Wed, 24 Oct 2012 08:17:00 GMT | By Sapa

Do You Have Social Phobia?

Do you battle with concerns of being judged or evaluated by others in social situations? If this causes you undue anxiety, you might have Social Phobia.


Anxious woman (© Gallo Images)

Do thoughts of social get-togethers and being introduced to strangers fill you with dread and anxiety? You are not alone! Social Phobia, also known as Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), is the fear of social situations and of being judged or evaluated by others.

Lia* has battled with this condition. A young man who calls himself a 'social phobe', Lia says: "My SAD has always been 'with me', it's just been something I've managed most of my life with a certain level of anxious restlessness, which has kept me on the go. This has made me the worker bee in social contexts, as opposed to the social butterfly! I am the one who washes dishes at events, while others sit at candle-lit tables, or chatter and mingle; I clear the plates, offer to serve food and generally help where I can.. I am happiest interacting with people while doing something. I feel least comfortable sitting across the table from someone I don't know well for any length of time. I often duck out of functions, parties and dinner dates for a calming breather, just to keep my anxiety at bay."

According to the SA Stress and Health Study, the most prevalent class of lifetime disorders in the country is anxiety disorders, and at 2.8%, SAD is the most common of them all.

With Social Phobia things are not quite as they seem. People living with the disorder are perceived as being shy, withdrawn, inhibited, unfriendly, nervous, and aloof. But that's not the case at all! Deep down, socially anxious people want to belong; they long to build friendships and to engage in social interaction. The challenge they face is the excruciating fear and anxiety that prevent them from connecting with the social world; these are the two most common emotions that accompany the illness. Those affected know their anxiety is irrational, but are gripped by its power. The persistence of the anxiety and fear mean that therapy is often essential.

Clinical Psychologist, David Rosenstein says: "Current research shows Social Phobia may originate during childhood development, possibly as a result of the home environment or early trauma." He adds that genetics and neurobiology have also been found to play a role.

On Friday, October 26 2012, Rosenstein will be taking questions during a live chat from 7pm to 8pm on SADAG's Facebook page. From 1pm to 2pm, Clinical Psychologist and Support Group Leader, Suzette Heath will be providing information on symptoms, treatment and self-help tips. You can also link to the chats through www.sadag.org.

For those who miss them, SADAG is open from 8am and 8pm 7 days a week and can be reached on 0800 21 22 23.

Lia says: "My anxiety reached new heights when my SAD began to present as the most intense blush on my neck and chest. I hated feeling so exposed, so I started wearing scarves and jackets with high collars. Eventually, I began to pull out of social events altogether." He sums up the reality that people living with this illness know too well: "The worst thing is its isolating effects. The anxiety and self-consciousness are so intense that it makes you desperate for relief, which can only be achieved by removing yourself from the situation." Feelings of failure, weakness, shame, loneliness, and isolation are all too common.

The good news is that today, Social Phobia can be treated successfully! Proving very effective, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches people how to change their thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviour, and is now the treatment of choice for the disorder. Both Rosenstein and Heath are CBT practitioners. Studies by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) report a high success rate when CBT and group therapy are combined. In certain cases, medication can be helpful too.

Lia says: "Many people suffer from SAD - when sharing my story, other people often confess to having similar experiences. One of the most comforting things I've realised through this whole experience is that I'm not alone."

Social Phobia does not define who you are. It's just a place you're in right now. You're not serving a life sentence there - you're simply in transit. Rest assured that, like Lia, you too can regain your freedom.

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Are you familiar with these fears?

- Being introduced to other people
- Being teased or criticised
- Being the centre of attention
- Being watched/observed while doing something
- Having to say something in a formal, public situation
- Meeting people in authority (important people/authority figures)
- Feeling insecure and out of place in social situations
- Being easily embarrassed (e.g. blushing, shaking)
- Meeting other peoples' eyes
- Swallowing, writing, talking, making phone calls in public

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*Name has been changed.

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