Evidence-Based Reviews

When does benign shyness become social anxiety, a treatable disorder?

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The authors pinpoint the fine line between overdiagnosis and underdiagnosis of SAD.



Since the appearance of social anxiety disorder (SAD) in the DSM-III in 1980, research on its prevalence, characteristics, and treatment have grown (Box 11,2). In addition to the name, the definition of SAD has changed over the years; as a result, its prevalence has increased in recent cohort studies. This has led to debate over whether the experience of shyness is being over-pathologized, or whether SAD has been underdiagnosed in earlier decades. Those who argue that shyness is being over-pathologized note that it is a normal human experience that has evolutionary functions (eg, preventing engagement in harmful social relationships3). Others argue that a high degree of shyness is not beneficial in terms of evolution because it causes the individual to be shunned, so to speak, by society.4

Why worry about ‘over-pathologizing’?

The medicalization of shyness might be a reflection of Western societal values of assertiveness and gregariousness; other societies that value modesty and reticence do not over-pathologize shyness.5 It is important not to assume that someone who is shy necessarily has a “pathologic” level of social anxiety, especially because some people who are shy view that condition as a positive quality, much like sensitivity and conscientiousness.5

The broader issue of what constitutes a mental disorder arises in this debate. A “disorder” is a socially constructed label that describes a set of symptoms occurring together and its associated behaviors, not a real entity with etiological homogeneity.6 Labeling emotional problems “disordered” assumes that happiness is the natural homeostatic state, and distressing emotional states are abnormal and need to be changed.7 A diagnostic label can help improve communication and understand maladaptive behaviors; if that label is reified, however, it can lead to assumptions that the etiology, course, and treatment response are known. Proponents of the diagnostic psychiatric nomenclature have acknowledged the dangers of over-pathologizing normal experiences of living (such as fear) by way of diagnostic labeling.8

Determining when shyness becomes a clinically significant problem—what we call SAD here—demands a delicate distinction that has important implications for treatment. On one hand, if shyness is over-pathologized, persons who neither desire nor need treatment might be subjected to unnecessary and costly intervention. On the other hand, if SAD is underdiagnosed, some persons will not receive treatment that might be beneficial to them.

In this article, we review the similarities and differences between shyness and SAD, and provide recommendations for determining when shyness becomes a more clinically significant problem. We also highlight the importance of this distinction as it pertains to management, and provide suggestions for treatment approaches.

SAD: Definition, prevalence

SAD is defined as a significant fear of embarrassment or humiliation in social or performance-based situations, to a point at which the affected person often avoids these situations or endures them only with a high level of distress9 (Table 1, and Box 2). SAD can be distinguished from other anxiety disorders based on the source and content of the fear (ie, the source being social interaction or performance situations, and the content being a fear that one will show a behavior that will cause embarrassment). SAD also should be distinguished from autism spectrum disorders, in which persons have limited social communication capabilities and inadequate age-appropriate social relationships.

SAD is most highly comorbid with mood and anxiety disorders, with rates of at least 30% in clinical samples.10 The disorder also is highly comorbid with avoidant personality disorder—to a point at which it is argued that they are one and the same disorder.11

As with other psychiatric disorders, anxiety must cause significant impairment or distress. What constitutes significant impairment or distress is subjective, and the arbitrary nature of this criterion can influence estimates of the prevalence of SAD. For example, prevalence ranges as widely as 1.9% to 20.4% when different cut-offs are used for distress ratings and the number of impaired domains.12

The prevalence of SAD varies from 1 epidemiological study to another (ie, the Epidemiological Catchment Area [ECA] Study and the National Comorbidity Survey [NCS])—in part, a consequence of the differing definitions of significant impairment or distress. The ECA study assessed the clinical significance of each symptom in anxiety disorders; the NCS assessed overall clinical significance of the disorder. When the clinical significance criterion was applied at the symptom level to the NCS dataset (as was done in the ECA study), 1-year prevalence decreased by 50% (from 7.4% to 3.7%).13 The manner in which significant impairment or distress is defined (ie, conservatively or liberally) impacts whether social anxiety symptoms are classified as disordered or non-disordered.


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Shyness or social anxiety disorder?

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