Have you heard of behavioral inhibition? Or have you ever wondered why some people with anxiety are fearful in social situations while others have different worries?
Behavioral inhibition is one of the strongest individual risk factors for later social anxiety, which is why researchers have been so interested in studying it among children. If you can predict who will struggle socially later on, then you can do more to help them!
In this post, I’m going to help you learn more about behavioral inhibition.
Definition of Behavioral Inhibition
Behavioral inhibition (BI) refers to a personality temperament that is present from birth and that involves distress and pulling away in new situations or with new people.
What Does Inhibition Mean in Psychology?
In general, in psychology, inhibition refers to personal restraint of some sort. This can be conscious or unconscious and usually means not acting right away. It means you sit back and think a long time before doing something.
What Are Behavioral Inhibition Characteristics?
To help you understand, I’ve put together a list of the most common behavioral inhibition characteristics. When we talk about behavioral inhibition, it’s usually about a temperament seen in children. So, if you are an adult, think back to when you were younger.
- feel upset or afraid in new situations or with new people?
- withdraw when new people were around or when you were put into an unfamiliar situation?
- feel afraid or anxious in new situations?
- stop playing when unfamiliar people were around?
- feel hypervigilant about your surroundings when put into a new situation (e.g., feel like you were “on edge”)
- never approach new friends on your own?
- never voluntarily go into a strange situation?
- feel too nervous or afraid to play a new game or learn something new?
Behavioral Inhibition Questionnaire
Is there a questionnaire to measure BI? There is this one but it’s mostly used by researchers and parents fill it out or a child over 9 years of age can complete a self-report version.
Here’s a summary of the topics of the questions that are included:
- Being quiet or withdrawn with adults, including strangers, new visitors, guests, etc.
- Behavior in new situations such as being nervous or uncomfortable, hesitant to approach activities, and being clingy in other people’s houses.
- Behavior around kids their age such as being afraid to join a group of unfamiliar children, watching instead of joining in, and acting shy.
- Behavior in preschool such as being upset when left and taking a long time to adjust.
- Behavior in performance situations such as being reluctant to perform in front of others and not liking to be the center of attention.
- Behavior during physical challenges such as being cautious or hesitant to try new things.
So again, if you are an adult, think back to how you acted as a child or how other people described you.
Behavioral Inhibition and Social Anxiety
How are behavioral inhibition and social anxiety-related? I’ve already stated that we know that having BI as a child means that you are more likely to have social anxiety as a teen.
But, we also know that not everyone with behavioral inhibition goes on to develop social anxiety. In one study, 61% of those who had BI at age 2 went on to develop social anxiety (27% of those without BI did as well). So clearly it’s a risk factor, but it’s not a 100% guarantee of having a problem later on.
Research has also shown that the brains of people with BI are different. Different areas of the brain have been implicated in behavioral inhibition, such as the frontal lobe and amygdala. In addition, the vagal tone, or the effectiveness of the nervous system, is also thought to play a role.
Now you’re probably asking, all that is well and good but what can I do about it now?
We know that certain parent behaviors lower the risk of BI turning into social anxiety.
Things like helping you to feel confident and independent. Encouraging independence and resourcefulness. And exposure to new social situations and activities.
As an adult, if you still find yourself struggling with behavioral inhibition or social anxiety, it might be worth talking to a therapist to work through some of those issues from childhood.
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