Social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder both involve an extreme fear and avoidance of social interaction. These disorders are very similar, but they do have some key differences.
Sometimes, one disorder is mistaken for the other. You may have been diagnosed with social anxiety at one point and avoidant personality at another. Understanding the difference between social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder can help you better understand yourself or a loved one who has these struggles.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is an anxiety disorder that causes a fear of social interaction. People who have social anxiety disorder tend to avoid social situations because they’re so worried about doing something embarrassing or being judged by others.
Most people don’t like the idea of being embarrassed in public, but social anxiety is an extreme fear that can affect your day-to-day functioning. People with social anxiety may avoid going out in public or engaging in conversation with others. They may feel excessively anxious while at work or school. A slightly embarrassing or awkward moment could seem catastrophic to someone who has social anxiety.
Social anxiety can feel different for everyone who experiences it. For some people, the disorder mostly involves excessive worry or ruminating on past events. For others, social anxiety manifests in physical health symptoms, too. Social anxiety can cause a racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, or dizziness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 12 percent of adults experience social anxiety at some point, and 7 percent experienced social anxiety in the last year. Social anxiety can affect kids and adolescents, too.
Without treatment, anxiety takes a big toll on your quality of life. The constant fear of embarrassment or judgment can lead to low self-esteem, and the isolation can cause depression.
What Is Avoidant Personality Disorder?
Avoidant personality disorder is characterized by feelings of inadequacy, social inhibition, and sensitivity to rejection. It’s part of the cluster C group of personality disorders (which isn’t really used anymore by psychotherapists), which all involve anxious and fearful traits.
Avoidant personality disorder usually comes from low self-esteem. Someone with avoidant personality disorder may assume that people don’t like them, so they’re nervous to take part in social situations.
A fear of criticism is the other main factor in avoidant personality disorder. Someone who has avoidant personality disorder might worry about being judged or rejected by others. They may over-analyze social cues and interpret something as criticism when it wasn’t meant to be.
Around 2.5 percent of the population is estimated to have avoidant personality disorder. It’s hard to know exactly how common avoidant personality disorder is because many people who have it may never seek therapy or other treatment.
Personality disorders are recurring patterns of behavior that are harmful to everyday functioning. Like social anxiety, people with avoidant personality disorder stay away from social situations. They may be afraid to meet new people or take a risk because of the possibility of embarrassment or criticism. This can lead to depression, which may make the low self-esteem even worse. Without therapy or other treatment, avoidant personality disorder can become a vicious cycle.
The Difference Between Social Anxiety and Avoidant Personality Disorder
There’s a lot of overlap between social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder. Both disorders cause fear, worry, and shame that can prevent you from enjoying your life and connecting with others. Many people are diagnosed with both disorders or have had their diagnosis change from one to the other.
There are a few important differences between avoidant personality and social anxiety disorder, though.
Age of Diagnosis
The most straightforward difference is the typical age of diagnosis. About 75 percent of people with social anxiety were diagnosed between the ages of 8 and 15, and the median age of onset is 13.
Personality disorders are rarely diagnosed before age 18. These disorders are characterized by long-term, recurring behaviors. Because your personality changes so much throughout adolescence, most experts won’t diagnose avoidant personality disorder until you’ve settled into adulthood.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t experience avoidant personality disorder before age 18. Most people report that their avoidant personality disorder symptoms started when they were a teenager. Sometimes, people are diagnosed with social anxiety during adolescence and avoidant personality disorder in adulthood.
Recognizing a Problem
In many cases, people with social anxiety realize that they have a problem. They know that they shouldn’t feel so nervous about social situations, but they just can’t help it. They recognize that people won’t actually judge them, but the fear exists anyway.
Identifying the problem is harder for people with personality disorders. Avoidant personality comes from deep-rooted feelings of low self-esteem, so people with this disorder might not see their fears as irrational. Usually, people with avoidant personality disorder truly believe that they’re inadequate or unlikable, and they’re afraid of others agreeing.
It’s fairly common for people with social anxiety to decide on their own to go to therapy to improve their mental health. People with avoidant personality disorder, on the other hand, may only go to therapy at the urging of a loved one or to work through related issues like depression or trauma.
Severity of Avoidant Personality Disorder
Some mental health professionals view avoidant personality disorder as a more severe type of social anxiety. Others disagree with this definition.
For some people, problems with social anxiety occur only in certain situations. You may feel anxious about public speaking, or you may avoid one-on-one conversations with people you don’t know. Avoidant personality disorder tends to affect all types of social interaction in all areas of life.
What to Do if You’re Struggling
Both social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder are very difficult to live with. If you think you may have one of these disorders, know that you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault.
It’s not easy to let go of feelings of fear, anxiety, or inadequacy. If you find yourself avoiding social situations because you’re worried about judgment or embarrassment, it’s time to think about therapy. You shouldn’t have to miss out on important aspects of life out of fear, and treatment with a counselor can help.
Therapy can be incredibly helpful for social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is especially beneficial for social anxiety treatment. This type of therapy helps you notice your negative thoughts that lead to worry, self-doubt, or self-criticism. Then, you learn ways to change your thinking habits to become more positive.
Exposure-based CBT is a great treatment for both social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder. This is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. Throughout the treatment, you’ll gradually expose yourself to the situations that make you feel anxious. When you have negative thoughts, you can use the CBT techniques to challenge them.
Group therapy may also be a helpful form of treatment. You may not feel comfortable engaging in group therapy right away, but your counselor may suggest it after you’ve made progress toward conquering your social anxiety or avoidant personality disorder in individual therapy. Group therapy provides a place for you to connect with others who are going through similar struggles, and it’s a great environment to face your fears and practice interacting with people.
Social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder have their differences, but treatment for the two disorders is usually similar. Regardless of the diagnosis, if you’re struggling with fear or avoidance of social interaction, therapy could be a valuable experience for you.
Beverly Hills Therapy Group offers mental health treatment for anxiety disorders, personality disorders, depression, and many other conditions. Whatever your reason for seeking therapy, someone on our diverse team can help. Our mental health professionals are trained in a variety of types of therapy for a wide range of concerns. If you’re looking for a therapist in Los Angeles, contact us today.