Social phobia is one of the most common all of human phobias. It is sometimes referred to as social anxiety disorder and it affects about 15 million American adults, making it the third most common mental health condition behind alcohol dependence and depression.
Social phobia is characterized by a persistent intense fear of being watched, scrutinized, and judged by others. Most people with this disorder recognize that their fears are excessive and irrational, but they feel powerless to do anything about it. This fear may be so severe that it interferes with work, school, and other activities and may negatively affect the person’s ability to form relationships.
The fear may be very narrow; for example someone may be not be able to speak in public or relieve themselves in a public restroom, or it may be very broad where a person cannot function in any type of social situation.
“When I would walk into a room full of people, I’d turn red and it would feel like everybody’s eyes were on me. I was embarrassed to stand off in a corner by myself, but I couldn't think of anything to say to anybody. It was humiliating. I felt so clumsy, I couldn't wait to get out.” SAD sufferer
People with social phobia tend to:
- Be very anxious about being with other people and have a hard time talking to them, even though they wish they could
- Be very self-conscious in front of other people and feel embarrassed
- Be very afraid that other people will judge them
- Worry for days or weeks before an event where other people will be
- Stay away from places where there are other people
- Have a hard time making friends and keeping friends
- Blush, sweat, or tremble around other people
- Feel nauseous or sick to their stomach when with other people.
The exact cause of social phobia is not known however, anxiety disorders tend to run in families. In addition, past negative experiences of being ridiculed, bullied, or embarrassed in public can contribute to the development of this disorder.
In a recent study of 287 people with social anxiety disorder 75% said the condition affected their ability to do normal activities. Other findings from the study included (National Institute of Mental Health):
- 34% reported that their condition caused serious fights with their significant others.
- 75% said the disorder negatively impacted their romantic relationships.
- 35% said having social anxiety disorder made them avoid intimacy.
- 24% reported that the disorder resulted in their significant other not respecting them.
- 55% percent said they had no close friends.
- 66% percent reported having misunderstandings with friends, and 50% said they did not tell their friends about their symptoms.
- More than 60% didn't keep in touch with friends or answer or return their phone calls.
Because people with social phobia often engage in distorted thinking, they respond very well to CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of talk therapy which teaches people to recognize their faulty thinking and replace negative irrational thoughts with more constructive ones. The following are examples of faulty distorted thinking patterns:
- Mind reading Assuming you know what other people are thinking, and that others see you in the same negative way that you see yourself.
- Fortune telling Predicting the future, usually while assuming the worst will happen. You just “know” that things will go horribly wrong, so you are already anxious before you are even in the situation.
- Catastrophizing Blowing things out of proportion. If people notice that you’re nervous, it will be “awful,” “terrible,” or “disastrous.”
- Personalizing Assuming that people are focusing on you in a negative way or that what is going on with other people has to do with you.
Social phobia also responds well to SSRIs (Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac) as well as SNRIs (Effexor, Cymbalta).
For more information on social phobia (social anxiety) and how to get past it, see Overcoming social anxiety, by Gregory Pacana
Source material: National Institute of Mental Health, Wikipedia, Anxiety Disorders Association of America, APA 2000