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Healthy Living: The Shyness Trap

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Doug Holly is shy by nature, not nurture.

He's sure of it.

"I was born shy," says the 56-year-old sales engineer, who lives in Druid Hills. "It wasn't the way I was raised or anything that happened to me, it's just the way I've always been."

Evidence is building that he's right, that brain biology may explain why at least 30 percent of people are extremely shy, so introverted that many choose careers or just naturally evolve into jobs and lifestyles that suit their personalities and let them avoid situations that can literally make them squirm: like meetings, making presentations, giving speeches or just interacting with others.

Up to now, shyness has been mostly self-diagnosed or identified through personality tests. But scientists using sophisticated scanning tools that let them monitor brains have detected differences between introverts and extroverts that last from infancy to adulthood. And though shyness can be overcome or at least managed, researchers say born introverts may be more likely than their gregarious brethren to develop serious or even debilitating mental problems later in life, such as social phobias, anxiety disorders, even depression.

Holly has never been depressed, but he's always had a tendency to "freak out" in certain situations. He's an inside sales engineer --- making sales calls from his office --- because he knows he'd be less effective talking to strangers on the outside. And though married for 23 years, he has always liked to have plenty of "time alone" to contemplate the world without interruption.

"I've always felt on the outside," he says. "I don't mind being around people, I just don't feel comfortable. I don't know if being shy has made life tougher. But I'm doing OK, as long as I keep working on the things that make me feel antsy."

Like most shy people, he used to be terrified of public speaking and still feels tense and awkward, but forces himself to participate in a Toastmasters club, which was "one of the hardest things I've ever done." 'Exposure therapy'

In a culture that glorifies extroversion, Holly and other shy folks admit they're envious of extroverts.

"I'd like to feel more comfortable in situations that now make me uncomfortable," says John Cargile, 48, of Decatur, a divorced father of two who's been shy "at least since I was around 3."

In college, the packaging designer majored in art and sometimes would pose in the nude in front of an entire class, "but I still wouldn't want to speak in front of anybody." Now, after much effort, he's learned to live with his shyness and even speak "pretty comfortably" in public, but that feeling of insecurity is always there.

"You can overcome some of the symptoms," says Cargile, "but there's something inside pulling at you."

Dr. Megan Neyer of Decatur and Dr. Charles Melville of Buckhead, both psychologists, recommend that their shy patients join organizations that force them to meet others and face their worst fears --- like talking in public. And both are convinced that there's a strong genetic component to shyness.

"I see children coming in with a lot of the same personality traits as their parents --- shyness, aggressiveness, extroversion," Neyer says.

Adds Melville: "I've been told by too many mothers that right from the time their baby was born, it was shy, 'like me.' I used to think it was nurture, that shyness was learned behavior. But I no longer believe that. I've been converted." He says shy children, like adults, also can benefit from "exposure therapy." This means getting people who're afraid of flying to get on planes, or persuading those who're afraid to make speeches to do so. For kids, this could work by enrolling them in acting classes, he says. Brain reactions studied

The twin issues of shyness and anxiety have been filling the offices of psychologists and psychiatrists since pharmaceutical companies began touting antidepressants such as Paxil on TV as a balm for the jitters a few years ago.

"It's been amazing," says Dr. Richard Winer, a Roswell psychiatrist. "Before, I can hardly remember patients coming in with their chief complaint being shyness or anxiety in social situations. But now, people come in and want medications."

Winer is intrigued by a recent study published in the prestigious journal Science that presented strong evidence that shyness and related anxiety conditions probably have roots in an almond-shaped brain region called the amygdala, which is known to control emotions such as fear.

The study, written by Dr. Carl Schwartz of Harvard Medical School, used a tool called functional magnetic resonance imaging to look for differences in how the brains of introverts and extroverts reacted to pictures of unfamiliar faces --- basically watching blood flow "live."

The brains of subjects who'd been classified as shy or outgoing 20 years earlier when they were toddlers lit up, Schwartz says. But adults who were classified as shy as toddlers showed a higher level of activity in the amygdala than the level of those who'd been labeled as outgoing. Two from the group that had been classified as shy at age 2 had social anxiety disorder, a severe form of shyness. Three others from the shy group weren't scanned because they were already taking anxiety medications. But no one from the outgoing group was on medication or had been diagnosed with an anxiety problem.

"We found that individual differences in temperament are associated with persistent differences in the responsivity of the amygdala after more than 20 years of development and life experience," Schwartz says. Though the study involved only 22 people, he was excited by the results, contending that by glimpsing the biological underpinnings of shyness, doctors may soon be able to identify children who're at risk for anxiety problems that plague more than 53 million adults. Far from alone

Perhaps Schwartz's finding is most important, Melville says, because it may help shy people like Aparna Iyer, 27, better understand why they've always felt self-conscious and nervous around people.

"I remember being shy from before even kindergarten," says Iyer of Atlanta. "Once, I was 5, and we had a field trip, and one person from each class had to give a speech on the playground. Everybody raised their hand but me. I tried to make myself look invisible, but I was chosen. I was terrified."

In one way or another, most shy people look for ways to try to understand themselves and to cope, Winer says. Iyer says she's in therapy and on medication; Holly goes to Stone Mountain at least once a week to "walk up, sit by myself on the top and think." And Toastmasters clubs are full of shy people, says Cargile, president of a group that meets Saturday mornings. "The meetings are safe and everyone's supportive," says the Georgia Tech grad.

He's also comforted by the knowledge that shy people, despite what many of them think, are far from alone, and he laughs about a psychological boost he got recently when he forced himself to attend a high school reunion in New Orleans. A woman he'd remembered as outgoing came up and quietly introduced herself.

"You don't remember me," she whispered. "Nobody does. I was shy and never said a word."

That, he says, was cool.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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