Everyone, even natural-born extroverts, feels shy once in a while; in fact, 90 percent of people will describe themselves as shy at some point during their lives. But there's a world of difference between shyness and introversion, and yet another distinction to be made between introverts and those who suffer from social anxiety.
Society anxiety is the third most common psychological disorder, after depression and alcoholism. It affects 13 percent of the population and can be triggered by social interactions ranging from simply meeting someone else's eyes to being the center of attention. As with any type of anxiety attack, the emotional and physiological symptoms can include fear, nervousness, a racing heart, sweating, dry throat and mouth, and even muscle twitches and dysmorphia—but intense anxiety is the most common symptom.
Telling someone with social anxiety to "just relax and enjoy yourself" is like telling someone suffering from clinical depression to "just snap out of it." From their perspective, a party is essentially a minefield.
That's not to say, however, that social anxiety is immutable—though introversion is, according to Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and author of The Awakened Introvert: Practical Mindfulness Skills to Help Maximize Your Strengths & Thrive in a Loud & Crazy World.
"Introversion is a basic dimension of personality and cannot be changed," says Kozak. "Social anxiety is a condition that arises from learning, self-applied pressures for performance in social situations, and perhaps a genetic predisposition. Social anxiety can be changed."
Kozak says comfort in social situations is only one of many aspects of introversion, and introverts might land anywhere along a continuum from very comfortable to very uncomfortable in this arena. "For some, this discomfort arises from the overstimulation in social gatherings," he says. "For others—those with social anxiety—the discomfort arises from the fear of being seen and judged."
Here are three ways to address social anxiety—whether or not you consider yourself an introvert: