Shyness is a personality trait that is moderately frequent in the population, usually begins in childhood and tends to persist or to diminish as we grow older. According to the experts, shyness is characterized by apprehension, hesitation and embarrassment in unfamiliar social situations. Typically, a shy person worries about what other people may think of him/her or of his/her behaviour. This fear and apprehension in turn may influence the behaviour itself, making the individual feel less spontaneous, awkward, avoidant or controlled in his actions.
In most cases, shyness is not seen as overly impairing for the individual, as it does not lead to severe consequences in everyday life. However, when it is characterised by anxiety and becomes pervasive, experts tend to prefer the concept of “social anxiety” (for more information on anxiety, see also here).
Social Anxiety is characterized by behavioural manifestations of acute shyness and marked distress in social interactions. It is influenced by a predisposition to personality traits and temperament, such as shyness, which often make the person avoid new or unfamiliar situations. This arrangement is generally referred to as “behavioural inhibition” (Kagan et al., 1984). The manifestations of behavioural inhibition/social anxiety have been associated with specific overt behavioural parameters: shy aspect, marked attachment to a caregiver (e.g. parents) in the presence of novelty and unpredictability, the reluctance to initiate social interaction (e.g. engage into play with peers) and the longer latency of spontaneous comments when the person is in unfamiliar environments and with strangers. These behaviours tend to be manifested with different characteristics across development, but we can assume that they are attributable to a same dimension (Kagan et al., 1988). At the cognitive level, people with social anxiety tend to have frequent negative thoughts and bad expectations with respect to future interactions, which tend to interfere with their ability to adjust their behaviour in social situations. This is reflected also at the emotional level in high levels of worry and anxiety experienced in social situations, feelings of discomfort and avoidant behaviours that may severely undermine the person’s social life.
Social Anxiety is a trait, not strictly pathological, which is distributed within the population. It represents a cognitive and behavioural modality in the way we relate to new people and situations, and which is expressed in a rather stable way throughout life. The manifestations of severe Social Anxiety may, however, lead to clinical conditions: the most extreme manifestations, in fact, may lead to forms of psychopathology, generally Social Phobia according to the DSM system. A number of studies have indeed shown the existence of a specific association between the expressions of severe shyness/social anxiety and Social Phobia (Hayward et al., 1998; Mick & Telch, 1998; Biederman et al., 2001). In particular, it has been documented that shyness/Social Anxiety in childhood increases the risk of onset of Social Phobia in adolescence (Battaglia et al., 2012; Mick & Telch, 1998; Hayward et al., 1998).
According to the DSM-IV (APA, 2000), Social Phobia is a disorder characterized by marked and persistent fear and anxiety in situations of social interaction and performance, in which the person is exposed to possible judgement and evaluation, especially by strangers. People with Social Phobia are often worried of the possible humiliation in doing a bad impression or due to the embarrassment caused by their anxious reaction. In particularly anxiety-generating social situations, individuals with Social Phobia may experience acute anxiety, with the characteristics of panic attacks.
In conclusion, an inhibited temperament characterized by shyness is not strictly pathological, and may not be particularly debilitating for the individual, who is able to have a good level of social adjustment despite some initial hesitation in new situations. However, when shyness and social anxiety are pervasive, persistent and manifest since early stages of development, these temperamental dimensions may represent a risk factor for Social Phobia in adolescence and young adulthood. This temporal continuity has important implications for prevention, as early identification and implementation of prevention strategies for very shy children may limit the increase of these problems and prevent a later diagnosis of Social Phobia. In this perspective, clinical and scientific research has developed the investigation of the processes of elaboration of social messages that are at the basis of shyness and Social Anxiety. In particular, several studies have explored the emotional-cognitive processing of facial expressions of emotions as an important intermediate step for social messages (Battaglia et al., 2004; 2005).
By Giorgia Michelini
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th ed.- Text Revision 2000; Washington, DC: Author.
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