Don't Let Shyness Spoil Your Holidays

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

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 30, 2007

The holidays are looming, and many shy people are dreading the season's numerous social events. But you don't have to let shyness spoil your holidays. WebMD spoke with experts about what you can do now to prepare.

Storyteller Garrison Keillor is admittedly shy and exhibits a fondness for shy people and their predicament in his writing and his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. The radio shows has a mythical sponsor -- Powdermilk Biscuits -- "made with whole wheat that gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done."

An essay in Keillor's book Happy To Be Here is entitled ''Shy Rights: Why Not Pretty Soon?'' In it he asks, ''Would anyone dare to say to a woman or a Third World person, 'Oh, don't be a woman! Oh, don't be so Third!'? And yet people make bold with us whenever they please and put an arm around us and tell us not to be shy.""You can't just tell people not to be shy," says Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, director of the Indiana University Southeast (IUS) Shyness Research Institute, New Albany, Indiana. He knows firsthand; he counts himself among the "successfully shy."

"Shy people have an excessive self-preoccupation and concern that others are looking at them and judging them. It's like walking around with a mirror all day long. They don't realize that many other people are just as uncomfortable at parties as they are."

What can make the problem even worse this time of year is that feelings such as love, joy, grief, and anxiety get exaggerated during the holidays, says Jerilyn Ross, LICSW, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA). "It's normal to feel these extremes."

Just as you wouldn't run a marathon without advance preparation, don't go to parties cold.

Conditioning begins with having effective coping techniques to deal with feelings and paying particular attention to good, healthy habits. "Get a good night's sleep, take a yoga class, exercise, and eat right," she says.

She also advises prioritizing. "You don't have to say 'yes' to every invitation." Prioritize. Select what you really want to do. If the invitation is from a co-worker you don't like who drinks too much and is having a party at a bar, say 'no.'"

But don't avoid all social gatherings. "Each time you go to a party and confront the fear, it gets easier," says Ross, who is director and CEO of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington, D.C. "It's like building a muscle."

Carducci says many people fear making small talk, yet it's the starting point of all relationships. Do your homework before the party. "Read the newspaper; be able to talk about current events or sports or movies. Then practice by discussing these things with your family or with people in your carpool."

A part of your homework is what he calls "social reconnaissance." Know who will be at the party and what their interests are. If it's a charity bazaar, learn something about the vendors so you can make a constructive remark to a stranger at the wine-and-cheese table.

One other thing: become a volunteer, if you're not one already, Carducci tells WebMD. "There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer at the holidays, and it's something you should do year-round. I believe that the solution to shyness is in the heart. The more one focuses on others, the less focus there is on one's self. Another benefit is that wherever you volunteer -- at the animal shelter or kids' club -- it's something you can talk about at parties."

Carducci, author of The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything, says there are rules of engagement and a structure for making small talk. The Shyness Research Institute web site offers five steps for being a successful schmoozer:

Step 1. Setting Talk: Getting Started. Make a comment about the weather or your environment, such as, "Boy, this line is long," or "How do you know the host?" You don't have to be witty or brilliant. The purpose is to show a willingness to communicate.

Step 2. The Personal Introduction: who you are, what you do. Anticipate being asked what you do for a living. Instead of a terse response, such as "I work at the mall," a more fruitful response would be, "I work at the mall selling cell phones, and you would not believe the reasons people give me for wanting a cell phone." This will invite the other person to engage.

Step 3. Pretopical Selection: fishing for topics. Toss out a topic for discussion, such as, "I really liked this movie." If the person isn't responsive, offer another topic. The rule of successful small talk is that when someone throws out a topic, you should support it by asking a question or commenting.

Step 4. Posttopical Elaboration: expanding the topic. Associate the topic of conversation to other related topics. If the topic is vacations, say, "Speaking of vacations, we had some great Caribbean food. Have you ever had Caribbean food?" It's the give-and-take than makes conversing fun.

Step 5. Conversation termination: a gracious ending that creates the connection. Let the person know you'll be leaving soon, express gratitude for the conversation, summarize some of the major points, and set the stage for future conversation. You can say, "I really must be going soon, but I had a great time chatting with you. I really appreciate your comments about that new movie. Here's my card. Call me if you know of any other movies you think I might enjoy."

"Shy people often get stuck on 'setting talk,' or they have a favorite topic and dominate the conversation," says Carducci. "They talk at people, not with them. You don't have to be a brilliant conversationalist; you just have to be kind."

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."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Markway, B. Painfully Shy: How To Overcome Social Anxiety and reclaim Your Life. Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, professor, psychology, Indiana University Southeast (IUS); director of the IUS Shyness Research Institute, New Albany, Ind.; author, The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything. Jerilyn Ross, LICSW, director, Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders; president, Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), Washington, D.C. ADAA web site. IUS Shyness Research Institute web site.

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