Some call it social anxiety, others call it social phobia. Both terms refer to the same fear of social situations and are often used interchangeably, but I used to always only call it social anxiety.
The term social phobia made me think of irrational fears like arachnophobia, agoraphobia, germaphobia, claustrophobia, acrophobia, arithmophobia, sesquipedalophobia, phobophobia… The list goes on and on. It seems like you can add the suffix “phobia” to any random word and call it a mental disorder, because for those people, the fear is all in their head. All those people have to do is see a shrink and face their fears with gradual exposure. People with these exotic phobias are often mocked in television and movies, as well as in real life. Other people often call them crazy, so I wanted nothing to do with them and avoided using the term social phobia to describe what I was suffering from.
Social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, sounded like a legitimate medical condition to me. I thought it was something you were born with, a chemical imbalance in your brain that needed to be treated with medication. That’s what I thought, at least… until I took medication, both prescription and natural, but neither was the complete cure I thought it would be. Medication and supplements may help to a certain degree, but they can only take you so far. To get over your fear of talking, you first have to change the way you think, (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and then you have to… well… talk (exposure).
I realized those two keys (CBT and exposure) were the same cure for all those “crazy” phobias. I realized I wasn’t so different from someone with arachnophobia after all, and I realized that neither of us were “crazy.” In fact, arachnophobia may be a more rational fear than social phobia, since a poisonous spider actually can kill you, whereas no one has died from simply talking. In both cases, the person with the phobia isn’t crazy, they have merely been mentally conditioned to fear something (be it spiders or social situations) through irrational thinking. We avoid that thing, and the longer we avoid it, the more we fear it.
Luckily, that irrational fear can be unconditioned through CBT and ultimately, exposure. Once we see a spider (a non-poisonous one, at least) or talk to a person (also non-poisonous) enough times without it harming us, we learn not to fear that thing or situation any longer.
So maybe I, and others like me, would be better off thinking of social anxiety disorder as more of an irrational phobia. Our brains aren’t messed up permanently. We aren’t stuck this way forever. We just have social phobia. And all built-up phobias, no matter how irrational or severe, can be dismantled.
Is shyness the same as social anxiety or can someone be shy without actually having a disorder?
The exact naming and differentiation can be subjective, but yes you can be shy without having a disorder. And there’s nothing wrong with being shy. From what I understand, the “disorder” comes when your social anxiety becomes debilitating to the extent that it holds you back in life from pursuing things you want to do, such as career, education, friends, relationships, etc.