Dear Alice,

I'm a graduate student who is still trying to cope with shyness. I have extreme difficulty talking to people — even to people I see and work with everyday. I know making friends takes time and patience, but I seem to be at a loss as to how to develop acquaintances too. I've always been antisocial, but I never wanted to be. Who does, right? But I just don't know how not to be.

I'm studying a profession that requires a lot of personal communication; so, it's making me nervous and depressed whenever I can't overcome my introvertedness. But it's not my career that worries me the most. I sense my emotional well-being deteriorating every time I feel myself lost around others. Is there anything I can do to overcome shyness? I've been reading articles about the antidepressant drug Prozac and its success on passive people — should I consider it? Or are there places I can go for therapy? Thanks.

— Want to break out of the shell!

Dear Want to break out of the shell!,

You aren’t alone in feeling shy—although it may feel that way sometimes. Many people experience shyness, social anxiety, or feel nervous when they're around other people they don't know well. To help "break out of your shell" you might consider looking for social opportunities around your interests—you may find it easier to connect with others when you have a shared interest around which to initiate a conversation. It may also be helpful for you to meet with a mental health professional about your shyness—they’ll likely be able to help you set goals for yourself, find opportunities to practice more public interactions, and also discuss potential medications or other treatments as necessary.

The word "shy" can be used loosely in everyday conversation; everyone can be shy in certain situations—often in those they find uncomfortable. Shyness is when a person might feel nervous, strained, or awkward in a social situation. There may even be physical symptoms like a racing heart, blushing, perspiration, tummy troubles. In more severe cases, it can be a sign of social anxiety disorder (SAD), where people feel intense fear or anxiety when they believe that they could draw a lot of attention and judgment to themselves. This can be during special events, like when public speaking or performing on a stage, or be triggered by everyday activities like eating in front of other people or saying “hi” to the bus driver. Some shy people can feel uncomfortable when around others, causing them to do a double take on what to do

or say, especially when they're among unfamiliar people or in a new social setting where they're not sure how other people might react to their behavior. That said, shyness itself isn't necessarily a problem, but it can become one when it prevents you from engaging with others and forming meaningful relationships.

In your case, you may find it easier to engage with new people when you feel passionate about a specific topic or comfortable with the setting. You might consider looking near where you live to see if there are any events going on that you're interested in—trivia or game nights at bars or restaurants or clubs that involved a physical aspect to them (e.g., biking, running, club or recreational sports) to divert the focus off of speaking might be potential options. You could also look for volunteer opportunities based on your interests. Consider doing an internet search for "volunteer opportunities near me" to find out what exists in your area! Finally, you mentioned being a graduate student. Your department might also offer some programs specifically to your cohort like a journal club, weekly seminars, meet and greets, or other events for you to connect with peers that share your interests. Your school may also have a directory of student organizations and volunteer groups on its website that you might check out.

If you feel that your shyness has had a significant impact on your emotional and social well-being, you may find it helpful to speak to a mental health professional. They can use that time to work through different methods that might be best suited to help you overcome your shyness. These might include:

  • Mindfulness techniques which can help you recognize thoughts of negative self-talk, then work towards reducing your anxiety.
  • Social skills training that may be useful to slowly become more comfortable when interacting with new people or adapting to unfamiliar social settings.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy which can help you "re-wire" your brain and change your thought patterns so that you might be able to think about, behave, or react differently in situations that once made you fearful or nervous.
  • Prescribing medication that can also help to treat or manage symptoms, often in combination with meeting with a mental health professional regularly or other techniques. This might include a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) like you mentioned in your question, or other medications like beta-blockers, anti-anxiety medications, or anti-depressant medications.

You’ve taken a big step by asking about your shyness, and there are plenty of options to consider when it comes to helping you overcome this and greatly improve your well-being across all areas of your life.

Lots of luck!

Last updated Jul 14, 2023
Originally published Mar 19, 1994

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