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Don't Let Shyness Spoil Your Holidays

Experts offer tips to overcome shyness, especially during the holiday season.

Social Anxiety Disorder

What's the difference between being shy and having a social phobia, more commonly known as social anxiety disorder (SAD)? People with SAD have an almost ever-present anxiety. Physical symptoms include blushing, sweating, trembling, nausea, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, and headaches. SAD affects about 7% of the adult population -- men and women equally -- at any given time, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

"People with SAD have so much apprehension about meeting new people, they will do anything to avoid others," says Ross, who is spokeswoman for the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA). "They're preoccupied with fear that others are evaluating them and will think they're stupid. People have told me they'd rather die than order from a waitress. Or as soon as they wake up in the morning, they worry about situations in which they have to talk to people."

Some people develop avoidance patterns to make the world small and safe. "They might feel safe going out to dinner with a certain friend or be able to talk at a work meeting, but won't have lunch with colleagues," says Ross. "They're hindered from advancing in careers."

While shy people can become "successfully shy" by facing their fears and acquiring conversational skills, Ross tells WebMD that exposure to fearful situations fails to desensitize people with SAD. "It's the fear of fear itself."

The good news is that the vast majority of people can be helped. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is most commonly used to treat people with situational anxiety, which is characterized by specific fears, such as giving a speech, making phone calls, or talking to salespeople. "CBT is the gold standard of treatment, and it works very well individually or in groups," says Ross. "It teaches people how to change their thoughts and behavior and to deal with their anxiety while they're experiencing it."

For chronic, generalized social anxiety disorder, CBT may be combined with antidepressant or antianxiety drug therapy.

Carducci offers a parting word of advice for enjoying -- not just enduring -- holiday parties: "Become the person who makes other people have a good time."

Reviewed on November 30, 2007

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