Shyness and serotonin

Via Marginal Revolution, Time magazine reports on some recent research into shyness. Apparently a genetic component has been located:

As part of Battaglia’s study, he collected saliva samples from his 49 subjects and analyzed their DNA, looking for something that might further explain his results. The shy children, he found, had one or two shorter copies of a gene that codes for the flow of the brain chemical serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in anxiety, depression and other mood states. Battaglia’s lab is not the only one to have linked this gene to shyness, and while nobody pretends it’s the entire answer, most researchers believe it at least plays a role. “People who carry the short variant of the gene are, in general, a little more shy and reactive to stress,” says psychiatrist Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal, who just completed a two-year study of timidity and stress.

Something I’ve never been entirely clear on is, what is the relationship between shyness and mood states like depression and anxiety? Maybe this is still an open question, but they seem to be linked in some way. I guess in a sense shyness is a kind of anxiety, but shy behavior has a very different character from an anxiety attack.

31 thoughts on “Shyness and serotonin

  1. phi

    that’s interesting. we were studying the same gene in bipolar disoder – extra short copies seem to make you more likely to have abnormal-sized amygdala/hippocampus iff you’re carrying the diagnosis. we talk about it as if it’s a vulnerability marker.
    there have also been studies of emotional “resilience” by these sorts of people that correlate with serotonin expression. do you think it’s fair to lump shyness and reactivity to stress into one category?

  2. Lemming

    Tell you what Gazebo, I think I might have a bottle of serotonin reuptake inhibitors lying around somewhere, how about you start poppin’ and we’ll see what happens?
    I suppose they’re probably several years past expired (can’t even read the label anymore) and there aren’t enough to last long enough for it to really start kicking in, anyway… I only keep the bottle as a souvenir in any case.
    The possibility of a link between the two isn’t at all surprising, there’s a whole host of problems that have a way of feeding one another. “If you have 5 or more ranks in depression, you get a +2 synergy bonus to insomnia, shyness, and low self-esteem checks.”

  3. Arcane Gazebo

    Phi: The shyness/stress thing seemed a bit odd to me, but only from my own experience–I don’t know whether it would be fair in terms of the overall population of shy people.
    Lemming: Well, apparently some of those drugs (Paxil at least) actually are prescribed as treatments for shyness. I have an ongoing internal debate as to whether my shyness is at a level that warrants some kind of psychiatric treatment, but I find the Paxil approach somewhat unappealing; I’m more inclined to something like cognitive-behavioral therapy.

  4. Mason

    The connection to bipolar disorder doesn’t surprise me. I immediately thought of that dichotomy when stress/shyness were grouped together. However, I may have been predisposed to think in that direction because one of my best friends has a very severe case of bipolar disorder.
    I definitely avoid the meds for my own stuff in this case (my intake of caffeine and sugar notwithstanding 😛 ).

  5. Lemming

    Personally, I really dislike the idea of treating such things (well, any of the ones mentioned so far) with meds, but I get the feeling sometimes it’s necessary. That is, like Mason, aside from caffiene, sugar and occasionally alcohol, which serve as nice short-term fine tuning for my brain.

  6. shellock

    Few random mispelt comments:
    This is just other example of the extroverted masses trying to show that interovertedness is bad and needs help.
    On a simlair note I was listening to NPR the other day and there was a interesting segment on therapy in the wake of a disaster specifaly the trade centers and huricane katrina. It said altough a lot of well meaning shrinks go into a area after a distater to help people talk about it so then can move on it turns of there are many people for whom talking makes matters worse and that this type of theropy tends to lead to post trumatic stress that is is suposed to aviod. For there people it is best to let them insteralize adn that allows them to get on with life.
    Also marginally related:
    My bother gave up soda therefor removign caffine from his diet. The result he realize he was having trouble concentrating and when to a doctor and was diagnosed with adult ADD (for thoughs that dont know caffine has a backwards affect on a ADD brain it serves to calm it down and promotes better focusing as oposed to makeing it “wired”). Something which much of my family suffers from (but i do not dare quit caffine) so he has been keeping a journal and trying vairus solution to it (Ritilin which did not work and now something else) One very intresting side note is that many issue ADD shyness and some Learning Disablites were tradionally though of as Kids issue that kid are overcome by adulthood in most cases. Now it is being shown that your brain is wired how its wired and even adults cope with the issues.
    ok enough rambling on maringaly related notes

