People who suffer from social anxiety disorder are often told by their friends and family that they are just shy. Because social anxiety disorder is little understood by people who have not experienced it, many people do not recognize the difference between shyness and social anxiety disorder, but there is definitely a difference.
Everyone at some point has experienced shyness in a situation. Perhaps they were at a party where they only knew one person, and they found it hard to talk to the strangers surrounding them. Maybe the thought of calling a new friend on the phone made them a little nervous. Virtually everyone has had these kinds of experiences. For the person with social anxiety disorder, though, these experiences are more than just relatively uncomfortable; they are excruciating. A shy person will feel uncomfortable, but they won’t feel as though they have to avoid the socially stressful situation on account of their discomfort. A person with social anxiety disorder feels overwhelming effects which make them unable to handle certain situations.
Some people with social anxiety disorder have trigger situations that they must avoid at all costs. Some common trigger situations include dealing with authority figures, eating and drinking in public, writing in public for fear their hand may shake, or speaking on the telephone with people they don’t know, such as the customer service representative at the electric company. For someone who is somewhat shy, these situations can be dealt with. Someone who has social anxiety disorder will likely have a panic attack when faced with these and other normal social situations to a point where they feel that they are incapable of being in these situations. The difference is that, for the person with social anxiety disorder, this debilitating anxiety in social situations will bring on social isolation no matter how much they might want to be around people and have relationships. That’s not just shyness.