Your Health

Facing fears helps shyness, experts say

As many as 50 percent of people describe themselves as being shy, an increase of 10 percent from 10 years ago, according to a study done by an assistant of Philip G. Zimbardo who has studied shyness for 25 years.

"Shyness is on the rise, and we don't know where the horizon is," Zimbardo said in a Sept. 14 San Francisco Chronicle article. Zimbardo, who is a Stanford University professor, started the Shyness Clinic at Stanford in the late 1970s to help stop the "alienation that is breaking the fabric of social life."

The clinic, to which Zimbardo is now a consultant, is run by psychologist Lynne Henderson after the clinic moved to Menlo Park and Portola Valley in 1982 due to the demand for its services.

"Technology, automation in the workplace and the competitive nature of our society are the main reasons for the increase in shyness," Henderson said. "Technology is a means of avoidance. E-Mail allows people to interact less."

According to psychologist Marsha Hardaway-Burke of the Parent Education Group, shyness can be caused by a number of things.

"Shyness is a learned response," said Burke who wants to help parents become aware of shyness. "It usually is caused by a traumatic experience of rejection or embarrassment. Shyness is caused by environment, and we have found that it is not genetic.

"The signs to watch out for are a fear of being rejected or a child who is fearful of playing, participating in after-school activities or who doesn't make friends easily."

According to Henderson, the Shyness Clinic helps patients by putting them in the situation that scares them the most.

"When we work in groups we help them role-play a situation," Henderson said. "It could be saying, 'Hello' to someone or having a four-minute conversation with a stranger.

"We want them to practice dealing with their fear."

Patients attend 26 two-hour sessions spread over a six-month period.

"For the first couple of weeks we go through private screening to find out more about them," Henderson said. "We want to find out if they show any symptoms that go along with shyness like depression or general anxiety. We want to show (patients) that we work together with them."

After the individual screening sessions, patients are put into groups of four to eight people to role-play their scariest situations.

"We bring other people into the groups to help them role-play so they can deal with strangers," Henderson said.

"After patients leave they are definitely less avoidant," she said. "We give them a bag of tools they can use in social situations."

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