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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
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Shyness vs. Social Phobia: Where do we draw the line?

Sofya Safro

I could tell right away that my new friend was a very shy person. Everyone knows what a shy person is like: quiet, hates to be in the limelight, nervous about being in front of groups, etc. However, I didn't realize just how shy my new friend was. It took a long time to get to know her and get her to open up to me, and since then we have actually had many conversations about her shyness. I am an extremely outgoing and loud person, so her timidity, quietness, and embarrassment over so many things just never made sense to me. I attempt all the time to get her to speak up, to be less self-conscious and scared about talking to people, even to me. She says that she can tell when she is "being stupid" (in her words), meaning when she feels like she should be saying something instead of being so quiet and awkward. Yet no matter what, she worries too much about talking to other people and how she is being perceived. With her permission and blessing, she has allowed me to use her as a base for my research, and wants me to come up with some solutions for overcoming her shyness.

So just what is it that makes my darling friend so unbelievably, painfully shy? Was her shyness caused by her genes; because her father is also shy? Is it because of the way she was brought up; in the social environment she was in? Can she change herself and become outgoing if she tries, and what kind of therapy could help her? She has gone to therapy for her shyness when she was younger, because it used to be worse; she could barely speak in front of strangers. She told me that she chose to come to Bryn Mawr College because it was all girls and she would feel more comfortable speaking in classes and that at this point in her life she is the most outgoing she has ever been. To me, she is still the shyest person I have EVER met. However, her mother insisted on accompanying her to therapy, even though my friend wanted to go alone. I thought this was interesting and made me wonder: just how much can parents affect their child by controlling them, or keeping them cut off from the world in attempt to keep them safe? What about children that still become shy even when their parents encourage them to be independent and outgoing? Also, because my friend is shy to the point where it interferes with her life, what are the differences between just being a little shy and quiet, and having chronic shyness or social phobia?

Shyness affects many people, especially teenagers, where they are faced with critical pressures from peers to "fit in" and be liked. It is normal for men and women to feel nervous or uncomfortable when speaking to strangers or being placed in situations where they are not familiar with their surroundings. Shyness is defined as uneasiness and inhibition in interpersonal situations that interferes with pursuing one's interpersonal or professional goals. It entails extreme self focus and obsession with one's reactions, thoughts, and interactions. Shyness is a reaction that can occur in just some of the following situations: when being confronted by authority, interacting with the opposite sex or same sex, meeting strangers, and speaking in front of groups. Shyness can even be a prominent reaction when interacting with friends. There are even physical behaviors attached with shyness, such as averting one's gaze, sweating or shaking, and feeling queasy (1). The consequences of chronic shyness are abundant. It can stem from of form deep psychological issues, such as low self-esteem, anticipation of social failure, dysfunctions in personal and romantic lives, health problems, and the list goes on (2).

Research with babies has proven that differences between "social" infants and "shy" ones are detectable within the first two months after birth. About 20% of newborns may be quiet and reserved in new situations. Shy children show more brain wave movement in the right frontal lobe, unlike standard reactive children who show more left side activity. Introverted people may be genetically predisposed since it has been found that parents who are inhibited have reported more cases of their own children being shy as well. However, I wonder about the word introvert. Introvert means a person who likes to be alone, which could be totally different from a shy person, who does not necessarily like to be alone but is very withdrawn around others. Something else that was very interesting was that blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin are more common in families of shy children as well as the most shy college undergraduates! (3) Alas, my friend has dark hair and brown eyes, while I am blonde, blue-eyed, and pale.

Social fear and shyness has been found in the action of the amygdale and hippocampus. The amygdale seems to be connected to distress, while the hypothalamus transmits nervousness to the body. The hypothalamus, in other words, causes those symptoms of shyness (shaking, sweating). Shy people have come, through contextual conditioning, to view general situations like parties, as "fear cues" (3). Biology may play a large role in creating shy people.

Where is the line between being shy and having a social anxiety disorder drawn? Research has shown that in fact only approximately 3% actually have a disorder and treatment is beyond their will power. So how can my friend become less shy? Prescription drugs that were first developed to treat depression or anxiety have been known to reduce the warning signs of social phobia in many victims. The newest and most used are SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which were first developed to treat depression. Paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft) and venlafaxine (Effexor) are the three most effective prescriptions. Psychotherapy is also an effective treatment which may help patients face their shyness and increase their social skills in order to help them feel at ease around people (4).

How big of a factor does society play in bringing up a person to be extremely shy? Self-concept is an interesting term in relation to shyness. It is the opinions an individual holds about themselves, and about the ways others and society regards them. Shy people are constantly assessing other people's opinions: "what does this person think of me? Of what I just said? Did they take it the wrong way? Do they hate me?" My friend has told me that it is not just that she wants everyone to like her, but that she does not want anyone to hate her. This kind of worry may very well play a role in a shy person's analyzing everything they do or say (5).

My friend is by no means a socially awkward or terrible, introverted weirdo. She is very sweet, caring, loves to go out and have fun. We are trying to work on her having the self-confidence to stand up and speak up. Hopefully, with encouragement and a little pushing, my friend may overcome her extreme shyness. Perhaps she is learning something at college, where among women, she feels a little safer for now. Worries about the future, about job interviews are constantly on her mind; will she risk losing a job because she is too shy to really shine on the interview by sending out confident vibes and speaking loudly and affirmatively? Hopefully, the answer will be no.







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