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Are You Just Shy Or Do You Have Social Anxiety?
By Dr. Andrew Ember
Does this scenario sound familiar?  "That really hot person you've being making eye contact with all evening finally comes over to you, clearly wanting to connect ... and all you can do is stutter, stammer and break out in a cold sweat.  You begin to feel sick to your stomach and you cannot control your impulse to flee because you're afraid that you'll embarrass yourself.  Well you have done it again.  You have once more failed to meet someone that you really did want to know ... and this pattern is having a devastating effect on your social and romantic life."

The chances are that if this is close to the mark for you, you may not just be painfully shy but rather, you may be suffering from a medical condition called Social Anxiety Disorder.

Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by the following reactions in social and performance situations (or circumstances when meeting or interacting with people, giving a public talk, eating in a restaurant, working under scrutiny and supervision):

  • Severe anxiety
  • Fear of embarrassment or humiliation
  • Trembling, nausea, perspiration,
  • Avoidance behaviours related to public functions.
The condition was first recognized as a distinct medical entity in 1980.  Extensive research has shown that 1 out of every 7 people experience it at some point in their lifetime.  People suffering from severe expression of this disorder tend to isolate themselves with negative impact on both social and job performance.  Social Anxiety Disorder leads to a greater tendency to resort to alcohol or drugs to ease the discomfort of social situations.  This coping strategy can, however, progress to addictions and other adverse health conditions.

The good news is that effective therapies are now available for those who fit the diagnostic criteria.  A combination of several forms of treatment have been found to restore a person's ability to function normally.  These therapies include:

  • Cognitive Therapy, a type of talk therapy which first focuses on exposing hidden patterns of negative thoughts and perceptions, which can then be challenged as being false or distorted
  • Group therapy where sufferers learn new social skills and build confidence in public situations
  • Prescription medications which improve the concentration of the chemical "serotonin" in the nerve synapses.  These medications usually have to be taken on a long term basis.
If you want to know more

Web Sites:

Social Anxiety Disorder Association:
General Information:


Dying of Embarrassment:Help for Social Anxiety & Social PhobiaBarbara Markway, Dying of Embarrassment, New Harbinger Publications, 1998

Social Phobia:From Shyness to Stage FrightJohn Marshall, Social Phobia, Basic Book, 1994

The Hidden Face of Shyness:Understanding & Overcoming Social AnxietySchneier, The Hidden Faces of Shyness, Avon Books, 1996

Dr. Ember practices medicine at University of Ottawa Health Services  Tel: 564-3950