By Richard Trubo
Do you break into a cold sweat just thinking about walking into a room of strangers? Do you feel faint when speaking in front of a group of coworkers? If those scenarios sound familiar, don't despair. Doctors are convinced that there are ways to quiet those butterflies in your stomach and put your anxieties to rest while adjusting your personality in ways more supportive of your own well-being.
Your unwelcome personality traits, from shyness to anxiousness to aggressiveness, may have started in childhood and can last for decades. But with proper treatment, you can put most of them behind you. "The earlier you begin treatment, the more amenable these traits are to change," says clinical psychologist John R. Walker, PhD, director of the Anxiety Disorders Program at St. Boniface General Hospital in Winnipeg, Canada.
To successfully make personality changes, however, you need to be motivated to do so, says psychotherapist Susan Maxwell, MA, MFT, of West Los Angeles, Calif. "Traits like stubbornness, a bad temper, and being argumentative may be harder for a person to change because they can become so much a part of the personality, and some people may not see them as negative. There might be a payoff for them to keep these traits."
Your personality characteristics can become problematic when they interfere with normal daily functioning or produce a great deal of distress. Though periods of anxiety, for example, are quite normal now and then -- perhaps when you're nervous about difficulties at work -- millions of Americans are bothered by so-called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), where they worry constantly, month after month, year after year, that something terrible is right around the corner.
"There can be a snowball effect," says Robert Puff, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Brea, Calif. "If you don't deal with the anxiety, it builds up and only gets worse. In any city block in the U.S., you can find at least one person who has become so 'paralyzed' by his anxiety that he can't leave the house. Over many years, these people have never dealt with their anxieties, even though they're very treatable."
Social phobia or extreme shyness is one of the most common anxiety-related personality characteristics. Like hair color, shyness is a trait that is influenced by genetics. People might start out life with a temperament prone to social anxiety, says Walker, author of Triumph Over Shyness.
If shyness is a dominant part of your personality, you might feel uncomfortable, tremble, perspire, or even become physically sick in social situations. Yet of the estimated 10% of Americans who suffer from social phobia at some time in their lives, only a relatively small number ever seek help.
Whether in adults or children, shyness often can be conquered with either talk therapy (psychotherapy) or medications. "If someone comes to our clinic for help, I often recommend that they try the treatment that they prefer first, and see how far it takes them," says Walker. "If they need additional help, they can always add another treatment. Research shows that both kinds of therapy are about equally effective."
If you're shy, your doctor might recommend group therapy, which can be a terrifying thought for someone who becomes anxious just being around people. But group treatment can help you develop confidence around others and eliminate any feelings that you're the only social misfit in the world.
If you turn to medication for help in changing your personality traits, your doctor may prescribe one of the drugs -- Paxil, for example -- approved for treating social phobia or anxiety. "In many instances, medications can be an enormous help for people with anxiety," says Maxwell.
Says Walker, "Some patients say that they're prepared to stay on these medications indefinitely, even for the rest of their lives. When patients do stop taking them, a significant number experience a return of their symptoms, so it's best to go off them under medical supervision."
Some personality traits, such as anger, aggressiveness, and hostility, may be hazardous to your physical health, and thus successfully managing them might keep you out of the doctor's office. In a study presented at an American Heart Association meeting in April 2002, CDC researchers reported that among more than 12,000 men and women, anger and exhaustion increased the likelihood of heart attacks or sudden cardiac death. Separate research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that people prone to anger had a threefold greater risk of having a heart attack than the least anger-prone individuals in the study population.
"A good analogy is to think of a bad cut which, if ignored, can become infected and develop gangrene," says Puff. "If you have a bad emotional cut instead -- let's say that you hate your job, or you're angry with your spouse -- if you ignore and don't treat those emotions, they'll become 'infected' as well, and can produce medical problems such as headaches, ulcers, and high blood pressure."
What's the path to healing for a personality susceptible to anger and hot-headedness? Puff, author of Anger Work: How to Express Your Anger and Still Be Kind, recommends appropriate expression of your feelings. Keep a journal, he suggests. Take walks, talk about your angry feelings with a psychotherapist, and forgive yourself for past transgressions.
Maxwell advises people not to expect immediate results when trying to make changes in their personality. "You may have had a lifetime of behaving in certain ways," she says. "So changes won't happen overnight. But take stock of the progress you're making, and be patient."
Originally published July 8, 2002.
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