  7. Lemming

    I can definitely back this up. There’s certainly a point of diminishing, and then negative returns, but caffeine does help me quite a bit to focus. At some point I’ll start to get twitchy and easily distracted.
    When I took the GREs recently, I went in loaded up with a four-pack of red bull, and while physically I was VERY twitchy, I was more focused and “in the zone” than I’ve been in recent memory.
    Oddly enough, I’ve recently stopped drinking my daily coffee–I was drinking one cup every morning at work as a regulatory measure, but now that I’ve been going to the gym in the mornings I find it unnecessary, at least insofar as waking up and regulating my schedule. I wonder if / how much my work will start to suffer?

  8. Arcane Gazebo

    Shellock: I think it’s important to make a distinction between introversion and shyness, which are really separate things. Introversion is about where one focuses one’s attentions and energies; someone (mortaine?) put it nicely by saying that introverts need periods of solitude to “recharge” after a lot of socializing, whereas extraverts need the reverse.
    On the other hand shyness is a set of behaviors, triggered (often unconsciously) in social contexts, that make socializing very difficult. To a degree I think the introversion drives it—the contact-averse body language, brain freezing up, awkwardness and fumbling all come from a discomfort with social situations that an extravert wouldn’t suffer from. But surely the causation runs the other way too: shy people have no choice but to be introverts, because socializing is just too difficult. So I think the two are correlated but not the same.
    Anyway, while I do want to become less shy, I don’t have any desire to become more extraverted.

  9. Mason

    Heh, the failed int checks in social situations (even after one makes the charisma check) is an all-too familiar feeling. It’s especially nice for those of us for whom making the charisma check in the first place is hard. (What was my name again? Oh yeah, that’s right. And I really do have vocal chords. Really. I swear…)

  10. MG

    Okay, here’s what I think is interesting… and it’s kind of touched on by JSpur’s comments… how much of shyness/resistance to touch/introversion (any combination of those things) is hereditary? Do you think we LEARN how to be around other people by how we see our parents act from an early age? My children are both very extroverted and affectionate. Is that because they see this expressed at home?

  11. Lemming

    fwiw, I oscillated several times between extremes while I was growing up… The only constant being my perpetual fear of pretty girls.

  12. Mason

    Oh, and I failed some will saves too (preventing any of the possible follow-ups previously mentioned). For some reason, I find it easier to tell a Nobel Prize winner that somebody else should have shared it with him. (That was actually by e-mail as part of my response to the e-mail he sent me, and the reply I got was much kinder than I had any right to expect.)

  13. Josh

    On shyness and its relation to anxiety and depression:
    As REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) teaches it, at the foundation of depression there are, among other things, two basic concepts: anger and anxiety.
    If any of you think that sounds kind of cultish (espiecially those of you who have seen Donnie Darko), don’t worry. I’m not about to bring out the Love/Fear diagram. But stick with me on this one.
    Anger problems stem mainly from emotion that occurs AFTER an event. You’re mistreated, you hold a grudge, you nurse the grudge and become irrationally angry over an event that has already passed.
    Anxiety, contrarily, refers to a state of emotional irrationality that occurs BEFORE an event has passed. Anxiety is nursing your worries into a fit before the event has even occurred, and without a person properly dealing with concerns in a rational mindframe.
    Some of this relates to seratonin imbalance because, of course, this has been linked to depression, and most depression medications work to correct mainly seratonin imbalances. For all subjects, of course, it takes some degree of a combination of treatment for cures: physical medical treatment like antidepressants as well as proper therapy in order to give the subject tools with which to deal with his or her depression. Just fixing the seratonin levels does not, after all, deal with the instinctive mindset of the subject to think about issues to an irrational degree. Like forming sentences or solving complex mathematical functions, the person in treatment must work hard at training him or herself to realize the activating event of an anxious situation, analyzing his or her belief system that leads to the ultimate irrational consequences, and then desputing those beliefs with a rational frame of mind.
    Those are called the ABC’s of Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, incidentallly, and he has published some very useful guides detailing these problems. Shyness and introversion are different of course inasmuch as introversion is a rational preference, and shyness is an consequence of irrational beliefs.
    Anyway, I’ve rambled on plenty. There you have it.

