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Austin and student present information about shyness

Shy people may feel like they are alone, but they are part of a growing group of Americans who may be too timid to even go out to eat.

According to Dr. Leonard Austin, assistant professor at Black Hills State University, an increasing amount of our population suffers from shyness. "It is a debilitating intrapersonal problem that alters children's and adults' behavior to such an extent that it can become a social phobia for them," Austin added.

Presenting his findings at the 2nd Annual Black Hills Research Symposium at Black Hills State University, Austin drew on his own research and that of recent Canadian studies to reveal that eight percent of the population is shy, while previous studies only found about one or two percent to be painfully shy. “That is a significant increase," said Austin. The work of famous researcher Philip Zimbardo agrees with Austin. Zimbardo, the creator of the Shyness Clinic in California said, "shyness is an insidious personal problem that is reaching epidemic proportions."

Austin, who has been studying shyness in elementary school children and in his BHSU college students, said "It has been reported that nationwide 11 percent of our elementary school children experience shyness to the extent that it can be classified as "Communication Apprehension"- a certifiable disorder, while an additional 20 percent may experience enough anxiety over being shy that they warrant some sort of help outside the family." He said children may experience a host of emotions, from feeling mildly anxious to dreadful fear. Their anxiety may express itself in physical form; tense throat, increased heart rate, sweating, downward gaze, nervousness, stammering, etc. "New social

situations produce anxiety; a major uncomfortableness which can be all-consuming to a child or adult, even terrifying," Austin said. "For those who have not experienced it, it is a very disconcerting feeling."

Austin said that underneath shyness is an aloneness and loneliness which is painful. The interesting part is that there is a longing on the part of the shy person to be able to reach out to others, to connect, to feel comfortable. He says one person has captured the essence of severe shyness: "I want to feel included, and even though people tell me that others are not looking at me, I still swear everyone in the place is watching me, and judging me."

Austin, an assistant professor in the College of Education, reports that excessive shyness is twice as common in women than in men. He believes that it may be "due to society's inculturation of women away from assertiveness and being publicly outspoken," but he admits that the evidence is inconclusive on this point.

Also in his research Austin found that people with extreme shyness are more likely to be those with lower incomes and have little or no college training.

While more than half of the general population admits to fearing public speaking in front of a large group, it is the extremely shy person who will avoid almost any situation which might place him or her under such an intense spotlight. Being singled out is a shy person's worse nightmare. Dr. Murray Stein, a psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety disorders at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital, said shy people often avoid talking to their workmates, going out to lunch, or going on dates. They may also shy away from college settings because "the thought of presenting at seminars is unthinkable," Stein said.

Treatment of shy students and adults has historically involved counseling and medications, but Austin believes that if shyness (sometimes called "social phobia" or "communications apprehension") is addressed early in children's lives that many of them can have an adulthood free of interference; so they can more openly achieve professional and interpersonal goals, and live lives free of medication.

Therefore, Austin, who teaches child growth and development courses at BHSU, says parents should be on the alert to the following warning signs during early childhood: 1) difficulty in engaging in age-appropriate conversations, 2) inability to make or keep friends, 3) obvious anxiety (fearful responses to social interactions), 4) afraid of groups, 5) fear of new situations, and 6) angry outbursts and/or depressed, withdrawn behaviors.

How is treatment to be done? Austin believes it is best accomplished by challenging maladaptive thoughts and beliefs, and learning new behaviors. He said, "Shyness is a learned behavior, and therefore can be unlearned." He recommends that parents remember that shyness "is not a permanent personality trait, but a term that should be used to describe a specific behavior. Don't label your children as shy," he warns, "but teach them how to overcome anxious moments, rather than letting it control them." He also suggests: 1) talk to your children about their fears, offering them alternative behaviors when they are confronted with stressful activities; 2) rehearse with them what they will say or do in upcoming frightening situations; 3) reduce stress in the home by fostering a warm and easy-going environment; 4) allow them to have friends over to spend the night; and 5) play "charades" at home.


Shyness was one of the presentation topics at the Black Hills Symposium held recently at Black Hills State University. Dr Leonard Austin presented his research on shyness with help from student assistant Brooke Aker. Faculty and students made presentations and displayed poster boards featuring their research topics at the one-day symposium.

Above all, do not force your child into highly stressful situations against their will, he says. Many parents think that by forcing children to perform in public they will reduce their child's fear of speaking in front of people." That is dangerous thinking, according to Austin. "Children need to be desensitized slowly to situations that frighten them. To put a young child in a highly volatile and emotional state is to invite trauma into their lives. Trauma actually rewires the brain so that in future instances the child will be hyper aware and "on alert" to any situation that will cause them to be at the center of attention. Do not take the sink or swim approach with children," Austin said.

Parents also can have the mistaken attitude of, "I'll just leave them aIone and they'll grow out of it." Austin says this too is faulty thinking, for children do not tend to grow out of shyness, and if their children are not part of a peer group, especially during adolescence, those children are at risk of having increased social problems."

Austin also believes that there is a warning to parents to be found in a 1984 research study by Bond. "Bond's interesting research found that many extremely shy children were overly criticized by parents during the early language development stage of their lives. Parents were critical of their children's verbal performance when their children were first learning to speak. As a result the children learned to expect negative reactions from others, and subsequently learned to avoid conversations by keeping quiet."

Other reasons that may produce shyness vary. Professionals disagree. Some, like Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., a leading shyness researcher and professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., believes that "Shyness is often a symptom of a cautious temperament, which is hereditary, like blue eyes and curly hair." Kagan believes some people are simply born to be shy. In agreement are counselors at the Palo Alto Shyness clinic which hold that shyness strongly follows a family history, is an inherited trait, but is something that can be conquered, or at least reduced to the point where it is not bothersome.

But others, like Austin disagree. He quotes the work of Nancy Wesson, Ph.D., and his own research with Black Hills State University students to prove shyness can be abated. Wesson, who works with shy children and adults in California, found that shyness is "a set of learned behaviors that interfere with relating to people or having successful relationships. These behaviors can be replaced by more effective behavior and a shy person can learn to relax in social situations." Wesson said the best way to help shy people comes through having them take "baby steps" toward improving their social contact with others, and by practicing new social behaviors in emotionally safe public places. She teaches shy people how to meet new people, talk casually, and start and sustain a conversation. Since shyness can be unlearned, she believes newly learned behaviors will eventually lessen the anxiousness which shy people feel in social situations.

Austin's own work with preservice teachers at BHSU shows that students can slowly move from being highly timid to doing presentations before entire college classes. One student, Brooke Aker, agrees, “I would classify myself as being shy when I entered college. But as I worked in groups, was allowed to contribute from my seat in classes, and was not forced to talk alone in front of a whole class, I became more comfortable in those situations. Recently I have progressed to doing short presentations in some of my classes and found that if I use technology when I present, then the center of attention isn't always on me. So I feel like l am gaining more confidence in front of people."

Austin says he plans to continue his research into shyness, and is now focusing on the effects it has on college students' performance, especially students at BHSU who are prospective teachers.