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15 things about social phobia psychologists wish you knew

15 things about social phobia psychologists wish you knew
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Anxiety is common. It is one of the most common mental disorders, affecting approximately one in four Australians at some stage of their life.

According to Beyond Blue, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, one in four people will experience anxiety at some stage in their life, with women more likely than men to develop anxiety.

If that’s not jarring enough, it’s still a highly under-recognised condition – although so many suffer, most people suffer in silence. Social phobias, also known as social anxiety disorder (SAD), is one common type of anxiety disorder that involves a significant amount of fear in one or more social situations. “These fears can be triggered by real or perceived criticism by others and can impact a person at school, work, a social gathering, crowded place like restaurants, bars or sporting events, and even places like doctor’s offices or shops,” explains psychologist Dr Jesse Matthews.

Social phobia affects people of all ages

Social phobia affects people of all ages
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Social phobia doesn’t discriminate by age, gender, race, culture or any other variable. “The research shows that SAD tends to be more prevalent in those who value others’ opinions, particularly as they relate to opportunities for friendship, relationships or employment,” says Dr Matthews. Though most people have experienced some degree of being hyper-aroused in social situations, 10 per cent of the Australian population will experience social phobia in their lifetime, with 4.7 per cent experiencing it in a 12-month period. According to Beyond Blue, more women than men appear to develop the disorder (with a ratio of about 3:2).

Social phobia comes with physical symptoms

Social phobia comes with physical symptoms
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Symptoms of social phobia can include feeling hot and sweaty, breathing heavily, experiencing headaches or even nausea, but it can also come with more serious side effects such as panic attacks, tremors, heart palpitations, light-headedness and an upset stomach. “Individuals may also have negative thoughts about themselves, difficulty focusing on a task (such as a speech or presentation) or feeling as though everyone is watching or judging them,” says Dr Matthews.

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Social phobia may stem from childhood experiences

Social phobia may stem from childhood experiences
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While anyone can develop social phobia, research has found a connection to childhood trauma. Specifically, it tends to be common in individuals who were raised in a family with high or rigid expectations, says psychoanalyst Dr Pilar Jennings and author of To Heal a Wounded Heart. “Families prone to shame and blame also tend to induce pervasive anxiety – the sense of walking a tightrope can develop and become part of people’s inner template for a relationship,” she adds. “When we’re young, we develop beliefs about who we are and how relationships work before we can consciously reflect on these beliefs, but for people raised in families that create anxiety, these beliefs can feel like absolute truths.”

People with social phobia may avoid social interaction

People with social phobia may avoid social interaction
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It’s an understandable way to cope, but isolation can deprive social phobia sufferers of the opportunity to enjoy situations that can end up giving them confidence, says Dr Jennings. While it’s not easy, she says, if you’re suffering from this anxiety, being social can be healing. “Be patient with yourself – it can take time to trust that judgment and criticism are not the only acceptable outcome.”

People closest to sufferers can get hurt

People closest to sufferers can get hurt
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Social phobia can be hard on friends, family members, co-workers and significant others – for example, when a sufferer snaps at a friend who is trying to encourage him or her to be more social. “Social anxiety is about the person suffering from it – it stems from their own feelings and symptoms about interacting socially in general,” says psychologist Dr Paulette Sherman and author of Dating from the Inside Out. “The likelihood is that a sufferer is disappointed for disappointing a friend.”  The best thing a friend can do is overlook the spat.

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Social phobia is not synonymous with ‘anti-social’

Social phobia is not synonymous with ‘anti-social’
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“It is untrue that most people with social anxiety prefer to be antisocial and to avoid connecting with others,” says psychologist Dr Sherman. “In fact, many of them feel very lonely and want nothing more than to connect and feel a sense of support, acceptance, community and belonging.” Their wish is often to be able to go out and have fun, but it’s often their fears of judgment and anxiety that stop them from acting on this desire. “It is something they need to learn how to combat through treatment and possibly with the help of medication over time.”

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Social phobia can be unpredictable

Social phobia can be unpredictable
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“There are cases where someone with social anxiety feels fine, and then suddenly something is triggered and they start to have a panic attack or other symptoms and want to leave an event,” says Dr Sherman. “Although this may be difficult to understand for the person with them, it is not an attempt at manipulation or something they can control.”

Social phobia doesn’t just cause distress in the heat of the moment

Social phobia doesn’t just cause distress in the heat of the moment
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Many people who suffer from social phobia experience anticipatory anxiety – they worry about an episode occurring. “An individual may begin to experience symptoms moments, hours, days, or even weeks before a known event,” says Dr Matthews. This is particularly common in situations involving public speaking. “A person may fear that he will look bad while speaking, stutter or fumble over words, sound like he doesn’t know what he is talking about or face questions he isn’t prepared to answer,” says Dr Matthews. “Given the height of the anxiety, any of this may actually occur!”

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It’s hard for people with social phobia to meet strangers

It’s hard for people with social phobia to meet strangers
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“The fact that they have no basis of trust or experience with that person can make the stakes feel higher because there are more unknowns,” says Dr Sherman. “They may need more support and compassion in these situations should they attempt to work through them.”

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