Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, was the first diagnosis I ever received in therapy. Unlike my OCD and bipolar disorder, I had had no idea at the time that this was a real thing, but once my therapist talked to me about it it was an “Aha!” moment. So many of the things that I had been feeling and doing made sense now. I wasn’t a wuss for crying when I had to make a phone call, I was social phobic. I wasn’t stupid for feeling jumpy about going to a party, I was just anxious. It may seem silly, but having that diagnosis boosted my self esteem a lot, because suddenly these things were explainable, and they were not my fault.
So what exactly is social phobia? Is it like arachnophobia, or claustrophobia? Is it being afraid of talking to people, or is it a fear of people in general?
Social phobia is defined on The Social Anxiety Association’s website as “…the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people.” This fear stems largely from the fact that it’s sufferers are mostly concerned with being judged by others and found lacking in some way. As you can imagine this can have a huge impact on a person’s life. Humans are social creatures, and we crave the company of others, but for those of us with social anxiety the thought of even being seen by another person can be down right terrifying. Worst of all, the disorder is chronic, which means that left untreated it can only get worse. On HealthyPlace.com Natasha Tracy writes, “Social phobia is often a precursor to agoraphobia… Agoraphobia spreads the phobia to many more situations, often with panic attacks.” A link to her full article on the subject can be found here.
While similar to other phobias, social anxiety disorder has one fairly unique trait. Imagine, if you will, having arachnophobia so bad that you can’t even look at a basement or attic because there may be spiders there. Now imagine that what you want more than anything in the world is to make friends with the spiders. That’s basically what it’s like to have social phobia. We are not anti-social people, even though on the surface it can look like that. We long to feel connected to others, have friendships, and romantic relationships, but our fear keeps us from reaching out and engaging in the types of activities that would allow us to form those bonds.
Like other phobias, there is a list of things that can trigger an anxiety attack in someone who suffers from social phobia. My basic rule of thumb for anyone out there who is trying to understand a friend or family member who has this is if another person can see you doing it, it will make someone with this disorder anxious. Of course there are varying levels to the amount of anxiety that each thing can elicit, and everybody is unique, so while I might be fine going to a movie, because the lights are low and there’s a huge screen to distract people from looking my way, my brother in law who also suffers from this could become so afraid in this situation that he feels he might die if he can not get out of there. There can even be varying degrees of effect within the same category. For example, going through a drive through I am relatively ok with, but going inside the very same restaurant makes my palms sweat and my heart race.
Something else of note that I discovered while researching this post, is that social phobia is a genetic disorder. On Psychology Today it says, “… first-degree relatives have a two to six times higher chance of developing social anxiety disorder.” It also talks about how the National Institute of Mental Health has even pinpointed a gene in mice that affects fears that are passed on genetically. The article does not completely discount environmental factors however, and childhood trauma can also play a significant role in the developing of symptoms.
So how is this debilitating disorder treated? Well, there are medications you can take to lessen the severity of the symptoms, but ultimately the only treatment that will produce long term effects is CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy. This means working with a therapist and a support group made up of other people who suffer from social anxiety to overcome the irrational thoughts and incorrect perceptions that we place on ourselves. If you know someone who struggles with social anxiety, please be patient with them, and try not to take it personally. Remember that the things you want to do with them are appealing to them too, they are just afraid to participate, and it hurts them to say no to you because they really don’t want to hurt you.
If you are suffering from social anxiety disorder, please get help. If you think you might have social phobia you can click here to take a quiz on HealthyPlace.com, and bring your results to a licensed therapist. If you are in a treatment program, stick with it! I know it can be tempting to give up, and that it is really hard to change, but you can do it! Good luck you guys, and remember you are not alone.