Self-Help Information: Shyness & Social Phobia
Most of us know what it is like to feel shy. Although it may seem as if everyone
else in the room is feeling confident, social anxiety is a nearly universal
experience. In a classic study in the 1970’s, Philip Zimbardo found that more
than 80% of people questioned reported that they were shy at some point in their
lives, while over 40% described themselves as currently shy. About 4% described
themselves as extremely shy in that they felt shy all the time, in all
situations, and with virtually all people. Thus, shyness appears to exist on a
continuum with most of us feeling shy in some specific situations and a small
percentage struggling with severe shyness in all situations. Zimbardo found that
strangers and members of the opposite sex were the most likely people to make us
feel shy, while close friends and family members were the least likely. The
situations in which people were most likely to experience shyness were being the
center of attention in a large group (such as giving a speech) or being in
social or new situations.
What are Signs of Shyness?
When someone is experiencing shyness, they experience feelings,
physical symptoms and their behavior may change in predictable ways.
Self-consciousness, feelings of embarrassment, insecurity and
inferiority all go along with feeling shy. Someone who is feeling
shy may experience physical symptoms of anxiety such as "butterflies
in the stomach", blushing, sweaty palms, and an increased heart
rate. Shyness is also evident in people’s behavior. Someone feeling
shy may be hesitant to talk at all and when they do talk, it may be
in a quite voice with little or no eye contact. The person seems to
want to disappear into the floor.
What is Social Phobia?
Sometimes considered an extreme form of shyness, Social Phobia is
an intense fear of becoming humiliated in social situations,
specifically of embarrassing yourself in front of other people. If
you suffer from social phobia, you tend to think that other people
are very competent in public and that you are not. Small mistakes
you make may seem to you much more exaggerated than they really are.
Blushing itself may seem painfully embarrassing, and you feel as
though all eyes are focused on you. You may be afraid of being with
people other than those closest to you. Or your fear may be more
specific, such as feeling anxious about giving a speech, talking to
a boss or other authority figure, or dating. The most common Social
Phobia is a fear of public speaking. Sometimes Social Phobia
involves a general fear of social situations such as parties. More
rarely, it may involve a fear of using a public restroom, eating
out, talking on the phone, or writing in the presence of other
people, such as when signing a check. It often runs in families and
may be accompanied by depression or alcoholism. Social Phobia often
begins around early adolescence or even younger.
Shyness vs. Social Phobia
Although Social Phobia is often thought of as shyness, the two
are not the same. Shy people can be very uneasy around others, but
they don’t experience the extreme anxiety in anticipating a social
situation, and they don’t necessarily avoid circumstances that make
them feel self-conscious. In contrast, people with social Phobia may
not feel shy in all situations. They can be completely at ease with
people most of the time, but particular situations, such as walking
down an aisle in public or making a speech, can give them intense
anxiety. Social Phobia disrupts normal life, interfering with career
or social relationships. For example, a worker can turn down a job
promotion because he can’t give public presentations. The dread of a
social event can begin weeks in advance, and symptoms can be quite
debilitating. People with Social Phobia are aware that their
feelings are irrational. Still, they experience a great deal of
dread before facing the feared situation, and they may go out of
their way to avoid it. Even if they manage to confront what they
fear, they usually feel very anxious beforehand and are intensely
uncomfortable throughout. Afterwards, the unpleasant feelings may
linger, as they worry about how they may have been judged or what
others may have thought or observed about them.
About 80% of people who suffer from Social Phobia find relief from
their symptoms when treated with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy or
medications or a combination of the two. Therapy may involve
learning to view social events differently; being exposed to a
seemingly threatening social situation in such a way that it becomes
easier to face; and learning anxiety-reducing techniques, social
skills, and relaxation techniques.
(The above information about Social Phobia was condensed from
a public domain brochure produced by the National Institute of
Mental Health. For the full text of the brochure, visit the NIMH
Recommended Books to Read
Overcoming Shyness and Social Phobia: A Step-by-Step
Guide. Ronald M. Rapee, North Bergen, NJ: Jason
Aronson, 1998. This workbook is organized around
nine lessons consisting of information and exercises
designed to help overcome shyness and social fears.
Lessons focus on issues such as changing your
thoughts, changing your focus of attention, and
evaluating and improving performance. The importance
of practice is emphasized throughout the book.
No More Butterflies: Overcoming Stagefright,
Shyness, Interview Anxiety, and Fear of Public
Speaking. Peter Desberg, Ph.D., Oakland, CA: New
Harbinger, 1996. With a focus on fear of public
speaking and stagefright, this book helps
individuals determine the source of the fear and
teaches relaxation and other anxiety reducing
skills. It discusses various techniques for dealing
with stage fright.
Social Phobia: From Shyness to Stage Fright. John R.
Marshall, New York: Basic Books, 1994. This book
describes many manifestations of social phobia and
shyness ranging from social fear in children to
anxiety in sexual situations, being seen in public,
and performing. One chapter is devoted to a
discussion of the evolutionary origins of social
anxiety. Many different types of social phobia and
shyness are described and multiple descriptions
drawn from the author’s work with his own patients
are utilized to explore the topic.
Social Phobia: A Guide. Information Centers, Dean
Foundation for Health, Research and Education, 1997.
This pamphlet describes the symptoms and causes of
social phobia. It then describes the treatment
options, with an emphasis on medication.
Need Additional Help?
Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine
Counseling and Wellness Services offer free individual counseling for these and
related issues for veterinary students (WSU Veterinary Students ONLY). For more
information or to schedule an appointment call or e-mail:
Donna J. Scott, PhD
The information contained in these self help
documents is not to be used as a substitute for professional care. Neither the
authors, Washington State University nor the College of Veterinary Medicine
assume liability for injury incurred by following the information presented in
these self-help documents