While social anxiety is a mental condition requiring treatment, high sensitivity is a personality trait and not a disorder.
Social anxiety affects about 15 million (or seven percent) of American adults, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I’ve recently realized how my sensitivity plays a part in my social anxiety.
Knowing the difference and how each contributes to the other has helped me: 1) better accept myself and 2) understand which parts of me need help versus just being attributed to my sensitivity trait.
If you’re an HSP with social anxiety (or suspect you have it) or love someone who fits that description, below are some things to understand about being a sensitive person who struggles with social anxiety.
1. High sensitivity may contribute to social anxiety — but they are not the same thing
First, for those who aren’t intimately familiar with social anxiety, let’s define it. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), social anxiety disorder is an “intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others.”
In contrast, sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), the clinical name for being an HSP, is a personality trait involving strong reactions to physical and emotional stimuli.
Compared to other people, both HSPs and those with social anxiety are more aware of themselves, their social environments, and how they might come across to other people. Since social anxiety is an irrational preoccupation with how others see you, being highly in tune with everything around you can exacerbate that.
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, who has been researching HSPs since the 1990s, “A panic disorder in HSPs often begins in an intensely overstimulating situation… It is all too easy to feel anxious when overstimulated because they are so similar, and one can lead to the other.”
HSPs are also more likely to avoid social settings because they’re overly stimulating and, thus, overwhelming. Too many people, lights, or sounds might also lead to anxiety and further avoidance. HSPs with social anxiety will choose to stay home to circumvent overstimulation and the intense stress of social interactions. Unfortunately, avoiding other people altogether just intensifies social anxiety.
2. So having social anxiety is not the same as being an HSP
The above said, being an HSP is not the same as having social anxiety, and the distinction is important to note.
While social anxiety is a mental disorder requiring treatment, high sensitivity is a personality trait and not a disorder. HSPs with social anxiety might need to identify what behaviors are due to high sensitivity and which are distorted by social anxiety.
For example, here are some facts I know about myself:
- I know that I need time on the weekends for a quiet, solitary activity, such reading. If I don’t make time for this, I can feel overwhelmed and exhausted.
- I also know that I “recharge” by being alone with my own thoughts, not around other people.
- But I also can ruminate for weeks on one comment I made during a work call.
- The same goes for saying “no” to lunch with a friend, because I’m worried about blushing or doing something stupid.
The first two are elements of being an HSP that I accept (and now truly love!) about myself. The last two are areas that keep me from living the life I want to live, and so I work on them in therapy or through tools I’ve developed during treatment.
Just because someone is an HSP doesn’t mean they are necessarily more socially anxious than others. While I would bet that many people with social anxiety are highly sensitive, they aren’t the same.
3. Social anxiety impacts everyday life (and being an HSP can magnify it)
Social anxiety is more than just caring about what other people think, as that’s human nature. Social anxiety is considered a disorder because it can affect relationships, work, school, and how you live life daily.
It’s not just the group get-together, the work presentation, or that call with your boss. When you have social anxiety, you can worry about any of these things for weeks before (and after) they happen — and for even longer after.
Social anxiety can make you question how to be human: How do I move my hands? Where do I look when they’re talking to me, and am I staring at their eyes for too long? Did I respond weirdly? Oh god, I laughed at an inappropriate time and interrupted them, so now they think I’m rude. What should I say when I answer that call? I’m so uneasy about meeting that new person next week that I can’t focus on what I’m doing today. Etc. Etc.
Social anxiety can mean ruminating on how an interaction will go and trying to mentally prepare for it while not knowing how to stifle overwhelming fear about the upcoming event.
And when you’re an HSP, this pondering can happen tenfold. Research has suggested that HSP brains process emotional events deeply, even after the events have occurred. So, if you’re highly sensitive, you’ll pick up on other peoples’ small facial movements, body language, verbal cues, and emotional energy. If you’re an HSP with social anxiety, it’s in your nature to process social situations as much as possible.
4. The symptoms of social anxiety are mental and physical
Everyone is different, but social anxiety often includes more than emotional anxiety. Someone might have physical symptoms related to social interactions, such as:
- Tense muscles
- Feeling lightheaded or out of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Feeling disconnected from your body
One thing that I’ve always struggled with as an HSP with social anxiety is blushing. If I feel vulnerable, as if too many eyes are on me, or someone just engages me in a social interaction before I’m ready, the heat begins to creep up my neck and face.
When you’re an HSP, the physical symptoms can be intense and feel impossible to ignore. Being highly in tune with my body means I know what’s happening, but feel powerless to stop it. And if someone else notices the physical symptoms, it just causes more anxiety about feeling weird or different.
Thankfully, there are upsides to picking up on subtle body clues, too. HSPs can easily recognize when they’re overwhelmed or something feels off. Through mindfulness, we can learn to use this in our favor.
5. Genetics might contribute to both social anxiety and high sensitivity
There are three sets of genes that can lead someone to be highly sensitive. Similarly, social anxiety is also partly genetic. If a family member struggles with social anxiety, you’re more likely to have it, too. However, stressful or traumatic life events — and even certain parenting styles — might also contribute to social anxiety.
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6. “Just get over it” is not helpful or kind advice for people with social anxiety or high sensitivity
HSPs are very familiar with phrases like, “Stop being so sensitive!” In the same vein, people with social anxiety often hear dialogue about being too shy, needing to face their fears, or how they should just get over their anxiousness around other people.
If you’re highly sensitive and/or someone with social anxiety, you already know these phrases aren’t helpful. And if there is an HSP in your life who struggles with social anxiety, be kind. We are not trying to make things uncomfortable or more difficult. In fact, many socially anxious people want to be more socially outgoing and at ease around others, even when we are HSPs.
More helpful responses should center around listening openly and asking what the person needs to help themselves.
7. Treatment for social anxiety might need to be more gradual
Thankfully, treatment for social anxiety is possible.
For me, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — small, steady exposures to situations that make me anxious — and occasional medication have been beneficial. According to a questionnaire by Dr. Aron, HSPs probably need more gradual treatment processes and lower medication doses at first. (I found this really interesting because I’ve always been sensitive to even low doses of medications!)
Due to our sensitivity, we’re likely to need more time to adjust to new routines that will ultimately help us thrive. If you go to therapy for social anxiety, it helps to let your therapist know you’re an HSP.
8. Socially anxious HSPs bring unique perspectives to the world
The combination of social anxiety and being an HSP can feel isolating. We love our alone time but also want to feel “normal” when we do choose to engage in social settings.
At the same time, I believe socially anxious HSPs are gems — that our struggles relate to our caring natures, sensitivity to others’ needs, and quiet contemplations on the world and other humans. Through self-compassion, getting the help we need, and embracing our sensitive sides, we can work toward finding peace, restoring balance, and expressing ourselves in the ways we desire. (And that still includes saying “no” to invites when our HSP side needs time to recharge!)
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