Feature Archive

Is Shyness a Mental Disorder?

Most of the time, no. But when it becomes anxiety, watch out.

WebMD Feature

April 10, 2000 (Petaluma, Calif.) -- "I'm to the point I stay home. I won't go anywhere alone," one visitor confides.

"I almost always skip classes, except when I have to take exams," says another. "I don't really know what triggers my panics, but in just one second my heart starts beating like crazy. ..."

"Has anyone out there tried medication?" someone else asks. "Does it help?"

These visitors to an anxiety chat room are among thousands of the shy and socially awkward who have found that the Internet can be a refuge, a place where they can go without fear of being embarrassed or ridiculed. Many suffer from more than just shyness, experts say. They have a condition called social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia.

The condition has been officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder since 1980. But it hit the headlines just last year, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the pharmaceutical giant SmithKline the green light to advertise the first drug for social phobia, Paxil, generically known as paroxetine. The drugmaker launched a nationwide ad campaign with the slogan, "Imagine being allergic to people."

How do you know if you're painfully shy -- or a social phobic? And if fear of social situations is short-circuiting your life, is there anything you can do?