Sitting on the couch in her dorm’s lounge, Becca Rodriguez seems cool, calm and collected. The Weinberg freshman bursts into fits of giggles as she talks with her suitemates about the latest episodes of Dexter and Jersey Shore. Just five months ago, however, she was a completely different person.
“The first day we came to school was especially difficult,” Rodriguez says. “I found it hard to try to be a part of the big groups of friends that were already forming.”
Though Rodriguez has overcome her shyness, her experience is not unique. According to the Anxiety Disorder Association of American, of the 15 million American adults that experience social anxiety, a large portion can be found on university campuses nationwide. In a college environment where making friends and being outgoing is essential to developing an active social life, shyness is the culprit that robs these students of the ability to forge new relationships.
“Shyness describes a behavior and becomes a concern usually when it begins to impair daily life,” says psychotherapist Dr. Sheila Orbanic. “As a character trait, it’s nature versus nurture matter.”
This was the case with Becca Rodriguez, who says she “didn’t know what to say or do in big groups of people”.
“I would try to look busy or distracted,” Rodriguez says. “But really it just upset me if I couldn’t be part of a conversation.”
Though Rodriguez has largely overcome her shyness, many students continue to struggle in social situations. Community Assistant Tara Patel is trained to look out for these students and to help alleviate their anxiety.
“For people who we don’t see very often, we try to either go to their rooms individually or seek them out,” Patel says. “It’s important to let them know you’re available if they need to talk.”
Rodriguez agrees, saying that new situations can be overwhelming, and shy people are more likely to isolate themselves than they are to reach out to strangers. It is not hard to see how shyness can have such a significant effect in a college setting where meeting friends is a matter of opening oneself to new experiences, and with that, vulnerability.
But Becca Rodriguez is proof that shyness can be overcome. With the proper coping techniques and some openness to new experiences, introversion can be a thing of the past.
“I came to college and I realized I couldn’t be ‘that girl’ who stayed in her room,” Rodriguez says. “It forced me to talk to people and now I have some great friends.”
When shyness is more than a personality trait
While anyone can be quiet by nature, 1.8 million American adults suffer from a different level of shyness: agoraphobia. Literally translated as “a fear of open places”, agoraphobia is a serious condition that often confines its victims to their homes out of fear for the outside world. Studies have shown that genetics and substance abuse are factors that can predispose people to the problem. In some cases, however, negative experiences that occurred outside the home can also play a role. For instance, if a person had a panic attack in a public place, he or she may develop a phobia of leaving the house for fear of another episode.
According to psychotherapist Dr. Sheila Orbanic, everyone falls on a continuum of anxiety levels. Following a traumatic event, this anxiety can reach phobia status.
“Someone could have a phobia and not know it until they’re in it,” Dr. Orbanic says. “When you go from anxiety to panic, there’s no rational thought.”
Several therapy techniques can be employed to break down the fear caused by such an event: cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques and group therapy are common approaches.
“In cognitive behavioral therapy, [patients] are taught to be aware of what they’re thinking and how they respond to the thought,” Dr. Orbani says. “But desensitization and exposure therapy can take weeks or months.” Severe agoraphobia may call for a higher level of treatment, and patients can be prescribed medications like Prozac, Lexapro or Xanax.