It’s the start of another day at school and Lindsey is slouching in her desk in the back corner of her classroom, waiting for the school day to end. She hangs her head down low and avoids eye contact with other people as she quietly suffers through her fears. She doesn’t have many friends, if any at all, and she’s often alone during school. Although it may seem as if she wishes to be alone, she secretly desires for a friend. Most people, however, tend to ignore the shy girl, actually confirming her negative thoughts that nobody likes her or wants to talk to her. Nobody tries to break through her nervous exterior to find the true person within or even pauses to greet her with a smile. No one tries to understand her, and sadly, she may not even understand herself. Shyness is not only a characteristic trait; it is related to many different medical disorders, conditions, diseases, phobias, and anxieties and can lead to many more problems in life. Before anyone can understand the diseases and phobias shyness relates to, one must first understand what shyness is and the points of its extremities with social phobia as the most extreme case of shyness. Maybe after the knowledge of shyness and its related problems has been discovered, the world will be more understanding to the strange case.
Many people claim to be shy or claim to feel shy at some points in their life, although they may not even understand what shyness really is.
“Shy people,” Kearney, a psychologist at the University of Nevada Child Anxiety Disorders and School Refusal Clinic, says, “might hang back from the crowd in social situations, or hesitate about attending a party, or appear nervous when they perform in front of others or engage in conversation. Shyness is a common personality characteristic trait that most people see as socially acceptable, and shy people are not so overanxious that they avoid social situations altogether” (qtd. in Bowman).
Most people admit that they tend to like shy people more than rowdy people at times, and teachers often agree that their shy students are usually their best and most well-behaved participants. Because they are thought to be nice and well-natured, timid people are often forgotten as nothing seems to be wrong with them and they never get the help that they may seek. Vandenburg states that “shyness involves the way that you feel about yourself socially [and it] makes you hesitant about committing yourself in action or belief” (3). Most people who claim to be shy also claim to have low self-esteem and wish that they were different in some way, which causes them to believe that other people do not like them or don’t want to talk to them. People with shyness tend to feel emotionally anxious and insecure with constant negative thoughts. Although a person can outgrow his shyness, it can carry into his adulthood, worsen into a social disorder or anxiety, or even lead to more problems and disorders if he doesn’t receive help. Because shy people tend to dislike themselves, they may develop an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, in an extreme attempt to change their appearance, which can lead to even more troubles such as depression and malnutrition (Stuttaford “Too”). People with shyness often find it difficult to start or keep social relationships which can bring anxieties, loneliness, and emotional unfulfillment, creating a miserable life for them to deal with. Although shyness is a problem itself, based on fear, it can lead to many more problems, making it unpleasant overall.
Shyness is all about fears and self-esteem. Usually, a shy person will fear social interactions and will think poorly of himself. Shyness is related to a fear of being unfavorably evaluated by others (Doctor and Kahn 369). Because shy people have such low self-esteems, they fear other people evaluating or judging them. They fear that the people evaluating them will not approve of them, will not want to talk with them, not accept them in their groups, or will find something about them that will bring on ridicule or humiliation. People with shyness fear becoming friendless and lonely because they believe that no one likes them, so they tend to avoid people to prevent being evaluated and becoming emotionally hurt, which can eventually lead to a lonely and friendless life. This is exactly what the shy person fears and tries to avoid, only to find himself hopelessly trapped in a vicious circle of fears and isolation. Another fear that shy people suffer from is the fear that they will do something themselves that will bring embarrassment or ridicule (Stuttaford “Social”). This will lead to evaluation which the shy person feels will lead to being disliked and in turn being avoided and ignored by his peers, once again thrusting him into the inescapable circle. To keep from being judged, shy people will tend to keep their heads low to avoid eye contact with people (Doctor and Kahn 369). Their main goal is to “become invisible” and to keep people from noticing them although they deeply and secretly urge to become comfortably social and to easily make friends. This will, of course, rarely happen when their plans work out and people do not pay attention to them. When people do notice a shy person, however, and his plans to disappear have failed, he will blush and perspire, which may actually attract ridicule, making his nightmares a reality. The fears that are included with shyness are terrible to bear and can trap a person in an inescapable and lonely life, creating a terrible situation for him.
