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From shyness to social phobia: what they are and how they are treated

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Shyness becomes a problem that affects hundreds of thousands of people, often with negative consequences that go beyond simple discomfort. However, being shy does not mean having a psychological disorder; Rather, it is a personality trait that can present itself in different degrees of intensity.

Something very different happens with social phobia, which is indeed a disorder and puts the person in serious difficulties when trying to maintain a good quality of life.

In this article we will see what these two psychological phenomena consist of and what is done from psychological therapy to help people who suffer from any of them.

  • Related article: "Extreme shyness: what it is, causes, and how to overcome it"

Social phobia and shyness: differences

These two concepts are alike in several ways, but they are worth distinguishing.

Shyness, as we have already seen, is a personality trait linked to pessimistic forecasts about how others will see us. The idea of ​​being a person with trouble being accepted or appreciated by others fuels personal insecurities, and that is why those who are shy avoid being the center of attention, and prefer not to expose themselves too much to situations in which they can be valued by unknown.

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In this way, although there are always exceptions, in general terms shy people tend not to have groups great of good friends, they tend to go out less to socialize, and they have more individual and introspective.

On the other hand, there is social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder. In this case, the anxiety generated by the possibility of experiencing teasing or rejection by others is so intense that the person obsessively avoids these kinds of situations, to the best of their ability. What's more, When exposed to contexts in which several people attract a lot of attention, you can barely disguise your anxiety, and their priority is to get out of that place (although doing this is attracting more attention, paradoxically).

In this case we are talking about a psychological disorder from the group of phobias, and therefore it can generate symptoms so intense that they are of clinical relevance; that is, they are reason enough to seek help from health professionals. The more time passes without having intervened on this tendency to develop moments of high anxiety, the more negative consequences accumulate: resigning to jobs with good conditions, practical impossibility of making friends or finding a partner, etc.

  • You may be interested: "Social phobia: what is it and how to overcome it?"

What is done in therapy to overcome these problems?

Both the problems derived from social phobia and very pronounced shyness can be addressed in psychotherapy, although being shy is much less serious than having a phobia.

In the case of shyness, as it is more of a personality trait, therapy won't make it go away, but it does help you express yourself in much more adaptive ways, and even to not be noticed at key moments, such as performances in front of the public. On the other hand, in the case of social phobia, the discomfort produced by being exposed to strangers rarely it disappears completely, but it can become so weak that it does not limit well-being or prevent a normal life.

How is this achieved? There are different ways of promoting therapeutic change, and the overall goal of psychologists' intervention points to the need to promote other ways of interpreting reality and different ways of interacting with the rest. In this way, it intervenes in both physical actions and mental processes, both in the cognitive ones and in those that concern emotions.

Some of the techniques used in therapy to help these people are the following, although they are always adapted to the particular case of each patient:

⦁ Live exposure to social situations. ⦁ Systematic desensitization. ⦁ Psychoeducation, to get rid of unnecessary worries. ⦁ Cognitive restructuring to question limiting beliefs. ⦁ Exercises to improve expressive skills. ⦁ Exercises to improve non-verbal communication. ⦁ Creation of socialization guidelines to do between sessions. ⦁ Work in collaboration with family members (if necessary and possible)


Psychology professionals specialized in psychotherapy use resources such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, Acceptance and commitment therapy, emotional release techniques and other scientifically created means to facilitate the transition to the patient in this new way of relating to the rest of the people.

Of course, it is necessary that those who go to therapy get to commit to this process of change to better, since psychologists do not impose anything or transform individuals if this does not put their part.

Bibliographic references:

  • Beesdo, K.; Bittner, A.; Pine, D. S.; Stein, M. B.; Höfler, M.; Lieb, R.; Wittchen, H. OR. (2007). Incidence of Social Anxiety Disorder and the Consistent Risk for Secondary Depression in the First Three Decades of Life. Archives of General Psychiatry. 64 (8): pp. 903 - 912.
  • Crozier, W.R. (2001). Understanding Shyness: psychological perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Stein, M.D.; Murray B.; Gorman, M.D.; Jack M. (2001). Unmasking social anxiety disorder. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. 3. 26(3): 185 - 189.
  • Xu, Y.; Schneier, F.; Heimberg, R. G.; Princisvalle, K.; Liebowitz, M. R.; Wang, S.; Blanco, C. (2012). "Gender differences in social anxiety disorder: Results from the national epidemiologic sample on alcohol and related conditions". Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 26 (1): pp. 12 - 19.
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