People with social phobia say they want social interaction, but avoid social activity because of their extreme emotional distress. Such anxiety is triggered by the fear that others may scrutinize them and that they may do something humiliating or embarrassing.
These traits of social phobia also appear in people who are shy. The similarities have interested clinicians and researchers for years, and debate continues regarding the relationship between shyness and social phobia. Is shyness in children related to the development of social phobia?
Occurrence of shyness and social phobia
Shyness generally is considered a personality trait or temperament. Self-reported shyness within the general population is much more common than social phobia.
- Shyness—In some studies, as many as 38 percent of children have reported shyness. As many as 40 percent of adults describe themselves as shy, and as many as 90 percent of adults report that they have been shy at one time in their life.
- Social phobia—The lifetime prevalence for social phobia in the United States is 5 percent to 10 percent, meaning that about 20 million Americans will have this condition during their lifetime.
These disparate rates indicate that not all shy people become socially phobic and that not all shy children develop the disorder known as social phobia. Performance anxiety and stage fright are common in children and do not necessarily signal the onset of social phobia. However, a pervasive and enduring pattern of shyness may show a predisposing temperament for social anxiety.
Possible biological factors
Some studies indicate that shyness is associated with lower self-esteem, social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Data suggests the possibility of a biological predisposition toward the development of social fears. More specifically, researchers are studying a dimension of personality known as “behavioral inhibition” described in children as young as 21 months. Children with behavioral inhibition cry, withdraw and cling when faced with new or unfamiliar situations. These children show physical arousal such as increased heart rate and muscle tension in unfamiliar settings. There is evidence that behavioral inhibition in childhood may be a risk factor for later development of social phobia.
Further research can help determine the impact of environmental factors and the biological basis for behavioral inhibition to aid in the early detection and treatment of social phobia.