Interpersonal relationships and social interactions have proven to be a very essential aspect of human nature. Human beings are built to form relationships and socialize with others (Refer to Interpersonal Relationships: An Integral Aspect of Human Beings). Social interactions play a very significant role in development throughout the lifespan of an individual.

For some people, however, having these significant social interactions does not come easily. They have difficulties in taking the initiative in forming and establishing relationships. They hesitate in even striking a casual conversation and feel anxious in social situations.

Such people are referred to as being shy. Shyness is about being socially reticent. The American Psychological Association (APA), the world’s largest governing body of psychology, describes shyness as the tendency to be awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters. 

Shy people feel an apprehension when approaching others or when being approached by others. Along with awkwardness, hesitation, and anxiety, in social situations, they have a number of physical symptoms such as blushing, sweating, a pounding heart or upset stomach. They also experience negative feelings about themselves, worry about how others view them, and have a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.

The central factor in shyness is anxiety in social situations. Shy people are said to have an anxious temperament, which can be traced to infancy. Shyness is, thus, a temperament trait that can induce anxiety in social situations, ranging from mildly distressing to severely debilitating.

Children having this anxious temperament are referred to be behaviourally inhibited. This behavioral inhibition has been found to be as a deterrent to developing relationships as well as socializing with peers. Developmental psychologists, by following infants with behavioral inhibition into their adolescence and beyond, have found that these children grow up to develop anxiety as a major aspect of their personality. More than often, this anxiety is specifically in social situations.

The anxious temperament causing shyness has been found to be linked to the neural circuitry of individuals. People who are shy have an overly sensitive limbic system. The limbic system is the brain area that prepares an individual to respond to threat and novelty in the environment. Within the limbic system is the amygdala, which is the seat of emotions and is responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction.

The amygdala, when stimulated, triggers the nervous system to freeze and assess the situation and then tells the rest of the body either to stay calm or avoid the situation. When the amygdala is overly-sensitive, it determines that there is reason for fear, which can cause anxiety; and in case of shy people, this is determined by social situations. This has been corroborated by a number of researches involving brain imaging techniques that shy individuals have a highly sensitive amygdala, which causes anxiety and discomfort in social situations.

Shyness is seen in relation to social anxiety. It is considered to be on a continuum, on which people on the upper or higher end are characteristic of social anxiety. Social anxiety, therefore, can be said to be an extreme form of shyness.

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), the most widely used diagnostic manual for psychological disorders, defines social anxiety as a marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he/she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.

Social anxiety has a genetic basis. But it also occurs due to chemical imbalances in the brain. The dysregulation of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and gamma ammunobutric acid (GABA), which are responsible for arousal and anxiety, have been found to cause social anxiety.

The genetic basis as well as chemical imbalances being the cause of social anxiety indicates that it may occur right from birth. Recent research shows that this puts them at higher risk to have social anxiety in adolescence and later years.

The fear of acting in an embarrassing manner in social situations, due to social anxiety, can make the individual hesitant and fearful in varied situations. An individual with social anxiety, for instance, may become fearful of making eye contact, initiating a normal conversation, walking across the street, and even talking on the telephone. 

For someone who does not have social anxiety, such behaviors may seem to be very trivial and may be difficult to understand. But it becomes very troublesome for the person who is experiencing it.

It is also believed that very few people may be suffering from social anxiety. Social anxiety, however, is a lot more common than it is known to be. It is, in fact, the third most common psychological problem all over the world. Despite the high prevalence, few people know about it and it is something that is mostly ignored.

Both shyness and social anxiety have severe negative consequences on the individuals who experience it; a lot more than it is believed to be. The very immediate negative consequence is that such people are unable to have fulfilling social interactions.

Shyness and social anxiety makes an individual become anxious and hesitant in social situations, especially while interacting with people. A person who unable to initiate a proper conversation will obviously not be able to interact with others in an appropriate manner. The person is unable to express himself/herself and when this continues over a long period of time, the individual is left with no one around.

The individual is left with no one to talk to and ends up feeling extremely lonely. This extended unfulfilled need for intimacy causes the individual to feel unwanted, undesirable, and eventually leads to severe depression.

The fear of being negatively scrutinized and behaving in an embarrassing manner, very often, makes the individual actually behave in such a way that he/she feels embarrassed or humiliated. The person, for instance, becomes so hesitant that he/she begins to act clumsily. When that clumsiness is repeated again and again, people start making fun of that person.

Being laughed upon and made fun of, further makes the individual to avoid social situations. The anxiety related to social situations is exacerbated with the memory of previous experiences in which the person may have felt embarrassed and was made fun of. This seeps in the feeling of being rejected by others.

