Shyness and social anxiety describe thoughts and emotions that result in similar behaviors, but may or may not have harmful effects on a person's life or well-being. Shyness can range from occasional inhibition in new social settings to such anxiety that a person avoids typical social behavior, such as work and relationships. While social anxiety is sometimes used in an informal way to describe shyness, it also describes a disorder that can have damaging effects on a person's life. People with social anxiety disorder are more likely to avoid social settings than those with mild shyness. Someone who is shy may not have social anxiety, and someone who has social anxiety is not necessarily shy either.
Shyness is not always associated with anxiety and is seen by some as a positive personality trait. Social anxiety is associated with the bodily changes that result from the flight or fight response, imagining the worst that could happen, and behaviors like only going to familiar places. While they are different, shyness and social anxiety probably have similar causes, including genetics, environmental factors like upbringing, and the biochemical differences responsible for other mental health disorders. Often people with shyness and social anxiety both respond to therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy.
One difference between shyness and social anxiety is that, while shyness is often thought of as part of a person's personality, social anxiety can be a disorder that requires treatment. In the latter case, social anxiety can have a damaging effect on work and developing or maintaining relationships. That's because it can cause someone with the condition to avoid situations in which she might be expected to speak in a work meeting or meet new people. In more severe cases, someone may choose to only work night jobs, drop out of school, or even remain unemployed. Treatment for social anxiety disorder can greatly reduce counterproductive behaviors and allow people with the condition to lead fuller lives.
The terms shyness and social anxiety are sometimes used interchangeably, but some people with social anxiety don't describe or think of themselves as shy. For example, a person with social anxiety may have no trouble talking with fellow coworkers but might pass up a promotion because it requires an interview for the position. The fear of being judged or criticized in an interview could cause so much anxiety that the person avoids the situation and declines the promotion.