What Neuroplasticity Teaches Us About Shyness

By Dr. Gili Adler Nevo

When it comes to your child’s shyness, or any other unpopular qualities of your loved ones, it may seem to you that “that’s the way it is.” It is your aunt’s character to be critical, it is your grandfather’s fate to be grumpy, it is your child’s nature to be shy and avoid group activities. But maybe not.

Neuroplasticity is a term that denotes the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neurons and neural connections throughout life. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb “plastic” as “capable of growth, repair, or differentiation.” The realization that the brain is not a static organ is relatively new. When I was in medical school (not that long ago) neuroplasticity was like a four-letter word, at least in scientific circles.

Times have changed. The 2007 book “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge was a New York Times bestseller. It tells the story of how neuroplasticity became mainstream (the book itself, perhaps, had a role in that) and the amazing stories of courageous scientists and patients who went against the stream, changed their fate, and showed that the brain is dynamic, alive, and constantly changing. This is optimistic, not just because we don’t have to die with our neurons or give in to our fate, but primarily because it leaves us with more than cold, impersonal science. It gives our mind (our personality, our individuality, our wishes) a major role in forming our brain.

Neuroplasticity is an important factor in my work with anxious children and teens. People don’t often associate psychiatry with anxious, shy or inhibited preschoolers and toddlers, but anxiety disorders are considered a cornerstone or precursor to many other psychiatric disorders. They are the most common psychiatric disorders in childhood, cause tremendous distress and, due to the direct effect of anxiety – avoidance – decrease ability to function, work, and may lead to financial difficulties in adult life. ‘‘…shy children may not experience many of the role and rule negotiations important to the growth of social knowledge and social skill…they may thus become increasingly unlikely to initiate or respond appropriately to social overtures, thereby selecting themselves further to social isolation…passivity may increase the risk of being ignored or overlooked, contributing to self derogating cognitive attributions’’ *

Treatments based on neuroplasticity help us change our brain wiring, and examples (as given in the above mentioned book) are extraordinary. Blind people who are taught to see through their tongues thanks to the re-wiring of neurons (really!), stroke patients, considered paralyzed in the past, who can use their affected arm, and more. Anxious people’s brains are programmed to seek the negative. They tend to focus on adverse information around them, leaving the positive unnoticed, and often expect bad things to happen. This, in turn, leads to avoidance, which in turn, consolidates the neural circuits programmed for the negative.

Perhaps in the same way that a blind woman can see through her tongue and a stroke patient can move his paralyzed limb, your child could be free to enjoy life instead of being fearful of it, building a strong basis for a healthy and productive future adult life. Our clinic at Toronto East General Hospital is certainly working on it.

GAN.small2.* Caspi A. The child is the father of the man: personality continues from childhood to adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2000; 78: 158-72.

Dr. Gili Adler Nevo is a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Toronto East General Hospital where she heads the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Clinic, as well as Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. The clinic specializes in therapy for shy, inhibited and anxious preschoolers. 

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