety isn’t necessarily something you’re born with, although researchers think there could be a genetic component. It usually develops over time and often starts in a person’s teens.
Negative experiences like bullying, family conflict, and abuse might contribute to a person developing social anxiety. Serotonin imbalance may also be partly to blame. Serotonin is a brain chemical that helps regulate mood. When it’s imbalanced, it can make the amygdala—the brain’s fear center—overreact.
You Can Be A Socially Anxious Introvert Or A Socially Anxious Extrovert
Part of the reason introversion and social anxiety get confused is because people with social anxiety may exhibit some shyness traits—like spending time alone and shying away from public speaking (although many are comfortable speaking in front of others). But not loving large social gatherings and dreading them because of self-consciousness are two very different things.
Extroverts can suffer with social anxiety, too. Someone who loves being around friends and family may freeze like a deer in the headlights when giving a presentation in front of strangers. Social anxiety doesn’t discriminate.
Overcoming Social Anxiety
So, if you suffer with social anxiety, what can you do? The good news is plenty.
Since social anxiety is a disorder, there are some hallmark signs, including a constant fear of social situations due to fear of humiliation or embarrassment, feeling panicky or anxious before social situations, and anxiety that disrupts your daily life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help people manage their social anxiety. CBT helps you learn to control anxiety by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.
Exposure therapy is also helpful for some people. It helps you gradually face social situations rather than avoiding them. Eventually, social interactions cause less anxiety.
Group therapy with others who have social anxiety also helps some people.
One thing is certain: To overcome social anxiety you must be willing to confront it. But what if you can’t afford individual therapy or counseling programs? Thankfully, there are other resources.
Stanley Popovich suffered with anxiety for more than 20 years. He decided to do something about it. His overcoming anxiety book, A Layman’s Guide to Managing Fear, has helped thousands of people move past the paralyzing fear of social situations and get their lives back on track.
Stan is an award-winning contributor on the topics of fear, anxiety, and depression, and he has done dozens of radio interviews and several television appearances. Learn more about Stan and order his book today.
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