When shyness is so extreme that it interferes with a person’s social or occupational functioning, it is known as an anxiety disorder called social phobia. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition defines social phobia as a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur (qtd. in Curtis, Kimball, and Stroup). People with social phobia have such negative thinking and low self-esteem that they constantly imagine that the worst will happen in a social situation and will therefore do anything to avoid the social interaction altogether. It is only when a person tries to avoid social interactions completely when the shyness is considered a mental disorder. Social phobics are usually drastically lonely people due to their constant avoidance of people, who don’t take part in extracurricular activities, experience constant emotional stress, suffer from frequent head and stomachaches, and usually have only one true friend to turn to, if any at all. Due to their fear of criticism, people with social phobia tend to withdraw emotionally, wall themselves off mentally from other people, and try to avoid emotions altogether by becoming completely unemotional. Because they only have one true friend to relate to, social phobics frequently become angry, stressed, and depressed (Stuttaford “Too”). Johnson Schneier et al. state, “Approximately sixty percent of people with social phobia experience other troubling disorders, such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder” (qtd. in Curtis, Kimball, and Stroup). Social phobia persists into adulthood if left untreated and can also lead to alcohol abuse, the inability to work or attain a higher education, depression, social isolation, or even mutism. WIth the many troubles that are combined with the phobia, many of the people who suffer from it have thoughts of suicide and most will attempt it. Although there is still much to learn about the newly recognized disorder, many people are suffering from it without any help. Social phobia is more common in adolescents, with fourteen being the average age as school forces them into many social situations, and experts estimate that as many as five percent of children and adolescents are afflicted with social phobia (Bowman). In America alone, it is estimated that fifteen million people are living with the disorder (Pisano) all with the same extreme fear of social activity.
The fears that social phobics suffer from are so drastic that they cause them to isolate themselves from people. “Social phobics are typically terrified of public speaking, or any situation that requires them to perform in front of others,” says Bowman. People with social phobia are frightened of speaking with anyone also, such as when they meet strangers, talk to peers, or talk on the phone. One reason why social phobics fear these may be related with their disdain of evaluation and embarrassment. They don’t like to improvise, but because conversations are never scripted or planned out, they are forced to whenever they converse. They are afraid to “make it up as they go” because they feel that while they are talking, they may stutter, stumble, or not know how to reply, which they believe will bring on ridicule and will leave them emotionally hurt. Another fear related to improvising that social phobics typically have is the fear of bumping into someone they know, especially a person their age, because it is their peers that will evaluate them most often. So fearful are social phobics of being evaluated or receiving criticism, that they will emotionally withdraw from the world, try to go about unnoticed, or mentally wall themselves off from other people by avoiding social activities that involve personal interaction (Stuttaford “Too”.) Because they are so emotionally detached from life, social phobics become rigidly unemotional and “heartless”. They come to a point where they even fear emotion itself and are not able to easily relate to other people, other than one close confidante, so they will try to bear it all and “become nothing.” Although some social phobics are only terrified around people their own age, others are also frightened when they are with older people, especially those in authority (Bowman). Some people with social phobia are not able to ask for directions or report a crime to a police officer, or ask a question to a teacher. When a social phobic is terrified of being in public where he feels that many people are watching him, waiting for him to do something embarrassing so they can ridicule him, he suffers from what is commonly known as public fears. Public fears cause a phobic to be terrified of carrying out tasks and activities in public such as eating in public, using a public restroom, or falling asleep in someone’s view. Sometimes, an adult’s social phobia with public fears can be so terrifying and interfering in his life that he will work in a building close to his house so that he can eat and use the restroom at home, out of the public’s view. Teenagers are the most common social phobia, however, because schools, especially high school, thrust them into a completely social environment full of their worst fears. Teenage social phobics will have to ask questions to people in authority, mingle with peers, eat in front of others, speak in front of a class, use public restrooms, and try to fit in among groups and “cliques” of people. When a social phobic faces any of these fears, he may tremble, become dizzy, have a rapid heart rate, feel faint, have difficulty speaking, or sweat, which will increase his fear of being embarrassed and once again trap him in the inescapable circle (Curtis, Kimball, and Stroup). Although social phobia has similar fears to shyness, it takes them to an extreme level, causing life to truly be unbearable with so many fears interrupting their goals, dreams, and even their life.
It is said that shyness shades into social phobia and that the difference between the two is faint. There is still little known about social anxiety and it is still being excused as simple shyness. Although shyness is related to the phobia, there is a slight difference. Shyness is considered a mild form of social phobia as the fears and symptoms aren’t as extreme (Walsh). While a shy person may fear social activity to the point of sitting alone at lunch and staying quiet throughout class, a social phobic would most likely find an excuse to stay at home, or would take extreme actions to avoid any moment that they feel may bring them evaluation and embarrassment. Nelson states, “The difference between those suffering from social anxiety and those who simply feel shy is that they [the social phobics] begin to actively avoid any situation where they believe there is even a risk of them feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed.” When the fears of social intercourse are so intense that the victim actively avoids social activity and is accompanied by problems that interfere with his life, then it is considered an extreme case of shyness, otherwise known as social phobia. Shyness will make a person feel anxious in certain situations, but will not bring such troubling interference in his life as social phobia does (Bowman). Social phobics will often experience more serious problems in their personal or professional life than a shy person. Shyness is a part of social phobia that is considered to be a mild, less extreme, case that is virtually bearable.