  14. Arcane Gazebo

    There was an interesting interview with Albert Ellis in the Village Voice recently. He’s a pretty outspoken guy. Sample quote: ‘I was the first psychologist at the American Psychological Associate Convention in Chicago in 1950 who was able to use “fuck” and “shit.”‘
    To the extent that I’m familiar with his methods, I’ve been pretty impressed with them.

  15. JSpur

    Interesting REBT post, Josh. And to revert to a more serious note, I wonder how that school of thought would react to a hypothesis I’ve developed from personal experience, which is that distance running (or any other form of strenuous exercise) is a reasonable effective antidote to both anger and anxiety. I used to wrestle with both of the A’s when I was your and AG’s age, before I took up marathoning. And what I have found in the ensuring years is that I am much less prone to suffer from either as a result of a regular and fairly intense running program including importantly the long weekly (in my case Saturday morning) run. I don’t think running does much to help shyness (as Exhibit A I give you not just AG but any number of well-known marathoners) but as to anger and anxiety, yeah. It’s a big help. Does this experiental hypothesis integrate at all with what you’ve learned in REBT?

  16. phi

    regular exercise is as good as prozac for moderate depression, so i wouldn’t be surprised if it modulates serotonin.
    also: having a regular sleep cycle brings cortisol cycles back down to normal, which probably reduces stress & anxiety.
    but we can’t just tell people to go running & get some sleep… cause where would pfizer be then?

  17. JSpur

    Interesting about running and sleep. Nice to know there is a likely scientific basis to support one’s experience. Thanks, Phi.
    Since Eli Lilly manufactures Prozac I’m going to guess that the Pfizer reference is an allusion to a little blue pill they make that is,I am given to understand, useful in offsetting one of the common side effects of anti-depressants in male users. And a drop off in demand for that product would undoubtedly have serious negative implications for the price of Pfizer’s stock.
    But I digress…

  18. Lemming

    Josh: Interesting post, psychobabble I can actually read! There is a finite limit (but signifigant, nonetheless) to how much you can combat less-than-rational emotions with rational thought, but I digress. It’s a welcome depatur from the “solution-in-a-pill” mentality I saw when I personally sought out psychiatric help years ago.
    JSpur / phi: I can strongly attest to the fact that just about any strenuous physical activity does wonders for stress/etc. There is a possible trap of things working against you, especially if you’re participating in a competitive sport–if you’re already in a bad state of mind, it’s easy to get caught up in a vicious cycle of performance anxiety / etc and end up worse off than you started. The workout itself, however, is great. The best results along these lines I’ve ever had were by getting my ass handed to me when I worked out with the Kung Fu club here. A few punches to my face and my worries just evaporated away…
    Oh yeah, and sleep *coughcoughchokedie* helps quite a bit too. *cry*

  19. JSpur

    Lemming, I long ago concluded that a regular running program is even better at managing stress than a Bombay Sapphire martini on the rocks with olives.
    But the really, REALLY good news is that running and martinis are not mutually exclusive.

