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Is There a Difference Between Introversion and Social Anxiety?

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Is There a Difference Between Introversion and Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety disorder, or SAD, affects about 15 million Americans and is a major risk factor in developing a substance use disorder. SAD is when you feel acutely anxious in social situations. People with SAD want to connect with others but their anxiety is an obstacle. They often deal with this problem by using alcohol or other substances to relax in social situations. This can become a habit and lead to addiction. It takes an average of 10 years for people with social anxiety disorder to be diagnosed and receive treatment. Most people assume they are just shy, or, more recently, introverted. Introversion has been getting a lot of attention recently. One common feature of introverts is that they often prefer to be alone, or they at least don’t mind it. They often find parties overwhelming and prefer smaller gatherings when they want to be social at all. Superficially, this may appear similar to social anxiety disorder, but there are significant differences between the two.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two is your attitude toward socializing. The central characteristic of social anxiety disorder is a fear of judgment. You fear you might make a mistake and embarrass yourself or others, or you might just fear that others will judge you harshly no matter what you do. You might even fear that you deserve to be judged harshly. As a result, you tend to avoid social situations. You might pretend to be sick so you don’t have to participate or you might drink or use drugs to numb the anxiety of social interactions. This only makes things worse because you never learn that socializing isn’t that big of a deal, even if you do make some mistakes.

Introverts, on the other hand, don’t like socializing the way some people don’t like pickles or avocados. They don’t fear it, but they don’t care for it either. They often find parties irritating because of the noise and superficial interactions. They would prefer more meaningful conversation with a few close friends, or even to stay home and dive deep into some new interest. They may be unsure how to handle social interaction sometimes, but they aren’t too worried about things going badly.

How do you know whether you have social anxiety or are just introverted? Well, the odds are you’re just introverted. Few people are completely introverted or extraverted, but somewhere between 25 to 50 percent of people are more introverted than extraverted. By comparison, only about seven percent of people have social anxiety disorder. Introversion is a personality trait, while social anxiety is learned, usually around age 13. If your “introversion” began in early adolescence, it may be social anxiety. As noted above, fear of being judged and avoiding social situations out of fear are major warning signs of social anxiety disorder. 

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