Distinguishing Behaviours — The Difference Between Shyness, Introversion and Social Anxiety

During the formative years of childhood and adolescence, it can be difficult for a parent to understand what their child is going through.

Particularly when it comes to mental and emotional challenges, the lines between what’s normal and what might need to be addressed can be very blurry.

Depression versus sadness; anxiety versus stresslearning difficulties versus disengagement…

They can all present overlapping signs and symptoms.

That’s why psychologists are constantly researching and analysing these conditions, so that they can be addressed and rectified as early as possible.

Social anxiety, shyness and introversion are three concepts which can be confused for this exact reason — they all lie on the same spectrum.

But while the latter two can be harmless and even positive personality traits, social anxiety can interrupt a sufferer’s ability to function on a day to day basis.

So what’s the difference?

‘A person who is shy may feel uncomfortable if they are in the limelight’, says Professor of Clinical Psychology Kim Flemington in The Huffington Post. ‘Or an introvert may not particularly like loud conversation. But that doesn’t necessarily cause them significant stress.’

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder — or SAD — will experience severe anxiety at the prospect of social situations, which can lead to avoidance of such environments, and ultimately to social isolation.

SAD most often emerges in late teens and early twenties — increased independence leads to an increasing ability to avoid social situations like school or family functions.

And while many sufferers of SAD report that they have always been shy, shyness in itself is not a prerequisite or a explicit warning sign that SAD will develop later on.

Similarly, not all shy people or introverts experience social anxiety, or any type of anxiety.

The crux of the situation is how the shyness, introversion or anxiety impacts the person’s regular functioning. 

‘How much stress is it causing the person? If it is really intense anxiety with a lot of avoidance, then it requires treatment’, says Flemington.

This treatment largely comes in the form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

‘We train people to identify their negative thoughts about themselves and to challenge them, as well as their pre- and post-event processing of social situations’, says Flemington.

There are three key takeaways from these distinctions between shyness, introversion and SAD:

  1. Many mental challenges exist on the same spectrum as perfectly normal personality traits, and can share signs and symptoms.
  2. What distinguishes one from another is the impact they have on the individual’s ability to function (be it at school, work, in social situations etc.).
  3. Early intervention offers the best opportunity to stop these challenges from worsening and self-perpetuating, and therapy can be exceptionally beneficial in their treatment.

So if you worry about your child’s shyness, introversion or anxiety, consider the above concepts.

If you think that the symptoms they are exhibiting are part of a bigger problem and having a negative impact on their life, they could certainly benefit from some professional help.

Click on the links in this post for further reading, and feel free to call us in the office for an initial consult.

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