3 Signs You Have Social Anxiety, According to a Therapist

An introvert with social anxiety

If you feel like other people are watching — and judging — your every move, you might have social anxiety.

As an introvert, it’s common to hear things such as “come out of your shell,” “why are you so quiet,” “speak up more,” “just come out with us tonight.” Since introverts feel more comfortable in the sanctuary of their home, comments such as these can convey pressure and frustration, and they may feel as if they are not accepted for who they are. It’s as though introverts are expected to interact as if they were extroverts, and all of this can feel quite uncomfortable!

This pressure can lead to feelings of anxiety, especially if introverts feel like they are coerced to step outside their comfort zone. Does this mean introverts also have social anxiety? It can, but not necessarily. There’s a difference between being introverted, being shy, and having social anxiety. However, reasons like the above are why introverts may be more susceptible to experiencing social anxiety. But research shows that not all introverts experience social anxiety, and not all socially anxious people are introverts.

Similarly, being an introvert and being shy are two different things, as well. If you are introverted, you might keep to yourself because you enjoy solitude and recharge from it; you need it. If you are shy, however, you may find your shyness eases up as you begin to feel comfortable. For example, you might have zero reservations about speaking your mind among close friends. Or at a party, your nervousness might wear off once you feel welcomed and accepted. 

With social anxiety, on the other hand, you may actually want to socialize, but are so fearful of potential rejection that it’s incredibly distressing to you. And when you are an introvert who already prefers low-key social situations — like a one-on-one catch-up with a friend vs. a big, raging party — if you have social anxiety, your level of distress may be even more magnified.

As a psychotherapist, I have seen in my work how debilitating social anxiety can feel for those who experience it. But, there are ways to cope with it!

What Is Social Anxiety? 

Social anxiety is a clinical diagnosis as indicated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition: DSM 5. Some of the criteria include:

  • Marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others: a fear of being perceived as anxious, weak, boring, or unlikeable
  • The individual fears that they will act in a way, or show anxiety symptoms, that will be negatively evaluated (i.e., they will be humiliating or embarrassing or will lead to rejection or offend others)
  • The social situations almost always provoke fear or anxiety and are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety
  • The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation
  • The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for six months or more
  • The fear, anxiety, or avoidance cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning

As you can see, it’s a feeling of intense fear or anxiety that does not ease up over time. It impacts your ability to do your job, have social experiences, and causes you significant emotional anguish.  But, let’s break some of these down and add in some common examples.

3 Signs of Social Anxiety 

1. You feel like “all eyes are on you.”

Have you ever been anxious that everyone is watching you? And not only watching you, but judging you? For introverts, these are common thoughts since most of us don’t like to be the center of attention. A common example is not wanting to dance in front of others due to an overwhelming fear that everyone will be watching you and will see what a terrible dancer you are. Anticipatory anxiety is another example, such as if you know you will need to give a presentation at work and you are overly anxious for days, or even weeks, ahead of time.

2. You need a crutch, like alcohol, to get through social situations.

Do you find your anxiety is so high in social interactions that you need a crutch, like alcohol, in order to cope, and find this is the only way you can get through social situations? Perhaps you were pressured into attending a work happy hour and really don’t feel the need to be social with your coworkers outside of the office. So to cope, you have a drink… and then another… and another. While it may work as a temporary “solution” for social anxiety, it’s not a healthy one. 

If this is consistent and ongoing for you, this is likely a sign of social anxiety. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 15 million U.S. adults — around 7 percent of the population — have social anxiety disorder. And it’s not uncommon for them to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.

3. You avoid social situations, including using public restrooms, eating in front of others, or attending parties.

Those with social anxiety avoid triggering situations when possible. For example, maybe it’s hard to use a public restroom if you know others are in the stall next to you or lined up outside the door, waiting for you to finish. So you may avoid this all together. Or you may be anxious about eating in front of others: Your anxiety may cause your hands to tremor, you’re overly concerned whether you’ll have food in your teeth, or even whether you will order the “right” thing. 

Or perhaps going to a party brings up anxiety about how to keep a conversation going in a social setting. Introverts are often bored with small talk and group social interactions feel draining, so you may also be worried about how to end conversations or sneak out without offending anyone.

