Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, can severely limit the social and career prospects of sufferers and up to 13% of Australians could develop social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. However, social phobia is not well understood by the wider population and more information and education is needed to assist sufferers to overcome it and take their place in society.
We all get nervous and anxious in certain social and performance situations. Most of us have experienced a tightening of the throat, sweaty palms or an urge to run when asked to make a speech, for example. The difference between these experiences and people with social anxiety disorder is that we can still do the task without looking too uncomfortable while they are often unable to complete it at all.
Behaviour is Fear-Driven
People with social phobia have underlying fears that drive their behaviour and the associated physical symptoms, which are very real to them. Mostly they fear looking stupid in front of a peer group, appearing boring or uninteresting in social exchanges, and worry that their physical symptoms have been noticed. Most of the time no one has noticed anything but the overwhelming feeling that they are being ridiculed sees them withdraw from most social situations.
There is a wide range of symptoms that accompany social phobia. The most common we see are blushing, trembling, racing heart, tense muscles, dry throat, stomach pain and sweaty palms, although there are others. These are all caused by the very real fear they are experiencing while knowing intellectually that these feelings are irrational.
Shy and Nervous Children can Progress to having Social Phobia
Our patients have told us that for them, social phobia was a steady progression from feeling shy and nervous as a child. The actual phobia starts occurring in adolescence and severely curtails study options, social acceptance by a peer group and future career and employment prospects. Left unrecognised and untreated, adults may develop a range of unhelpful avoidance strategies, which include alcohol and drug abuse, relationship difficulties, failure to pursue career and employment goals, and isolation from family, friends and the general community.
As an anxiety based disorder, social phobia responds well to treatments that relieve anxiety. At Brisbane City Psychologists we use cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and anxiety management techniques. If the person being treated is also suffering from depression, we find that combining these techniques with certain medications can be very effective.
Getting professional help is essential and sometimes this takes some pressure and support from family and friends. The results, however, are well worth it.