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Shyness in Adults – Is Being the Shy Type a Mental Health Issue?

shyness in adults

photo by Joshua Tsu for Unsplash

by Andrea M. Darcy

Are you shy? When does shyness in adults move from a manageable personality trait to a serious mental health issue you might need to seek support with?

What is shyness?

Shyness and introversion are not the same thing.

Introversion means you see the world through an interior lens. You look to your feelings and thoughts to make decisions. An extrovert looks outward, to the environments and others around them.

Shyness means you feel uncomfortable and awkward around others or if you are receiving attention, and you particularly worry about what others think of you. Meaning you can be the shy type and an extrovert or introvert.

 Shyness in adults

Shyness is far more common than you might realise.

In a Yougov survey of thousands of British adults, 57 per cent saw themselves as shy. 

And some shy people get on just fine, as their shyness only affects certain areas of their lives in a manageable way. You might, for example, be shy with public speaking, or meeting strangers, but have a strong group of friends you feel at ease with and a job that isn’t affected by this.

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When shyness becomes a problem

Shyness becomes an issue if it holds us back or affects our ability to cope. If, for example, we see our career suffer, struggle to make friends, or constantly feel alone and disconnected. And it is also a problem if it is causing other mental health issues. This can look like the following.

1. Shyness-related substance abuse.

Extremely shy people are at risk of falling into drug misuse or alcohol dependency. These things can be used a social lubricant, or as a relief from loneliness and isolation. Research also shows that drug and alcohol use can be affected by a shy person’s desire to fit in.

A 2021 study looking at alcohol issues in university students identified that shy students were more likely to drink too much because they were more focused on how others perceived them. This made them more susceptible to social norms, so if they thought others were drinking a lot, they would, too. 

2. Accepting unhealthy relationships.

Shyness in adultsShy people are also at risk for being used by others, or can find themselves embroiled in bad relationships that offer little in the way of affection or real support.

This is because when we are shy we often let others choose us, rather than  taking the initiative of trying to connect with the people we truly want in our lives.

And once involved, we might not have the courage to speak up and step away even if we know we should. (Think this sounds like you? You might want to read our piece on codependency and relationships).

3. Difficulty attaining goals.

If we allow shyness to mean we withhold our good opinions and ideas, or say nothing when others take credit for them? Then we can see our career falter and our life goals left by the wayside. This can all lead to money troubles, frustration and anger issues, and cycles of low moods.

4. Shyness in adults can also lead to anxiety and depression.

A study of university students led by a Chinese research team found that shyness, low self-esteem, and depression were all connected. 

When we put up with difficult relationships and thwarted life progress, we can end up with low self-esteem. And low self-esteem in turn is one of the most reported signs of depression.

5. Internet addiction.

A more modern problem for those with shyness issues is internet addiction. Another Chinese study on middle-school students found that being the shy type led to a higher risk of developing an addiction to being online.

Extreme shyness and social anxiety disorder

So shy it’s debilitating and sees you hiding out at home? You might have social anxiety disorder with or without agoraphobia.

Social anxiety means interactions of any type, even buying something at a store or, say, calling a plumber to repair a leaking pipe, see your mind spin out into illogical, fear-based thinking. You will also have physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a pounding heart, stomach cramps, or nausea.

And because of this stress response to social situations you’ll then go out of your way to avoid such interactions. If it develops to the point you fear places where you can’t escape, and therefore stay at home, you might also have agoraphobia.

If you feel you have social anxiety disorder, then it’s important to seek support.  Social anxiety is unlikely to get better on its own, but does respond well to treatment such as CBT therapy.

Why am I so shy?

Why are people shy? There is growing evidence that some people are born predisposed to be shy and more likely to develop social anxiety disorder.

When studying groups of 4-year-olds developmental psychologist Koraly Pérez-Edgar found that certain children avoided interaction. They did so even when other children were friendly to them and invited them to play. Their reluctance was not a response to being ignored or challenged, but instead they feared inclusion itself.

Pérez-Edgar tracked these children through adolescence and found that many did indeed develop into habitually shy teens.

Other factors that can lead to shyness in adults

shyness in adults

photo by Elijah O’Donnell for Pexels

Of course there is always the ‘nature vs nurture’ argument. Even if we are born more genetically prone to a certain character trait, that trait will or won’t become prevalent depending on the experiences we live through. The following experiences can leave us more likely to be shy.

1. Parenting.

Research shows that shy children and teens often identify their parent(s) as too intrusive or controlling.

A parent who prevents a child from experiencing failure or rejection robs the child of the chance to develop resilience, and exaggerates the importance of these ordinary setbacks.

2. Difficult experiences as a child or adolescent. 

Growing up is filled with vulnerable moments that can make previously confident children shy. Things like teasing, bullying, or being perceived as ‘different’ can certainly have an effect.

3. Traumatic life experiences.

Any life event that shakes a person’s sense of self can trigger a bout of shyness. Divorce, loss of a job, financial difficulties, and illness can all leave someone questioning his or her value and appeal. This uncertainty can lead to tension, anxiety, and, ultimately, avoidance of social contact.

How to overcome shyness and social phobia

Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications have traditionally been prescribed for people with severe shyness or social phobia disorder. But  new studies show that cognitive behavioural thinking (CBT) is s more effective shyness treatment than drugs.

A  study looking at 13,164 people with long-standing social anxiety saw approximately one-third of the group received medication, another third received placebo pills, and the remaining third received CBT. The results showed that CBT was more effective than medication. So convincing was the data that the U.K.’s treatment guidelines were changed as a result, recommending CBT as the first line of treatment and medication as a secondary alternative.

How does CBT therapy help with shyness in adults?

CBT is an especially good fit for shyness because it focuses on the relationship between your thoughts and your behaviours. And shyness is a behaviour that’s often rooted in misperceptions, called ‘cognitive distortions‘.

For example, many shy people attend parties and join clubs to overcome their shyness. But when they arrive at a social event, they make no further effort to connect with others but leave it up to others to make the first move. If others don’t notice them fast enough, or are shy themselves, this can be perceived as ‘nobody wants to know me’.

Is my shyness severe enough to seek help?

Note that shyness doesn’t have to be crippling or disabling to be an issue worth addressing. If you shyness is affecting your life in a way that causes you anxiety or worry, or simply stops you reaching your goals, it’s worth seeking support.

Need help overcoming shyness? We connect you to a team of highly regarded psychotherapists in London who can help. Or use our sister site to find UK-wide registered therapists for all budgets

Photos by Pabak Sarkar, George Kelly

Andrea M. DarcyAndrea M. Darcy is a health and lifestyles writer as well as coach. She was an extremely shy child with selective mutism and is still a very introverted adult! She found CBT therapy very helpful.  Find her @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress


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