Chronic Shyness: The High Price Of Social Phobia

Chronic shyness and social phobia can make life a living hell. Identifying it early on in life can help.

Chronic Shyness: The High Price Of Social Phobia
Paula Ravaux

Adrenaline surges can sometimes be a good thing. An attack of the nerves may even stimulate thoughts and enhance performance at school or work. But when shyness is so real that it transforms itself into stark fear of others, it becomes pathological.

Only recently recognized as a proper illness, social phobia belongs to the family of social anxiety disorders, which "includes a spectrum of conditions, from the mildest to the most serious," says Christophe André, a psychiatrist at the Sainte-Anne hospital in Paris.

On one level there are nerve attacks, in situations where an individual feels intimidated, which can be intense or more discrete. "When these moments become chronic, one can speak about shyness," explains the psychiatrist. The personality of such shy individuals fails to evolve, and they tend to be left behind in their personal lives as well as in their professional careers.

"One notch higher, there is social phobia," says the psychotherapist, a specialist in anxiety problems and the author of Fear of Others (Odile Jacob, 2000). This is a persistent fear of one or various situations in which the person is being observed by other people, and in which the fear of being humiliated or embarrassed becomes very strong. Such people experience a marked fear of others and a deep lack of self-confidence.

Palpitations, headaches, sweating, stomach pains, a dry mouth, blushing, stammering and shaking are just some of the symptoms associated with social phobia. Focusing on these symptoms usually makes things even worse. People with social phobia also tend to anticipate the worst-case-scenarios, imagining potential mistakes and letting them build up. These irrational fears are often a source of intense distress.

It is estimated that one to two percent of the world's population suffers from severe social anxiety, and "one person in ten suffers from anxiety to a detrimental effect," says Christophe André. Most studies show that 30 to 50 percent of people think of themselves as shy. "These are small, internal inhibitions which are rarely visible on the outside," he adds. Many of the people suffering from severe forms of anxiety are less well-educated, and they are often single and unemployed. Shy people tend to get married later on in life and rise less rapidly to positions of responsibility in their jobs.

The causes of social anxiety remain unclear. Experts think that genes might be a factor, but do not believe it is the only reason. Upbringing can play a major role. Family units that are inward looking, with parents who over-protect their children and limit their contacts with the outside world, can amplify inhibitions.

Societies that put a high price on individualism and performance can have the same effect. "Shyness can be a handicap in a highly competitive environment," says André.

This quest for excellence at any cost is common in schools today. "Teachers are perfectly capable of spotting a shy child who has real problems, but unfortunately there aren't any guidelines to follow in such situations," says the psychiatrist. "But it is at that moment that it is easiest to intervene," he says.

The moment when regular shyness can develop into a phobia or extreme timidity is usually during adolescence, in junior high or high school. It is then that parents and teachers -- of boys and girls alike -- should be most vigilant. "Social tolerance for shyness varies, depending on the sex," André says. "Amongst children, this illness is regarded differently, depending on whether it affects a boy or a girl."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - D.J.Scalet

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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