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Listen up! Social phobia is not just some kind of trivial shyness problem...

I was rather horrified, a few weeks ago, when an email, sent to me by a visitor to the Lifeline website, referred to social anxiety as “namely shyness”.

Due to the marketing activities of a certain pharmaceutical company, this misinformation is, unfortunately, widespread but it was the fact that the remark came from somebody with panic disorder looking for a support group that I found so disappointing. Hearing anxiety disorders being trivialized by somebody who knows nothing about them is frustrating enough, but a victim of one disorder disparaging another is distressing.

Without getting too involved in semantics, social phobia is not necessarily any more related to its victim being shy than panic disorder is to its victim being timorous. They may effect, exacerbate or, even, play a part in triggering them, but character traits are not, and do not make, anxiety disorders. Shy people, naturally, suffer social anxiety to some degree, but people suffering from social phobia are not necessrily shy people. They have irrational fear of embarrassment and humiliation in front of other people, perceiving themselves to be under constant critical scrutiny which will provoke such censure. Along with the fear, they undergo sweating, stuttering, palpitations, trembling and blushing. Anticipation of these symptoms, and the worry that they will become obvious to others, leads to feelings of shame, as well as further embarrassment and humiliation, putting even more stress on them. This may cause panic attacks or avoidance of people and places, both of which may result, ultimately, in their becoming housebound, clinically depressed and/or suicidal.

Panic attacks, themselves, can trigger the development of social phobia, just as almost any mental or physical condition that is visible, or perceived as visible to other people, has the capacity to do. While there is difficulty in discerning where shyness ends and social anxiety begins in people, given their own difficulties, the enormity of its impact on the lives of its victims should be especially apparent to people with other anxiety disorders.

As with other anxiety disorders,there is no cure for social phobia. However, effective treatment is available for achieving and maintaining control, cognitive-behavioural therapy – analysis of the negative thoughts causing the anxiety and gradual confrontation of the fear through exposure to real-life situations – being considered the most effective. The biggest problem for social phobics is actually seeking treatment. Apart from the inevitable fear of stigma that still goes along with admitting to any mental health problem, the very nature of the disorder prevents them from doing so. This results in fewer social phobics being treated or getting support than people with other anxiety disorders. It also causes alcoholism and substance abuse as victims go about seeking their own “cures”. While somebody with a specific phobia, panic disorder, OCD or PTSD can, depending on availability, of course, derive benefit from a support group, the social phobic needs a lot of assistance in taking steps tomeet with other people in a group.

No anxiety disorder is less inhibiting than another. They all impact upon the aspirations, hopes and dreams of their victims, and have the capacity to entirely destroy lives. They are all conditions which other people (sometimes, it seems, the rest of the world) are unable to comprehend and often discredit altogether – usually because they confuse them with character traits which they perceive as weaknesses. They are all treatable. But nobody recovers from a negative situation – whether illness, tragedy or disaster – entirely alone. There has to be support from other people. There has to be a link with somebody who does understand, somebody who has experienced the same problem or one that is similar. This newsletter and, later, the website, were developed to help people find such links or... lifelines.

Copyright Jean Jardine Miller.


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