Social anxiety usually begins in childhood or early adolescence. There is often a history of childhood shyness. A stressor or humiliating social experience can precipitate the problem. In fact paediatric social phobia affects 5-10% of children. In children it is often associated with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), depression or separation anxiety disorder. Longstanding social phobia increases the risk of depression, substance abuse, and alcoholism later in adulthood.
Recognising social phobia
“My mind went blank during the interview. I break into a sweat, my voice changes. I know what is being asked but I am just not able to concentrate and answer with confidence.”You have social phobia when you feel that everyone is staring at you or judging you during social interactions. There is a persistent and intense fear of being embarrassed and humiliated by your own actions. This especially occurs in public places such as at work, during office 14meetings, while shopping and at social gatherings. The feelings persist even though rationally you know its not true. These fears may become so severe that they interfere with your work, school or college. They make it hard for you to socialise and make or keep friends.
When you decide to confront these fears and join the party or attend a meeting, you are anxious for days beforehand in anticipation of the dreaded situation. Thoughts of a discussion with your boss make you break into a sweat. You may have panic attacks. Your sleep may be increasingly disturbed as the day of the meeting approaches. Reasoning and reassuring yourself as to the non-threatening nature of the situation brings no relief. You are sweating and can feel your heart race during the encounter. After the encounter you worry about how you were judged for hours afterwards. You feel ashamed that you did not perform better. It becomes easier for you to just stay away from social situations and avoid other people altogether.
“I hesitate to enter the room when the group is already seated. When it comes to my turn to speak my mouth goes dry and I feel choked. I don't speak a word during the meeting even when I have something to contribute.”People with social anxiety can present with different secondary symptoms
- Some people cannot write in public (as on a blackboard), their hand will shake, their cheques bounce
- They experience severe anxiety about eating and drinking in public and often spill food and drop their cutlery
- Others find it a torture to speak in front of people, they just ‘clam up,’ speak in monosyllables or stammer
- One of the worst circumstances is meeting people who are authority figures- bosses, supervisors, interviewers at work; or teachers & examiners at school. A job interview is torture, more so because the person knows that he would be good at the job if only he could get through the interview.
People with social phobia avoid situations in which they feel embarrassment and anxiety. Initially they are comfortable with this avoidance. Later, they see avoidance as an impediment to achieving their full potential in their chosen careers. They see their social lives as stale and restricted. To address these problems people mistakenly enrol for ‘personality development’, meditation and other courses. But this is not the shyness of introversion. This shyness results from overwhelming anxiety and embarrassment. They are frustrated when there is no resolution. The underlying social phobia has not been addressed.
In a child with social phobia this anxiety expresses itself as tantrums, crying or just “freezing up”. In school, the child typically does not participate in classroom activities, is reluctant to stand up and answer, has no friends and frequently misses school with complaints of stomach ache or headache. Outside school these children have few or no friends. They may communicate only with family members.
“My daughter doesn't speak a word when we have visitors. The other children are playing together, she has to be pulled out of her room to join them.”
How is social phobia best treated?The best treatments of social anxiety include
- Medication: is usually for a limited period, under supervision. Do not stop taking medication abruptly. Discuss any side effects, if any, with your psychiatrist.
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – CBT: and systematic desensitisation properly administered for 6-12 sessions can produce long lasting, permanent relief. You have to be motivated to persist in the practice of the simple methods and techniques that are explained to you. Do not use any advice available online without due thought and discussion with your psychiatrist
What you can do for a family member with social phobia
- Be supportive. Help the individual seek psychiatric treatment. Many a career has been advanced or saved by a supportive spouse. Family interaction and communication also improves.
- Don’t trivialise (‘its normal to be nervous when you meet new people, you do not have to go for therapy’).
- Don’t perpetuate their symptoms (‘let it be, stay at home if you are not feeling well’).
- Beesdo K, Bittner A, Pine DS, Stein MB, Höfler M, Lieb R, Wittchen HU. Incidence of social anxiety disorder and the consistent risk for secondary depression in the first three decades of life. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 Aug;64(8):903-12.