Similarly, have you ever left a conversation or group interaction and felt increased anxiety after it ended? You may find your overthinking introvert brain replaying what happened, what you shared, and what the responses of others were. Did you talk too much, did you not talk enough, did you overshare, is what you shared “dumb,” did you make a fool of yourself? It’s never usually what may have gone well. Along with all of these self-critical thoughts, you likely also felt that intense fluttering in your gut of anxiety or dread.

Even if you have social anxiety, there are coping skills you can use to not let social anxiety take control over you.

How to Manage Social Anxiety

Take slow, deep breaths.

Taking slow, deep breaths can help to calm your overly active nervous system, which is geared up in fight or flight mode. As you focus on mindfulness through your breath, this helps you move out of your head space, where you may be repeating the worries, and connect more with your body. You can sneak into a bathroom, take a break outside, or even discreetly do this at your desk without anyone noticing. As you are breathing, it can also be helpful to add in a coping statement, such as “I’m” with the inhale and “OK” with the exhale. Ask yourself what coping statement will work for you.

Prepare conversation topics in advance.

Conversations in group settings, or where you may be observed, are something introverts dread, particularly if you have social anxiety, too. If you know you will need to be in social situations, it can be helpful to prepare for them in advance by having things to talk about since those with social anxiety often blame themselves if conversations come to a halt. It’s important not to blame yourself, or to compare yourself to others, as you aren’t the only person involved in the conversation. 

So having things to pull out of your “back pocket” can help you feel more equipped in these instances. You can look up current events, popular movies or TV shows, or bring up a topic you love to talk about. You can also compliment others or think of questions to ask those you are talking to, which then takes the focus off yourself. For example, “I’m looking for a new book to read or Netflix show to check out. Have you read or watched any recently that you would recommend?” This may be a great conversation-starter for an introvert with social anxiety.

Be mindful of automatic negative self-talk.

If you find yourself experiencing negative self-talk — which introverts tend to do while they overthink and rehash things — it’s important to stop the thoughts in their tracks. These can include things like:

  • “They think I’m so boring.”
  • “Why can’t I think of what to say?”
  • “Why would they want to talk to me?”
  • “Am I being funny enough?”
  • “Oh my gosh, that was so stupid, why did I say that?”

These are all judgments and assumptions, not based on facts. Therefore, they are not helping anything. If you have an awareness of this happening, you can regain control by moving out of your head space and breathe while implementing a coping statement (referencing back to #1).

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Be aware of cognitive distortions, like irrational thoughts.

Related to the above, cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts and distorted thinking patterns that influence how you feel. One example that appears often in social anxiety is mind reading, which is assuming the perceptions of others without clear evidence. For example, let’s say you walk into a party and the host seems to be more friendly to other guests than to you. Your first thought may be, “See, he doesn’t even want me here. Why did I even come?” Are there facts supporting that statement? Or is that an assumption? It’s important to ask yourself this. If the host literally said, “I don’t want you here” this would be a fact. Based on the information in our example, it’s an assumption.

Develop coping statements to help you counter anxious thoughts.

It’s important to identify coping statements you can tell yourself in a compassionate, kind way. These statements can help you tune out any self-critical thoughts and feel more confident, whether you’re at an event or about to be. For example, you may tell yourself, “Just breathe,” “I’m safe,” “I’m anxious right now, but that’s OK; I’ve done this before and survived,” “I can do this,” and any other ones that may work for you. You can say these in your head or even go recite them privately in the restroom or outside.

Have a friend with you, if possible, for social support.

Depending on the type of social situation you are in, if you have a friend by your side who helps you feel more at ease, that can be a helpful coping strategy. Often, introverts and/or people with social anxiety need reassurance from others to help them reduce their anxiety, and this is something a good friend can provide for you. They can help you in several ways, from reminding you that everything will be OK to being the conversation-starter when you two need to socialize.

Congratulate yourself afterwards: You feared going to that party, but did and were OK.

It often isn’t easy to be in social situations as an introvert, especially if you’re combating social anxiety, too. But, you did it! You can tell yourself, “Even though I was terrified, I did it, and I survived,” “I’m proud of myself for at least trying,” “I’m getting better at this,” or “the situation gave me an opportunity to practice what I’m learning in therapy.” Speaking of which, many therapists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the evidence-based therapy model that has been found to be most effective in treating social anxiety by helping you change your thinking patterns.

So while social anxiety can definitely be debilitating, it can also be manageable.

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Carolyn Cole is a licensed psychotherapist in Chicago. Her practice focuses on helping her clients with self-discovery, self-exploration, self-love, and healing the relationship with themselves to create the life they desire.