In my opinion, it’s no coincidence that the acronym for social anxiety disorder spells out “SAD.” Until I was diagnosed with social anxiety as a college freshman, I had just thought of myself as an introvert. Some people were built for social situations, even thrived on them like my siblings did, but I got so nervous when around a lot of people. My hands would shake, my throat would tighten, and I couldn’t string two sentences together without stammering. To me, this seemed like a sign that I wasn’t cut out for this “social” shtick (no matter how lonely I felt sometimes) and was therefore introverted. To a mental health professional, however, I had pretty obvious anxiety.
There can be power in a diagnosis: knowing what you’re dealing with might just give you the motivation to change. In my case, receiving treatment for social anxiety struck me with just how many experiences I’d missed out on. If I had really been a staunch introvert, I might not have cared about all the activities I was too afraid to attend or the people I never befriended in case they thought I was “weird.” Being diagnosed as socially anxious set me towards a path of change and healing, and if I’d never known the difference, I might have remained an unfulfilled “introvert” forever.
Social anxiety disorder currently affects 15 million people in the U.S. population, many of whom stay undiagnosed. Not sure if you’re introverted or struggling with social anxiety? While nobody but a trained professional can diagnose your symptoms, if you identify with any of the following statements, you might fall more on the social anxiety side than you think.
“Social situations put me on edge. I always feel like everyone in the room is judging me.”
While both introverts and people with social anxiety care what people think on some level, the latter group does to a significantly higher extent. Introverts mostly focus on the opinions of those they love or respect. People suffering from social anxiety worry about everyone’s opinion. When they walk into a room, they constantly wonder if and often believe that everyone in the room hates them.
Think about why you don’t always enjoy social situations. If it’s because you never feel like you measure up to those around you, you might want to research social anxiety symptoms and see if that sounds like you.
“I haven’t been introverted my entire life. Something changed, and I have a hard time around people now.”
Introversion is a trait that you’re born with and a part of who you are. It cannot be developed later in life, unlike mental disorders. While someone can carry a predisposition for anxiety, they aren’t born into this world a socially anxious person. Uncomfortable situations, social rejection, and other environmental situations can all factor into social anxiety development.
The average age of onset for social anxiety disorder is 13 years old. If you consider yourself introverted but haven’t always been that way, you may align more with a social anxiety diagnosis.
“Social situations leave me flustered and uncomfortable.”
Social anxiety isn’t just about how you feel in social situations. Many people with social anxiety also report physiological symptoms along with their nerves. Think about the last social event that you’ve attended, like a party or after-school club. How did you feel? Maybe you felt great and, if you refrained from speaking, did so only because you had nothing to say. Or maybe you blushed, averted your eye contact from others in the room, or could feel your heart racing in your chest. Those who identify more with the second description than the first might be struggling with social anxiety.
“Although I don’t like being alone so often, it does make me less nervous.”
Introverts and people with social anxiety disorder both have their reasons for avoiding rooms full of people. For introverts, they might not see the appeal of hanging around thirty other people at a time. One-on-one conversations could be more their forte, or they might value the company of a good book over a bunch of acquaintances. Solitude recharges introverts and makes them feel good.
Someone with social anxiety avoids group situations out of fear. It’s not a question of whether solitude or social situations train you. A socially anxious person might turn down an invitation because they’re worried about experiencing a panic attack around so many people. Even if they think that the situation sounds fun, they hesitate to risk sounding stupid or getting rejected. Think about what’s driving your motivations: if it’s fear, you might be more than just an introvert.
“I wish I could handle social situations better. I’ve missed out on so many opportunities.”
Ultimately, the difference between an introvert and a socially anxious person is simple. Introverts enjoy a limited amount of social interaction followed by some necessary alone time. A person with social anxiety might want nothing more than take part in social situations, but they let their disorder get the best of them. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, defines the distinction as follows: “Introversion is your way. Social anxiety gets in your way.”
Social anxiety causes those affected by it to miss out on meaningful parts of their life. What they lose by declining invitations does not compare to the solitude that they gain. Unlike an introvert, who chooses the alone time, people with social anxiety feel like they have no choice. They even might hate themselves every time they leave a social gathering early once again and criticize themselves constantly. People with social anxiety often live in a world dominated by two emotions: fear and shame.
If you’ve been reading down this list and can’t help but relate, you might benefit from talking with a licensed professional. Being diagnosed with social anxiety disorder isn’t a death sentence: unlike introversion, disorders aren’t who you are and can be treated. The first steps are recognizing the symptoms in yourself, seeking help, and moving forward.