My Shyness is Getting Worse

Reader’s Question

I never thought I would be doing this, but since I was born I’ve been a very shy person. My dad is also very shy, but he deals with it and is able to have a career where he constantly works with people without a problem. I’ve moved around a lot and started at many different schools throughout my life which was always difficult to make friends. When I started at university last year, it was the worst. I only made two good friends and the rest were just acquaintances, the type you just say hi to in the hallway. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I just don’t feel comfortable around people when I first meet them. I can barely say a word. Except, when I’m with my family, I obviously feel comfortable around them and it’s not a big deal.

But lately, my “extreme shyness” is getting especially bad. It’s even making me shy around my own family. I started working as an intern two weeks ago at a local news station because I want to be a journalist, and that was difficult being in a stressful situation and talking to people, but I dealt with it and it was fine. Then yesterday, I started working a job in fashion retail. I started to have a panic attack while I was working, but I was able to mask it. I’ve never in my life approached complete strangers, and so many of them, to ask them if I can help them with anything, etc. And worst than that, I was asking them if I could help them, but I had no idea where anything in the store was, so really, I couldn’t help them at all. Needless to say, my shift was a complete nightmare, and when I got home my mom actually got angry at me when I tried to tell her how my first day had been. She was sick of me complaining about my intern job, and now I was complaining about something as supposedly easy as retail. She doesn’t know that I get tunnel vision, feel nauseous, and like I’m going to pass out when I’m put on the spot in front of groups of people.

I’m fine with being shy, but why is this escalating to the point that it did yesterday! Because I had no one to vent to, my chest felt like it was totally in spasm the rest of the day. I went for a run to try to get rid of the stress and adrenaline, but it only helped partially. As soon as I started thinking about my job again, I had to lie down and try not to replay the entire day in my head over and over. I was so depressed last night that I would never get over this, this complete loss of control over how I want to live my life, that thoughts of suicide entered my head and seemed totally logical and do-able until I came to my senses about my true feelings of suicide (selfish, and causes more hurt to others than taking away your own).

Please help me try to get over this. I can’t quit my job when I haven’t even started yet; if I quit, I’ll never get control over this.

— Help!

Psychologist’s Reply

Shyness is very common. A certain percent of the population is very shy and at the other end, very outgoing. Introversion and shyness typically guide people into occupations where those traits are acceptable. Intelligent yet shy people are often required to pass through some training before reaching a career where their shyness is not a problem. This requirement to attend the university, speak in class, work with 30+ in a room, socialize with peers, etc. then becomes the problem. Many people forget that attending college is part academic and part social.

If we look at your description of the situation, you have family pressures, are naturally shy in an outgoing university environment, have taken an internship position, and are trying to hold down a job (retail store) that is often held by very extraverted and outgoing people. In short, you’re stressed out.

A high level of stress produces the panic sensations and eventually the depressive symptoms you mention. The symptoms maybe reached a level to qualify for Social Anxiety Disorder, but I’m betting it’s normal shyness with increased anxiety.

I’d recommend continuing your stress-reducing exercises and maybe adding a few more stress-reduction activities. You might also want to consider talking with a mental health professional. A psychiatrist, for example, may prescribe a long-acting antianxiety medication that will decrease the panic sensations. If depression is surfacing, a psychiatrist is definitely recommended. If suicide thoughts become more frequent, I’d see a psychiatrist as soon as possible. Severe anxiety and depression, for example, are often better handled by a psychiatrist in the community rather than the peer counseling system found in most universities. Importantly, these symptoms are common in university students who are required to be interns, maintain employment, and deal with their families while also doing class attendance, homework, and socially interacting with teachers and peers.

This situation can be treated.

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