[Image courtesy of Vaqawi]
If you were a shy child you’re not alone. 4 in 5 people are estimated to have been shy as children, and half of those then continue feeling shy occasionally as adults e.g. when going to parties or talking to strangers in the street.
Feeling shy is a natural emotion. But problems occur when it becomes so uncomfortable that it makes you want to avoid social situations altogether.
Whilst social anxiety was diagnosed as a psychological disorder in the 1960s, the definitions of shyness and social anxiety continue to be blurred.
However, the techniques for treating both are the same.
Shyness is a natural emotion
Shyness is common in childhood because it’s a necessary part of growing up. Shyness (and anxiety) were needed for survival in our evolutionary past. They are what kept our ancestors on their toes and alert in more dangerous times.
In modern life for many people shyness subsides as they develop a better understanding of the world around them, and learn not to feel threatened by strangers or anxious in unfamiliar surroundings.
Of the 40% who continue to feel shy occasionally as adults, such as in job interviews or talking to groups, most don’t find it enough of a problem to seriously impede their lives.
It’s when shyness grows into the more severe symptoms of social anxiety, along with its black cloud of depression, that the impact can be quite debilitating.
Why social anxiety develops
Most people grow out of their shyness as they learn to interact with strangers and familiarise themselves with the situations that made them feel awkward. However, for those unable to develop these skills then their feelings of unease can grow into an almost paralysing fear of negative evaluation and rejection from other people.
Whilst doctors and psychologists are still debating a definitive reason, there is scientific evidence to suggest that genetics, childhood environment and early experiences all play a role in whether common shyness develops into more severe social anxiety. It’s generally understood that if you’ve had negative experiences when feeling shy as a child, such as being ridiculed or bullied, then painful feelings can reemerge whenever you subconsciously link current events to your past.
What you then need to do is to learn how to identify those irrational automatic beliefs and replace them with more helpful, objective thoughts and feelings.
Learning to overcome shyness and social anxiety
Whether you just feel shy around people you don’t know or suffer social anxiety’s fear of rejection, the methods for treating both are the same. The answer isn’t in pill form, but a combination of relaxation techniques and cognitive therapies.
In the last couple of decades a lot of progress has been made in treating social phobias, in all its forms, using cognitive behavioural therapy, which teaches you how to identify the troubling thoughts that cause you to feel shy or anxious and how to replace them with more helpful, realistic ones.
Whilst social phobia can be overcome with practice, patience and determination, you shouldn’t assume that being shy is a weakness to be ashamed of. I’ll be discussing why in next week’s article.