Although social phobia is the main phobia related to shyness, it is not the only one. Shyness can come from and lead to other phobias which can often add to the stress of being shy. A person will often develop a phobia if he experiences the same symptoms from shyness around the phobic object or situation. This may include feeling panicky, sweating, having a rapid heart rate, avoiding the fear, and having difficulty breathing (“Anxiety”). Although agoraphobia is the fear of open spaces, it has been recognized to be a common partner of shyness. Agoraphobia is characterized by a paralyzing terror of being in places or situations in which a person might feel that there is no escape or accessible help in case of a panic attack, causing him to confine himself to places in which he feels safe, usually at home. He may also create complicated plans to avoid confronting feared situations and places (“Anxiety”). When related to shyness, the agoraphobic may experience these or other traits such as the fear of situations involving people that he feels there is no escape from (Nelson). This results in the avoidance of people, which can lead to a social phobia. Research is still undergoing to find the relation of other phobias to shyness, such as claustrophobia, as they are highly suspected. Fears tend to lead to even more fears which can create a stressful situation for a person, and shyness is a condition that is partnered with many phobias and fears.
The strangest relations to shyness are medical diseases, conditions, and disorders. Researchers are still uncertain to the true reason why these medical problems are related to shyness, but some theories have been shared, and it has been confirmed that shy people tend to have one or more of these diseases or disorders. One theory states that the anxiety attacks that are paired with shyness and some diseases or disorders are so similar, that the person will naturally become both. Shyness can mimic nearly every acute disorder of the heart or lungs, including heart attacks and angina (“Anxiety”). When the symptoms of a disease are similar to that of shyness such as difficulty breathing, trembling, and rapid heart rates (Curtis, Kimball, and Stroup) they can relate to each other. Asthma attacks and panic attacks have similar symptoms and can coexist with shyness along with other medical problems including epilepsy, hypoglycemia, adrenal-gland tumors, and hyperthyroidism (“Anxiety”). Johnson Schneier et al. state, “Approximately sixty percent of people with social phobia experience other troubling disorders, such as depression and obsessive-disorder. Although the connection is still unclear, it is apparent that people with shyness will often develop obsessive compulsive-disorder” (qtd. in Curtis, Kimball, and Stroup). Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD as it is most commonly known as, causes people to have obsessions and compulsions that interfere with normal activities or cause emotional stress or anxiety (“Anxiety”). The obsessive thoughts or images range from worries to frightening fantasies, and can severely trouble a person, especially one who also suffers from shyness. One other theory of how medical problems relate to shyness that has been shared involves the drugs that a person may take because of their medical condition, disease, or disorder. The use of certain medications and drugs, such as ones used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, and thyroid disorders can produce symptoms of anxiety and shyness. Withdrawal from certain drugs including those used to treat sleep disorders or anxieties will also produce anxiety reactions that can lead to shyness. Wilson has found that the most commonly related diseases, conditions, and disorders that are related to shyness are diabetes, heart arrhythmia, thyroid conditions, mitral valve prolapse, hypoglycemia, pregnancy, anemia, medication withdrawal, and the effects of caffeine (qtd. in Curtis, Kimball, and Stroup). With all of the diseases, conditions, and disorders that can produce or come from shyness, it is not surprising to see how many people suffer from it, unknowingly to others.
Now, as someone comes across Lindsey once again, they may understand more about her and what she is really going through. She may not just be shy as she may have developed social phobia, and she may even be dealing with even more medical problems such as hypoglycemia or depression. The person may even be able to relate with her if they share a common problem including asthma, and may be able to help her, not only with making new friends, but also with enjoying life and disregarding the thoughts of suicide that might have been haunting her. With this new knowledge, some of the mystery that had been shrouding shyness is cleared, and the world is a little more understanding.
- “Anxiety Disorders, Diagnosis.” Contemporary Women’s Issues Database 3 December 2004. eLibrary. Proquest. Minot High School District 1. 1 October 2007.
- Bowman, Darcia H. “Sacred Silent.” Education Week 26 March 2003:24. eLibrary. Proquest. Minot High School District 1. 18 September 2007.
- Curtis, Russel, Amy Kimball, and Erin L. Stroup. “Understanding and Treating Social Phobia.” Journal of Counseling and Development. 1 January 2004:3. eLibrary. Proquest. Minot High School District 1. 18 September 2007.
- Doctor, Ronald M. and Ada P. Kahn. The Encyclopedia of Phobias, Fears, and Anxieties. New York: Facts on FIle, 1989.
- Nelson, Barry. “The Unbearable Shyness of Being.” Northern Echo 7 May 2004:16. eLibrary. Proquest. Minot High School District 1. 18 September 2007.
- Pisano, Marina. “More Than Just Shyness.” San Antonio Express-News 6 August 2007:IC. eLibrary. Proquest Minot High School District 1. 18 September 2007.
- Stuttaford, Thomas. “Social Phobia: How it Strikes.” Times of London 16 May 2003:7. eLibrary. Proquest. Minot High School District 1. 18 September 2007.
- —. “Too Shy to Party?” Times of London 2 December 2004:10. eLibrary. Proquest. Minot High School District 1. 18 September 2007.
- Vandenburg, Mary Lou. Coping with Being Shy. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 1993.
- Walsh, Joseph. “Shyness and Social Phobia: A Social Work Perspective on a Problem in Living.” Health and Social Work 1 May 2002:137. eLibrary. Proquest. Minot High School District 1. 18 September 2007.