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June 26, 2014

The science of shyness revealed

UNITED STATES —

Shy people have quite a bit to contend with - not least the word itself.

It has a number of different meanings, none of which are flattering. To "shy away" from something implies avoidance; to "shy" can also mean to move suddenly in fright; to "be shy of" something can mean to come up short, or be insufficient.

And to be a shy person in our extrovert-worshipping age can be seen as being inadequate for the task of relentlessly positive self-presentation.

I recently wrote a memoir called "Shy" as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University and have been exploring the different definitions of the word "shy" as part of a quest to understand the impact of shyness on my own life story. As at least 40 percent of us would self-identify as shy, I suspect my deep interest in this subject will be shared by many fellow-sufferers.

Psychologists would say it is a temperament trait, one that can induce feelings of social anxiety ranging from mildly distressing to severely debilitating. I have been relieved to discover, though, that shyness is also accompanied by a range of socially useful and positive character attributes.

Part of my research involved interviewing my mother, Melbourne University psychologist Margot Prior, who has been studying temperament for more than three decades. In her view, all children fit somewhere on a spectrum called "approach-withdrawal," ranging from the most engaged and extroverted kids to the most withdrawn, fearful and anxious kids.

For the shy ones among us, this fear comes from our biology, specifically from the reactivity of our nervous systems. American psychologist Jerome Kagan has studied the physical symptoms of so-called "timid" and "bold" children and found in the timid ones a neural circuitry that is highly reactive to even mild stress.

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