It’s a myth that people with social anxiety lack social skills.
Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common types of anxiety disorders. Despite this, it’s arguably the most misunderstood, leading to many myths about social anxiety disorder. Everyone has had moments of feeling uncomfortable in a crowd or preferring to stay at home—so what’s the big deal?
“When does some condition count enough to be a disorder? In the case of social anxiety, the intensity of the condition must be enough to cause life disturbance,” says Dr. Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified in Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.
In other words, are you avoiding a job interview? Limiting your social life? Missing out on events that you wish you could attend? Overrelying on alcohol to "survive" social events? These may all be ways that social anxiety disorder causes life disturbance. Many people forget or aren't aware of this aspect of the condition, which fuels the myths about social anxiety disorder.
MYTH: People with social anxiety are just shy, introverted, or don’t like other people.
Think of it this way: “People with social anxiety desire to be connected to others. They want to join in the conversation, but something about social interactions is too frightening,” says Dr. Mitchell Hicks, PhD, core faculty in Walden University’s PhD in Clinical Psychology program.
Social anxiety disorder can affect both introverts and extroverts. Furthermore, it can affect people who are shy, rambunctious, or anywhere in between. In reality, these are personality traits, which are separate from one’s mental health.
“Most introverts can function well in larger groups or in front of people, though they typically find those activities exhausting. Unlike introverts, people with social anxiety disorder experience fear about social situations, whether they’re interacting with many people or only a few," says Dr. Hicks.
MYTH: People with social anxiety disorder can’t form healthy relationships.
“People with social anxiety disorder are completely capable of deep, meaningful relationships—they just have to get over the initial anxiety hurdle first,” says Dr. Dimitriu. “More likely, these will be limited to a fewer number of closer, better known contacts. Family and old time friends are certainly less anxiety-provoking than new colleagues or friends at a dinner.”
MYTH: People with social anxiety disorder lack social skills.
In many cases, this may be a misinterpretation of how the person with social anxiety is behaving. In reality, “intense anxiety can degrade one’s abilities, including social skills,” says Dr. Hicks.
“People with social anxiety may appear to be unable to speak to others. They may freeze up or stumble when they try to engage in conversation. This hesitation is more about their anxiety than their ability to communicate,” says Dr. Hicks.
MYTH: People with social anxiety just need to “put themselves out there” and meet people.
“Fear and preoccupation about constant social judgment by others is the symptom that is especially problematic for those with social anxiety disorder,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, MD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine, and host of the “Personalogy” podcast from iHeart Media.
Attending more parties won’t “cure” social anxiety and the fear of judgment. Someone might be able to jump the hurdle of pre-event anxiety, but symptoms don’t end when the event does.
“Most people with actual social anxiety disorder find that one of the more difficult aspects is the flood of self-judgmental thoughts they have after the social interaction,” says Dr. Saltz. “They tend to review everything that happened and feel that others are thinking badly of them in the aftermath.”
This post-event rumination may worsen their disorder. As a result, it may cause them to limit their interactions even further in the future to avoid the perceived shame.
MYTH: Social anxiety disorder isn’t a big deal and doesn’t need treatment.
“For some people, social anxiety disorder is life-crippling,” says Dr. Saltz. “Left untreated in more serious cases, it can seriously reduce your ability to date, to have friends, to work.”
Furthermore, people with social anxiety disorder have an increased risk of substance misuse, especially alcohol use disorder. About 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder also experience alcohol misuse or dependence, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Social anxiety, especially when combined with substance misuse, can also increase the risk of self-harm and suicide.
“On the other hand, [social anxiety disorder] is a very treatable diagnosis,” says Dr. Saltz. “Seeking out therapy and sometimes medication can radically change your life for the better.”
Suffering from anxiety and ready to seek help? Find out what to expect at your first therapy session here.
- Social anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (Accessed on October 8, 2020)
- Social anxiety disorder in adults: epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2020. (Accessed on October 8, 2020)
- Social anxiety disorder: more than just shyness. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health. (Accessed on October 8, 2020)