The thing that distinguishes regular, common-or-garden shyness from true Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder) is that we don’t normally let our shyness stop us doing important things in our life. A shy person might not put their hand up for karaoke, but they wouldn’t let their shyness stop them taking up a good job. Someone with social phobia fears being judged or rejected far more intensely. It stops them expressing themselves, robs them of romantic relationships and even interferes with things like shopping. It is actually one of the most common phobias around but you might not notice it: the nature of the phobia literally keeps sufferers out of sight.
Like all phobias, the distressing emotions of terror are almost completely unjustified and, just like all phobias, knowing that doesn’t seem to help very much! A socially phobic person sometimes gets trapped in a double bind – as well as fearing the actual social situation, they become intensely afraid of their phobia ‘turning up’ and embarrassing them by causing blushing, stuttering, freezing or a panic attack.
Sometimes this phobia has arisen from a trauma – abuse or some intense public humiliation. There can be a tendency for it to run in families, and it is quite often associated with other mental health issues. Social phobia can lead people to ‘hit the bottle’ or self-medicate with other drugs to ease their anxiety. Very often the phobia leads to intense loneliness and depression as well. Despite it being a very serious, debilitating and uncomfortable phobia, socially phobic people are typically very reluctant and slow to seek help. The very nature of the phobia makes us too afraid to seek help. If you, or someone you care about, possibly has social phobia, here are a few things you need to know:
- Help helps! Therapies like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can make a huge improvement.
- Therapy will not be as scary as the phobia. Social phobia will make the idea of going to a counsellor or doctor seem terrifying! Realise that beyond the hurdle of that appointment lies the hope of relief from that phobic fear that distresses you so often. A phobic person knows that they need amazing courage every day just to function; here is just one more situation where you need to be a hero!
- Therapy is not traumatic. Some people with phobia fear that a therapist will push them straight into terrifying situations. Yes, some therapies do gradually expose a person to the threatening stimulus but it is always done gradually, gently, and with the client in control. Any therapist who thinks “throwing them in the deep end” is a good cure would not be in business long!
- Drugs can be useful. There are no magic wands, but there are very useful medicines that can ease anxiety.
- Support and education. People withSocial phobia really benefit from support as they gain confidence in a widening range of situations. With good strategies plus an empathetic support person, we can astound ourselves!