The Difference Between Introversion and Anxiety (and Why It Matters)

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Just because someone is introverted does not automatically mean they have an anxiety disorder. Nor does having anxiety necessarily mean someone is an introvert. We tend to think of introverts as hermits who don’t know how to interact with people and become anxious when they have to do so. We imagine introverts walking into a party and immediately having a panic attack. This, my friends, is not the case for many introverts.

To be clear, there is some research that shows that introverts are more at-risk for anxiety than extroverts. But this isn’t all introversion is, and it’s certainly not a defining characteristic. There is no diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 that relates an anxiety disorder to introversion. My theory is this misconception stems from a misunderstanding of what introversion actually is. Unfortunately, many people still think that all introverts are “socially awkward” or “people who don’t like other people,” and of course, “the shy ones who never talk.”

Thankfully, the correct definition of introversion is gaining traction, but I still find myself educating my therapy clients on the true meaning of introversion and extroversion, defined as the ways people are energized. It’s important that we correct misunderstandings of introversion and stop the misconception that all introverts are balls of anxiety. By promoting greater understanding, introverts will face fewer negative stereotypes and feel more comfortable explaining their quiet tendencies to the people in their lives.

Introversion vs. an Anxiety Disorder

In reality, there are significant differences between being an introvert and having an anxiety disorder. Imagine this: An introvert is asked to be their best friend’s maid of honor. She is immediately stoked to be part of planning her BFF’s big day, but this is followed by the realization that one of her main responsibilities will be to plan a big party and make a speech in front of hundreds of people. A groan accompanies this epiphany, but because the pros outweigh the cons, she joyously accepts and dives into planning. Though admittedly nervous (maybe even dreading the moments when eyes will be on her) and exhausted by the end of the experience, she finds she enjoyed gushing over her friend on her big day and is happy she accepted her friend’s request.

In contrast, consider this scenario: An introvert is asked to be her best friend’s maid of honor. As stoked as she is her friend wants her to stand by her side and plan her big day, she is terrified of all the social events she’ll be required to attend. Not only so, but she worries she will have a panic attack or embarrass herself in front of everyone. Her fear is so great that she considers turning down her friend’s request. Though she realizes her fear is not logically warranted, it is too considerable to ignore. If she does accept, she likely will not enjoy much of the experience due to the constant presence of anxiety. Prior to the bridal events, she worries panic will consume her, and she may even have a panic attack before the events. Despite this anxiety, the experience proves to be better than expected, but anxiety’s presence mars her memory of being her friend’s maid of honor.

Clearly, there are significant differences between these two scenarios. An introvert is uncomfortable with the idea of being in the spotlight and mingling with strangers, as they are fully aware of the impending exhaustion waiting for them. The feeling of being utterly exhausted, mentally, emotionally, and physically, is not a pleasant state, so it’s no wonder introverts avoid social situations they know will be taxing.

This avoidance has the potential to lead to less than stellar social skills simply because of a lack of practice. Every person experiences nerves — and even some anxiety — when exposed to new or foreign situations, as well as situations they recognize will likely end in exhaustion. It makes sense for this pattern to lead to some anxiety in social situations, but that in no way means that every introvert has an anxiety disorder.

For Introverts, Some Anxiety Is Normal

Adjusting to a social environment takes time, but introverts can be truly successful in those environments, even if they never become their favorite settings. It’s likely introverts will always have a heightened sense of anxiety before socializing, but so would anyone heading into something they know they won’t particularly enjoy.

The most important thing to keep in mind is this level of anxiety is normal, and though not pleasant, it will lessen with exposure and practice.

Those with an anxiety disorder will tell you it is entirely different from simply not feeling energized by groups of people. To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the duration of the anxiety’s presence must exceed six months, cause impairment in at least one realm of their life (social, occupational, etc.), and be accompanied by other symptoms. Depending on the specific disorder, these symptoms could include panic attacks (or fear of having a panic attack), being irritable, struggling to sleep, and fearing social situations.

In other words, disliking a situation is very different from being terrified of it.

Anxiety also tends to have a greater internal monologue accompanying it, which all too easily spirals into negative cycles that compound the anxiety. Introverts who dislike the need to fake extroversion eventually learn to grin and bare it and learn when to kindly decline an invite without feeling guilty. Introverts with true anxiety need to develop coping skills in order to learn when and how they can accept those invites.

Help for Introverts Who Have Anxiety

If you’re an introvert nervous in social settings, keep attending them. Find the fellow introverts and cling to them for dear life. Say hello. Smile. Make eye contact. And ask questions you would actually enjoy hearing an answer to. The more you socialize, the easier it will become, but know when you need to stay home for the night.

If you’re an introvert who has an anxiety disorder, or suspect you might, tap into the immense amount of self-care and coping strategies that are out there. Find what works for you. Likely, with some experimentation, you will find a combination of things you can do that significantly help ease the anxiety you feel. Trying breathing and mindfulness (my favorite app is Breathe), which have been shown to be effective, as have essential oils, natural supplements, exercise, and sleep.

Seeing a therapist is also a powerful experience, as they can walk beside you and help you discover calming strategies that speak to your anxiety. And they can help assess if medication and/or supplements would be beneficial.

Whether you’re an introvert with or without an anxiety disorder, nervousness and anxiety may always play a role in your life on some level. Fear is a part of being human, but courage wouldn’t be courage without the component of fear. Every time you face one of those fears, you exercise courage, and soon, you’ll be able to recognize the steps, big and small, you have taken to increase your mental and social health.

For some, that means smiling at a stranger. For others, that means making it to the grocery store. Honor your own personal path, recognize your strengths, and keep moving forward.

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An INFJ at heart, Lauren is currently studying for her masters in Marriage and Family Therapy in the rainy, evergreen state of Washington. In all her imagined free time, she enjoys reading historical romance, watching dog videos, planning trips to places she cannot afford, and stress baking. She is a firm believer that there are no ordinary people; everyone has some extraordinary in them.