What is an Introvert?

Introverts are not necessarily shy.
Not all introverts are shy. Hero Images / Getty Images

An introvert is a person who draws energy from time spent alone. Introverts find social situations draining and need time alone to recharge after being around people. They tend to be introspective and like to explore thoughts and feelings. They may prefer to talk about concepts and ideas rather than making small talk.

Introverts usually like to work behind the scenes, prefer written to verbal communication and express themselves only after careful thought.

Introverts make up 25% to 40% of the population. Introversion is not the same as shyness or social anxiety; being an introvert does not mean that you are necessarily shy or socially anxious.

Physiology of Introversion

The characteristics of introverts can be better understood in terms of how they relate to a person's physiology. In essence, if you are an introvert, you are responding to the unique way in which your body responds to the outside environment.

The reticular activating system (RAS) is a structure located in the core of the brain stem and linked to the frontal lobes. The RAS is responsible for regulating your level of arousal, such as the quality of your sleep and wakefulness. This structure also sets and maintains how much information you receive when you are awake.

While anxiety-inducing situations can cause the RAS to increase your arousal level and become more alert or prepared for danger, everyone has a set point or basic stable level at which you operate.

Psychologist Hans Eysenck believed that humans varied in their arousal level along a continuum and that they could be grouped in the following way:

15% have a set point of being very aroused.

15% have a set point of being minimially aroused.

70% have a set point somewhere in the middle.

Introverts fall into that first group—the ones who have a set point for high arousal.

While at first this might sound counter to what you would think, it reflects introverts' need to escape from stimulation. Because they naturally take in more from the environment, they become easily overloaded and need to make sense of what has already come in.

What this translates to in real life is a person who appears to be internally focused, withdrawn, quiet or even a recluse. Introverts like to spend time alone to recharge because of their naturally sensitive physiology that simply "feels" and "sees" more.

Social Anxiety and Introversion

While introverts are not necessarily socially anxious, those who have social anxiety disorder (SAD) may appear more introverted. This is because chronic anxiety can move a person's set point to a higher level so that the person is continually more alert. Again, more stimulation constantly coming in makes the person feel the need to escape in the form of shutting out the outside world. Even natural extroverts can experience this when enduring chronic anxiety.

Is Introversion Healthy?

Introversion is a natural reaction to your physiology. You are limiting what comes in when you have experiencing too much stimulation. The only time introversion becomes a problem is

1. If it is the result of chronic anxiety rather than a natural set point.

and 

2. If a person feels stigma over being an introvert in a culture that values extroversion.

Am I Introverted or Extroverted?

If you can't figure out where you fall on the continuum, it is possible that you are among the 70% of people who are balanced on this trait. You might enjoy times of both introversion and extroversion, and find that you function best when your days include a bit of both.

How Can I Cope as An Introvert?

If you are having trouble coping with too much stimulation, consider

  • going somewhere quieter
  • decreasing noise
  • closing doors
  • using ear plugs

Also, in a 2015 study of over 1000 individuals aged 18 to 80, it was shown that introverts with good social relationships and emotion regulation abilities were happier than those without those qualities. So, nurture those few friendships that you do have, and work on managing your emotions through mindfulness and other techniques. Neither of these depends on you being an extrovert, and they are within your control to improve.

A Word From Verywell

Introversion is a natural phenomenon and a response to your body's physiology. However, when introversion results from chronic anxiety, it is not natural or healthy. If severe anxiety is impairing your daily functioning, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional.

Sources:

Aron EN, Aron A. Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1997;73(2):345-368.

Benziger K. The Physiology of Type: Introversion and Extroversion

Cabello R, Fernandez-Berrocal P. Under which conditions can introverts achieve happiness? Mediation and moderation effects of the quality of social relationships and emotion regulation ability on happiness. PeerJ. 2015;3:e1300. doi:10.7717/peerj.1300.

Cain S. Quiet. New York: Crown Publishers; 2012.

Gray JA. The psychophysiological basis of introversion-extraversion. Behav Res Ther. 1970;8(3):249-266.

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