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If that's so, should parents of shy children nudge them to be less withdrawn? Some studies suggest that there are real, even lifesaving reasons to try. Bowdoin's Putnam has found that the children in his soap-bubble studies who resist novel situations tend to internalize feelings, which suggests that they are more prone to develop depression and anxiety later in life. Shy children are also at greater risk for developing full-blown social phobia, a serious disorder that afflicted half of Schwartz and Kagan's shy subjects. In addition, a 2003 study of HIV-positive men at UCLA showed that patients who scored high on a social-inhibition and irritability scale may have a worse overall prognosis than their easier-going peers, with a viral load fully eight times as high. While it's not easy to generalize those findings to the HIV-negative population, the study does suggest that shyness may take a toll on the immune system.
For children and adults who feel constrained by their shyness, there are many ways to break free. Parents, first, must respond to their kids' timid behavior with empathy, taking care not to equate being anxious with being bad, says Dr. Regina Pally of UCLA. "They should send soothing signals that say, 'This is hard. I'm going to help you deal with it. You're not being a baby.'" For shy adults, cognitive talk therapy can place anxieties in perspective, lowering the stakes of social situations and reducing the fears associated with them. Behavioral therapy is a good treatment for social phobia, taking the charge out of uncomfortable situations by exposing patients to them gradually.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that therapy can eradicate all shyness--and it would be a bigger mistake even to try. Shy children may have a smaller circle of friends than more outgoing kids, but studies show they tend to do better in school and are significantly less inclined to get caught up in violence, crime or gangs. "Shyness has a risk factor," says professor of social work J. David Hawkins of the University of Washington in Seattle, who, since 1985, has been conducting a long-term study of 808 children from high-crime neighborhoods of Seattle. "But it has a protective quality too."
If lives lived exuberantly can yield grand things, lives lived more quietly may produce something even finer. As Battaglia puts it: "Shyness is simply a human difference, a variation that can be a form of richness." Scientists studying shyness never tire of pointing out that Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were unusually reserved people and may have achieved far less if they'd been otherwise. "There's no question in my mind that T.S. Eliot would have qualified as one of the [shy] kids in our study," says Kagan. "Yet he also won a Nobel Prize." --Reported by Sandra Marquez/ Los Angeles, Mimi Murphy/ Rome, Sora Song/ New York and Cindy Waxer/ Toronto