  20. Mason

    We’re supposed to have regular sleep cycles??? Oops… I just can’t do that. Not possible. Sorry. :)
    Sometimes, killing things on video screens helps my mood. Reading good books or other means of getting (further) lost in my own world help as well. (In this case, the twitch games help me more because if I divert my attention at all, then I die.) Actually, at times when I am really bad, I also will work longer hours because I might as well turn my demons into a job. :)

  21. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: For me video games can help in small doses as a good distraction, but extended playing sessions always leave me feeling drained and vulnerable to stress. If it’s a game that doesn’t require total concentration (like RPGs with a lot of random encounters) my mind tends to wander to whatever subjects are worrying me at the time.
    On the other hand, since I took up guitar I’ve noticed that guitar practice sessions seem to clear my head, as they do require total concentration.
    As of the 24th comment this thread holds the record for most comments on this blog.

  22. Mason

    That’s why I made the comment about twitch games. With many of the games I like, I can’t divert myself completely away from the problem(s) at hand. The same goes with books. For research, it can work, because I need to concentrate a lot and at least I’m doing something I need to do anyway even if it’s not fully helping the problem at hand.
    New record! Yeah!

  23. phi

    jspur, as i am Sweet Innocent Phi i would never have intended that reference. pfizer just happens to be my favorite drug company to pick on. (a bunch of pfizer men showed up at my tentsite one year when i was caretaking and were drunk & annoying & verrrrry very excited about my Future in Neuroscience.) i think they might make some sort of ssri…. but i don’t honestly recall.

  24. JSpur

    Fair enough, sweet innocent Phi.
    But I stand by the conclusion I was erroneously attributing to you. Were ours a culture that put as much emphasis on running and rest as it did religion and reality television, Pfizer’s stock price is what would need the riser and those boorish sales reps would be hawking New Balance products instead of lifestyle drugs.
    Good luck on today’s test.

  25. Lemming

    JSpur: Good observation about combining multiple useful methods of stress relief. With respect to the Pfizer discussion, however, I don’t think there’s much hope. Sadly, people want solutions that don’t involve personal responsibility, and as bad a solution as it is, pills don’t take much work (well, the work to pay for the damn things, but that doesn’t factor into the decision as much).
    Pornomaster: I’ve never gotten much stress relief out of videogames, per se, but I do still find them to be a very useful tool–they serve as a nice distraction (assuming they’re involving enough). I can play for hours and hours, and when I stop I’m just as stressed as when I started, but during I’m much more relaxed, giving me time to recoup.
    Gazebo: Sadly, I haven’t been keeping up with guitar practice–I stopped guitar, fencing and kung fu all at he same time when my hands started giving me trouble. I’ve been taking care of myself lately though, and will probably try to practice with the class here once it starts up this term. As far as getting stress relief out of playing, I have one piece of advice: learn a minor pentatonic scale (the basic blues scale). You don’t have to play fast at all, just slouch over somewhere and stumble slowly around the scale, taking the time to treat each note like it’s more important than the last. It takes very little skill, just knowing one scale, and I find it *immensely* satisfying. Being a bit sullen helps, but isn’t by any means necessary. I usually take Herman (my electric guitar) with me when I drive up, so if I’m ever in town while you’re still around I’ll show ya.

  26. Mason Porter

    Hmmmm… I think my secret identity has just been revealed. :) I think that means you can now summon me. (I wish that wasn’t the phrasing that came to mind, but I fully believe that my written style should come across as close to my spoken style as possible, so I hereby hastily take back that comment instead of just erasing it.)
    Also, this summoning is entirely _without_ Elder Gods!
    By the way, I usually spell my secret identity with two words rather than one.
    As for how I feel after games, I sometimes do feel just as stressed afterwards, but other times I do feel noticeably better at the end.
    When I am feeling really sullen, I play my best games of pool. I am more “relaxed” about the game because I am sufficiently depressed about life and don’t get frustrated as much when I make mistakes in my game, and I tend to _really_ kick butt at those times. I should actually say “tended” because now that I don’t play as often as I used to, I’d still need to get back in practice first. (I am going to join the Ath because it gives me my cheapest pool option.)

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