Getting Over Your Shyness

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Nature vs. Nurture

Perhaps I was. Some mental-health professionals have long theorized that a tendency toward shyness is at least in part a genetic predisposition, as natural as blue eyes or brown hair. Now we're starting to see proof: In a March 2008 study by the Massachusetts General Hospital's psychiatry department, researchers reported that they'd spotted a gene linked to shyness in children and introversion in adults.

It turns out you can fool Mother Nature, however -- shyness can be overcome, experts say. Psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard University and psychiatrist Carl E. Schwartz of Harvard Medical School have followed a set of shy people from age 2 to adulthood and found that about half of them eventually overcame their inhibitions. "Parenting, environment, and social opportunity -- all of those had enormous impact," says Dr. Schwartz.

Brain scans done by Dr. Schwartz on these formerly shy people suggest they had not permanently changed their nature, they'd simply learned social skills and coping mechanisms. When shown the faces of strangers, the subjects still had high activity in the regions of the brain that trigger the release of fear/flight hormones. That flood of adrenaline and cortisol accompanies the experience of intense emotions such as fear and anxiety in shy individuals when they encounter situations they find threatening -- talking to strangers, for instance, or entering crowds. Notes Dr. Kagan: "If you're born shy, it may be hard for you to become an extrovert, but you can move toward the middle."

Continued on page 4:  How to Become Less Bashful


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