What’s the difference between shyness and social anxiety disorder?

There’s often a misconception that a person with SAD is just “shy”, but that isn’t the case.  There are some distinct differences…

As I started talking more about social anxiety disorder (SAD) people often related it to shyness.  When I think back to when I was shy (in grade school), I see a quiet, soft spoken little girl.  I had a hard time speaking up and found it difficult to make friends.  I felt more comfortable at home, reading a book or spending time with my family.  Sure, I had embarrassing experiences and I did give these experiences some thought.  But I didn’t obsess about them on a continual basis and I didn’t feel the full breadth of emotions as I relived them in my mind.

When my shyness turned into SAD (this happened in 9th grade) the key changes were the intensity and frequency of the negative thoughts and the tendency to avoid uncomfortable social situations.  I anticipated the worst and imagined how horrible social interactions would be before they even happened.  The physical symptoms appeared when I simply thought about an upcoming event.

The thoughts became my focus and the more I paid attention, the more powerful the thoughts became.  When I was in the situation, the desire to leave was intense.  My level of emotional discomfort was far worse than what I experienced when I was simply shy.  My view of what was happening was irrational compared to the reality.  The times when social anxiety took hold continued to expand (e.g. shopping, walking down hallways at school or sitting in a classroom).  Upon leaving the situation, I relived the experience over and over – feeling the same emotions as when I was there.  I felt a strong desire to avoid social situations in the future to minimize my pain.

Shyness, itself, isn’t bad and often times people will grow out of their shyness.  The emotional turmoil increases greatly when the shyness turns into SAD.  This can happen at any age, but in my opinion, I don’t believe it would typically start until the early teens.  It can definitely happen sooner or later for that matter.

This post is the first in a series of educational blog posts related to social anxiety disorder (SAD).  Future blogs will focus on the causes of SAD, coping mechanisms and therapy techniques.  In this post, I will explain the difference between shyness and SAD.

Do you have any questions or insight to share on the shyness vs. SAD topic?  What other questions do you have about SAD?  What would you like me to share in future posts?  Feel free to comment here or email me directly at [email protected].

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Lisa is passionate about helping people to discover and live their best life. As a life and career coach, Lisa thrives on building solid, trusting emotional connections and being a positive advocate and accountability partner for you. Her coaching certifications and tools along with her personal and professional experiences result in a coaching experience that can help stressed out, overwhelmed clients to experience the joy and life satisfaction that Lisa now experiences. As an author, speaker and educator, Lisa speaks from the heart. Her engaging and inspirational style motivates people to continually grow and learn. She shares her personal struggles with anxiety and extreme stress openly and honestly while encouraging people of all ages to seek help.


  1. Jason Ellis | SAF /Reply

    You’re spot on about 9th grade here Lisa. That’s definitely when my own struggles intensified and became overwhelming. Yes, I was always a shy kid. But right around 15 or so, things took a turn for the introverted 🙂

    1. Lisa Klarner /Reply

      Thanks Jason for your comment. Yes, the struggles can definitely feel overwhelming and there always seems to be a turning point. It’s great to know, however, that one of the turning points can be for the better at some point in everyone’s lives!


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