Social anxiety isn’t unusual. Since you are reading this, you might well be wondering whether your own experience of anxiety (or that of someone you love) constitutes a Social Anxiety Disorder.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), such a condition exists when someone experiences a “marked and persistent fear of one or more social and performances situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny by others. The person fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.”
The essence of this condition is a preoccupation with what others might think of you.
Now, we all are concerned with this some of the time.
Think of hoping to get a job promotion or wanting to impress a potential romantic partner. But consider the language of the diagnostic manual carefully, especially the words “marked and persistent fear.” One hallmark of this disorder is avoidance. When the anxiety is so great that you do your best to get out of doing something (e.g. asking someone on a date, giving a speech, attending a party, returning an item to the store, etc.) then you very well may have a clinically significant condition that can benefit from treatment. In effect, you are trying to avoid both the uncomfortable situation and the feelings that you believe will come with it.
In addition to avoidance, the individual will commonly be aware that his fear is greater than that which would be experienced by most people in a similar set of circumstances, and that the condition is very distressing and/or interferes with his life in significant ways. In fact, one of the ways that Social Anxiety Disorder complicates one’s life is by making it difficult to do the things and have the relationships that would make that life interesting, enjoyable, and fulfilling.
Is it hard to take a compliment, be the center of attention, or talk to a stranger? Do you worry what others will think of how you look and sound? Is it hard to be spontaneous in a conversation and are you too distracted by your own worries to fully concentrate on what the other person is saying? Do you get tongue-tied when trying to make an impression or have the sense that your voice is quivering or that you are perspiring too much?
Do you hesitate to state a strong opinion for fear of sounding stupid or being rejected for your ideas? Do you try to prevent others from getting to know you very well because you believe they will eventually conclude that you are inadequate and reject you? These kinds of preoccupations are typical of Social Anxiety Disorder.
The good news is that with persistence, an accomplished therapist, and the right program of treatment, you have an excellent chance of significant improvement. On the order of 80% of those who receive a systematic cognitive-behavioral (CBT) program will likely experience such change.
A good CBT counselor first makes sure that social anxiety is your major problem. For example, its not unusual for people with a Social Anxiety Disorder to have had one or more panic attacks. If those episodes occur outside of social or performance situations and lead the person to focus on their physical health, they likely indicate that a Panic Disorder is present and that the panic itself should be the focus of treatment.
However, about 50% of people who have clinically significant social anxiety also have had panic attacks. Therefore, if your preoccupation is more about how you look to others and what they think of you than it is about the symptoms of panic, treatment is likely to target your social issues.
CBT assumes that bodily sensations (such as shakiness, blushing, or a lump in your throat), behavior (such as having difficulty making eye contact or avoidance), and thoughts (such as the belief that others will reject you or that you will lose your job) all interact to fuel your social anxiety problems.
Thus, for example, the more your thoughts focus on the belief that you need to be perfect or the likelihood that you will fail, the more you are likely to experience physical manifestations of your anxiety and behave in a way that betrays your insecurity. As a result, CBT attempts to help you change physical symptoms, behavior, and cognitions.
A good cognitive behavior therapy program for social anxiety will help you learn to counter irrational thoughts that tend to be self defeating (this is called cognitive restructuring), and gradually practice with the therapist (this is called role playing) those situations that are difficult for you, beginning only with those that produce a relatively small amount of anxiety, and then try out your new skills in the real world, again beginning with relatively easy kinds of social interactions and working toward the ones that are harder for you.
And, you will discover that if you can tolerate small amounts of anxiety rather than flee them, you will “habituate” to the anxiety in much they way that your nose adapts to a foul odor by adjusting so that after a short amount of time the smell is not nearly so strong; similarly, your anxiety will weaken if you stay in the uncomfortable situation, usually within 45 minutes.
Treatment typically takes somewhere in the neighborhood of three to four months, although it can take longer if other issues also need attention. When it is successful, the patient usually finds himself less troubled by physical symptoms, more assertive, less preoccupied with other people’s opinions, more optimistic, less awkward, able to receive compliments without discomfort, able to look people in the eyes, and less avoidant.
It can feel enormously freeing and lead to much better things in life, including more and better friendships, greater vocational success, and a more satisfying romantic life.
Persistence is essential and the program takes some courage. But if you want to change your life and be less encumbered by social anxiety, CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder has much to offer.
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