Many a times, social anxiety is accompanied with stammering and stuttering. Stammering, although being associated with lesser grey matter in specific brain areas, has also been found to be associated with being extremely anxious in social situations. 

The hesitancy of speaking in front of others becomes so strong that the person starts to think too much of being in such a situation. The person, even before being in that situation, starts thinking that what he/she will say, how he/she will behave, and so on. Thinking so much about a social situation, makes the person even more anxious about it, and many a times leads the person to stammer while speaking. Stammering, again, leads to others making fun of the person, which is seen as very embarrassing for him/her.

Not being able to express oneself properly, loneliness, the feeling of being unwanted, social rejection, depression, constantly looking to avoid social situations, stammering, the constant feeling of being embarrassed, being made fun of, all this takes a complete jolt on the self-esteem of the individual. 

The person has no self-confidence at all, feels completely worthless, experiences helplessness, and does not know what to do with himself/herself. Such individuals may experience a lot of inferiority complex. In extreme cases the person may get into substance abuse and even attempt suicide.

In severe cases, the individual should go for professional help. There are behavior therapies and cognitive-behavior therapies that alter the thought processes of such individuals and train them to manage their anxiety in social situations. Such therapies have been found to be very effective in overcoming shyness and social anxiety. Howver, going for therapy for a socially anxious person may itself be very troublesome, as it requires initiating social contact and being in a social situation, something that he/she is extremely anxious about.

Another thing that maybe helpful for a person with shyness and/or social anxiety is to try to identify ones strengths and look out for something that gives pleasure, such as a hobby. The identification of ones strengths will boost the self-esteem of that person and will make him/her feel that there is something good about him/her. With time the confidence due to identification of that strength(s) will become so strong that it will help the person to manage the anxiety in social situations to quite an extent.

Shyness is a highly common phenomenon, which is experienced by a large number of people. The extreme form of shyness, social anxiety, is so prevalent that it is the third most common psychological problem. Such a high prevalence and yet being relatively unknown and mostly ignored is something that is highly unsettling.

People with shyness and social anxiety are not meant to be made fun of. They need to be understood properly and not be socially rejected. The acceptance that such people will get, will help them a lot in overcoming their difficulties and enable them to live a life with satisfying social interactions and positive mental health.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Yun Yi said...

As a social anxiety sufferer I am related to most of what you say here. Many people believe this is completely mental, imaginary, but I found there's lots of physical (nervous system) connections to this problem. Of course, your article is very convincing in this regard. I also found, exercise, physical health can also help mental calmness.
Thanks for sharing your thoughtful and professional insight on this subject. Highly appreciate it!

Saif Farooqi said...

Yun Yi, I'm glad that you liked my article. It's nice to know that you have found it convincing. My idea was that people with social anxiety could relate to this and understand themselves in a better way. Also, other people who don't know about social anxiety should get some awareness about it.

Anybody who has had social anxiety issues would agree that it's not something that they would like to have.

You're absolutely right about the physiological symptoms and causes. And you bring up a good point about physical health playing a role in managing and coping with the anxiety and discomfort.

Namrata said...

Thank you for sharing such area of knowledge, which has high significance in an individual’s developmental process and less explored in the literature, especially in the Indian context. Your articles are well-articulated and reader friendly. In this article, I would like to add one more point with regard to factors responsible for shyness as process of socialization of an individual. In Indian context, largely, shy people are perceived as being more likely to think before they speak and as being good listeners. Also, child-rearing practices, which are permissive as compare to western culture.

Saif Farooqi said...

Thanks Namrata! Glad that you liked it. Yes, I agree, to some extent, cultural factors that may include socialization and child rearing patterns could also play a role in shyness. :)

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting article you wrote. As an adult who still struggle with shyness I definitely agree with a lot of what you wrote.I still have difficulty talking to people I see everyday.There are people I see everyday whom I've never talked to before.I get nervous every time I have to talk to someone I don't know which is almost everyone. Buy I do have a blessing in my life.I have a best friend who means the world to me.I call her my big sister and I'm little brother to her. She knows I'm shy so she would do the talking for me when we go hang out.Such as ordering food.I would help her with things she can't do in return. I believe if I was never shy I would have gotten married and have children earlier in my life.One day if when I'm ready I'll get some therapy.

Saif Farooqi said...

It's really good that you have someone who understands you so well. It makes all the difference.

Yeah, not being shy makes life a lot better. But nothing remains constant. Things do change.

And yes, if you think you need therapy but are not yet ready to go for it, you can always wait.

Glad that you found the article to be interesting. Take care and all the best! :)