Social Phobia is otherwise known as Social Anxiety Disorder. It is the most common type of anxiety disorder and it afflicts about 12% of the adult population in the United States.
It is defined as an irrational fear of social situations such as speaking in front of a crowd, meeting new people, being in a party, and other social gatherings. The fear is associated with negative feelings of distress and extreme anxiety, with a grave need to avoid or get out of the situation.
Social Phobia often occurs alongside low self-esteem and depression. While many people experience fear in social settings, those who have the disorder are unable to overcome their thoughts and emotions. As such, they suffer a great deal in terms of their social, academic, or professional life. Those with the disorder have disrupted daily lives and are unable to cope with the signs and symptoms that come with the phobia.
Individuals who have shy or timid temperaments as children have a high risk of developing social phobia. Those who have chronic diseases and body disfigures are also prone to develop the disorder.
While Social Phobia is a chronic mental condition, its symptoms can be managed through several methods of treatments. Since social phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, getting to the root of the problem and treating anxiety naturally can help relieve some of the symptoms of phobia.
Symptoms of Social Phobia
Cognitive symptoms include thoughts of dread over an upcoming social situation, such as reporting in front of a group of people, going to a job interview, or going to a party. Sufferers obsess for days or weeks before the event, creating scenarios in their heads about things that could go wrong and how people would perceive them. They often stay up all night just thinking about the anticipated event, making them lose sleep and becoming irritable and fearful throughout the day.
When at a social gathering, they’re often suspicious of other people judging them negatively. They tend to keep to themselves and are always wary about what people think of them. They are highly self-conscious and worry about the smallest details like their clothes, the food they eat in front of people, how they smell, and how they are perceived by others.
After an event, sufferers often think and analyze everything about his/her behavior and how people reacted. They would think about the smallest details and feel a range of emotions such as fear and shame. They can obsess over the event after several days, weeks, or even months after it occurred.
A sufferer may feel the following physical reactions:
- Heart palpitations
- Excessive sweating
- Excessive shaking of hands and knees
- Stomach upset/diarrhea
- Difficulty breathing
- Walk disturbance – losing balance or having very poor posture when walking in a crowd
Many sufferers also suffer from psychosomatic symptoms such as having a painful stomachache when about to go to a public gathering, or having fever when they have to present a report, or even paralysis.
When meeting strangers, sufferers usually avoid eye contact and look away. They also have a strong fear of people with authority and avoid them at all costs.
They also tend to isolate themselves from the crowd when at a party – often seen alone standing on a corner or sitting by themselves. Most sufferers also avoid social gatherings altogether and would rather stay in their rooms or houses than go out.
Those who have the disorder also often engage in pathological or compulsive lying to preserve a self-image.
Since symptoms often occur in childhood, symptoms for children include crying in social situations, tantrums, shrinking, and shaking when brought along to parties or places with lots of people.
Causes of Social Phobia
Though there has never really been one single answer as to the cause of Social Phobia, scientists believe it develops through a combination of many factors.
A child who has a parent with the disorder has a strong disposition to develop it as well. Social Phobia tends to run in families and children who show a certain temperament have a strong tendency to develop the disorder. Some babies are born with a shy and timid temperament and they’re most likely to develop the phobia if his social environment enables the progress of the disorder.
Social events in the past has been seen as the biggest contributor to a person’s disposition to develop Social Phobia. Children who are naturally shy and whose parents value the importance of others’ opinions and using shame as a disciplinary tool often develop social fears in adulthood. These children have a tendency to develop a heightened sense of disapproval – which makes them fearful of how people perceive them since they already have a fear that they are not good enough.
Children can also learn the phobia through observational learning. If the child has a parent who has the phobia and the child sees how the parent behaves in social situations, the child will learn that speaking in public or meeting new people is something to be feared.
Those who’ve had traumatic past experiences such as being bullied or being humiliated at a party or in school also have a tendency to acquire the disorder.
The Amygdala is also seen to cause social phobia. Since the amygdala is associated with fear responses, scientists theorize that an overactive amygdala leads to a heightened fear response, resulting to increased anxiety.
Treating Social Phobia
The 2 most common types of treatments for Social Phobia are Psychotherapy and Medications.
The most common method of psychotherapy for Social Phobia sufferers is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Patients are taught how to regulate their thoughts and guided by a therapist about their perceptive thinking. They are made to evaluate their thoughts and to analyze if their ways of thinking are rational or not, or if their perception of a certain fear is real or imagined. Patients are then given methods to change their perceptions, in the hopes of changing the way they react to the objects of their fears.
Exposure-based Cognitive Therapy involves gradual exposure to the object of fear, allowing patients to conquer the very things that bring them fear and distress. Eventually, patients become desensitized with the objects and eliminate their irrational fears in the long run.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been the most effective method of treating social phobia. It is also the only permanent method of treatment among social anxiety disorder sufferers.
Common anti-depressant drugs are often prescribed to sufferers. SSRIs or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors are the most common drugs given to patients, which are anti-depressents that increase the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain – leading to an uplifted mood. However, many side effects are associated with this medication.
Other drugs include beta blockers and other medication to manage the symptoms of anxiety.
A third treatment method, although not widely used, can actually be quite effective in some individuals. For example, there are natural remedies, herbs, relaxation techniques, and certain other self help procedures that can be used to help alleviate the stress caused by social phobia.