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Social Phobia - A Lifetime of Fear?


When most people think of a phobia, they think of an object, animal, or place (like a fear of flying or a fear of dogs). Yet, one of the most common phobias is called Social Phobia and it occurs across a wide spectrum of life situations and so can impair many aspects of an individualís life.

People with social phobia have a persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and of being embarrassed or humiliated by their own actions. Their fear may be so severe that it interferes with work, school, and other ordinary activities. Physical symptoms often accompany the intense anxiety of social phobia and include blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, nausea, and difficulty talking.

Individuals with a social phobia know that their fears are unreasonable or excessive (they see others coping well with the same situations that they themselves dread).  They would like to be as relaxed as most other people when in social situations, but if they are called on to perform or in some other way made the center of attention, they panic.  Although it is obvious how this phobia could create problems in an individualís personal or social life, it also often interferes in their work. For example, a person with a social phobia might have great difficulty being observed by a supervisor or presenting information in a meeting.

Although it can be one of the most debilitating of all phobias and there are effective methods of treatment, people with social phobia often have difficulty telling anyone about their problem and therefore, the social phobia is left untreated.   Unfortunately, if untreated, the problem becomes worse.  Those with a social phobia typically begin by avoiding one situation, then another and another, until eventually most social invitations are turned down.  They make excuses for their absence, but still fear that someone may know of their fear.  They rarely discuss it openly with anyone, feeling that no one would understand or that they would be pressured into engaging in situation that theyíre not ready to face.

Social phobia can be accompanied by panic attacks.  Even if the fear is not to that extreme, there are usually physical symptoms accompanying their fear such as increased heart rate, tension, fear, a surge of adrenaline, and perhaps sweating or clamminess. These symptoms are embarrassing and the person is afraid people will notice their reactions.

Many of those with social phobia have struggled with social anxiety since childhood. Others developed the symptoms in the teenage years, but may have been shy children. For some, the phobia develops suddenly after a particularly stressful or upsetting social situation. Perhaps they felt humiliated in front of others. Some people even discover that they are phobic when faced with a new role, such as a public speaker or a highly visible managerial position.

Social phobias do appear to run through families and estimates range from 3 percent to 13 percent of the population having a social phobia at some point in their life. For some, the social phobia may be restricted to the common fear of public speaking and that may not be a problem for them if this is not a role they find themselves in. Still others are fearful of speaking to strangers or meeting new people. Eating, drinking, or writing in public can also cause the symptoms for people with a social phobia. Other common fears for a social phobic include using a public restroom, attending meetings and social gatherings, or going to church.

The biggest problem for a social phobic is that their fears cause them to restrict their life to a degree that it interferes in their functioning in work, relationships, and interests. Total isolation can occur if the fear goes on long enough or occurs frequently enough. Some of those with a social phobia will develop depression. It is also common for people with a social phobia to try to "self medicate" their fear by the overuse of food, alcohol, or tranquilizing medications. However, this only temporarily masks the real problem.  

Fortunately, most psychologists have been trained in the effective treatment of social phobia and other anxiety disorders. Even if you have suffered from social anxiety all of your life, it is possible to reduce your anxiety and move forward into a more productive, fulfilling life.

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