Still Misunderstood and Often Underestimated,
Shyness remains anxiety disorder of the millennium.
According to the American Journal of Psychiatry,
"If the 1980's were considered to be the decade of anxiety,
most would agree that panic disorder and obsessive compulsive
disorder received the greatest attention. The 1990's are
sure to be another decade of anxiety, but we can expect
other anxiety disorders to take the limelight, particularly
social phobia (severe shyness)."
Millions of individuals suffer from this
problem or other "hidden" social handicaps. They run the
gamut in degrees of suffering.
The most common example is fear of public
speaking, the number one phobia in this country. Also
common, is uncontrollable anxiety surrounding interaction
with an authority figure. Each can be stifling and often
have serious ramifications. Consider, also, the following
- Teenagers who develop school phobia because of underling
- Young adults who are pathologically over- dependent
on their parents.
- Children who do not talk because of social anxiety
- Individuals who are behaviorally paralyzed because
of difficulty with social skills.
- Aspiring executives and professionals whose careers
are stifled because of job related social anxiety.
- Married persons who are emotionally debilitated
by social fears.
- Individuals whose only friends are their computers
- Adults who are debilitated by panic and symptoms
of blushing and sweating.
- Adults who never date and are involuntary virgins.
- Eating disorder sufferers whose problems stem from
Estimates range that from 3 to 12 percent of the overall
population suffers from social phobia or extreme shyness.
Most individuals who are affected never seek help because
of fear of humiliation and embarrassment. For this reason,
social phobics are very much an unstudied population.
Those who do seek help often receive inappropriate or
ineffective treatment. Most current treatment of social
anxiety is based on medication. For many individuals this
just breeds further dependence, which itself is a big
part of the problem.
The by-products of social anxiety include
depression; self medication, with alcohol usually the
drug of choice; an inability to compete in today's stressful
society characterized by poor performance and a lack of
productivity, and often family distress.
When people hear the word "shy," they often
think of children. The reality is that most people who
seek help for this problem are adults. The common response
to children with this problem is "They will grow out of
it." In cases where the problem is substantial, it worsens
It is important to grasp some basic concepts
about the two closely related dynamics of shyness and
social anxiety: Both terms describe a learned response
to social interaction. I refer to this fear response as
interactive inhibition. When interactions are inhibited
by social anxiety, a person is unable to get as much out
of life as is possible. When individuals who have this
problem think that "shyness" is an unchangeable personality
trait, they are creating a major obstacle for themselves
that stands in the way of fulfillment and productivity.
The reality is that shyness is social anxiety. Social
anxiety is a learned response and habit that can be broken.
Furthermore, at the risk of being controversial, as an
individual begins to understand that social anxiety is
a combination of attitudinal, emotional. behavioral, and
physical responses, it will be understood that there actually
is no such thing as shyness. Rather what was understood
as "shyness" is actually social anxiety, a psychophysiological
response that can be learned to be controlled. In other
words, it is a way of reacting, not an unchangeable instinct
that has chosen the person in question.