According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common form of mental illness, with 18.1% of U.S. adults being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder during any given year. While people may use the umbrella term “anxiety” to refer to conditions that involve excessive worrying and stress, there are actually multiple types of anxiety, each with their own unique symptoms. Two common anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD?)
Generalized anxiety disorder, commonly abbreviated as GAD, is probably what most people think of when they hear the term “anxiety.” People living with GAD suffer from significant anxiety and worry a majority of the time, as the National Institute of Mental Health has explained. Specific symptoms of GAD include feeling tense or restless, being irritable, having a hard time concentrating, experiencing muscle tightness, struggling to overcome worried feelings, and suffering from fatigue and sleep problems. People who live with GAD may worry about a number of things, ranging from work, to personal life, to everyday tasks. Their worry interferes with their ability to be successful in settings such as at work and/or family life.
The Specifics of Social Anxiety Disorder
While people diagnosed with GAD may experience anxiety related to various areas of life, social anxiety disorder involves worry specifically surrounding social situations, such as public speaking, talking to new people, or interacting with strangers, such as store cashiers, in public. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social anxiety disorder is based upon a fear of judgment; those with the condition are worried that others will view them negatively and reject them. Because of this worry, people with social anxiety disorder experience a significant fear when they feel that others are watching them.
Social Anxiety Disorder vs. Shyness
While it may seem that people with social anxiety disorder are simply shy, this is not the case. Shyness can be understood as a personality trait, and people can fall on a spectrum, ranging from socially outgoing to shy. People who experience shyness may find some social situations, such as meeting new people or attending large parties, to be uncomfortable, but they can manage these situations well enough to function in daily life. In other words, they will not avoid talking to people at work or going out in public simply because of shyness. On the other hand, social anxiety disorder is a diagnosable condition, not just a variation of a personality trait. People who suffer from social anxiety disorder experience dysfunction in important areas of life, such as at work or home. For example, someone with social anxiety may have poor work performance because of an inability to interact with people in the workplace. Shyness crosses the border into social anxiety disorder if it begins to interfere with daily functioning.
Differences between the Anxiety Disorders
GAD and social anxiety disorder represent two different conditions that have distinct symptoms, and this fact is supported in the research. In fact, studies show that people with social anxiety disorder may have greater difficulty with emotions when compared to those living with GAD. For instance, a 2005 study in Cognitive Therapy and Research found that those with social anxiety were less likely to express positive emotions, and they found describing their emotions to be more challenging when compared to those with GAD. There may be some emotional challenges underlying social anxiety.
Beyond differences between GAD and social anxiety, there is evidence in the research that social anxiety disorder differs from shyness in distinct ways. A study in a 2017 edition of Personality and Individual Differences found that not all significantly shy people met diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, but those who did meet the criteria were high in sociability. This means that people with social anxiety disorder are shy, but they want to be social. This may be why social anxiety disorder is so distressing for people who have the condition.
Based upon the research, it is clear that social anxiety disorder is more significant than simply being shy and that this type of anxiety is a separate condition from generalized anxiety disorder. Despite their differences, what these conditions do share is the symptom of worry. Those with social anxiety worry about being negatively judged in social situations, whereas those with generalized anxiety may worry about a range of issues, such as health problems, relationships, or daily stressors. While generalized anxiety and social anxiety are two common types of anxiety disorders, there are other conditions in this category, such as panic disorder, separation anxiety, and specific phobias.