Social phobia is a strong fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed. This fear can be so strong that it gets in the way of going to work or school or doing other everyday things. People who suffer from a phobia quite often will turn to drugs and alcohol to relieve their symptoms. That is where the connection to addiction can begin.
Everyone has felt anxious or embarrassed at one time or another. For example, meeting new people or giving a public speech can make anyone nervous. But people with social phobia worry about these and other things for weeks before they happen.
People with social phobia are afraid of doing common things in front of other people. For example, they might be afraid to sign a check in front of a cashier at the grocery store, or they might be afraid to eat or drink in front of other people, or use a public restroom. Most people who have social phobia know that they shouldn't be as afraid as they are, but they can't control their fear. Sometimes, they end up staying away from places or events where they think they might have to do something that will embarrass them. For some people, social phobia is a problem only in certain situations, while others have symptoms in almost any social situation.
Kids, teens, and adults can have social phobia. Most of the time, it starts when a person is young. Like other anxiety-based problems, social phobia develops because of a combination of three factors:
- A person's biological makeup. Social phobia could be partly due to the genes and temperament a person inherits. Inherited genetic traits from parents and other relatives can influence how the brain senses and regulates anxiety, shyness, nervousness, and stress reactions. Likewise, some people are born with a shy temperament and tend to be cautious and sensitive in new situations and prefer what's familiar. Most people who develop social phobia have always had a shy temperament.
- Behaviors learned from role models (especially parents). A person's naturally shy temperament can be influenced by what he or she learns from role models. If parents or others react by overprotecting a child who is shy, the child won't have a chance to get used to new situations and new people. Over time, shyness can build into social phobia.
- Life events and experiences. If people born with a cautious nature have stressful experiences, it can make them even more cautious and shy. Feeing pressured to interact in ways they don't feel ready for, being criticized or humiliated, or having other fears and worries can make it more likely for a shy or fearful person to develop social anxiety.
People who constantly receive critical or disapproving reactions may grow to expect that others will judge them negatively. Being teased or bullied will make people who are already shy likely to retreat into their shells even more. They'll be scared of making a mistake or disappointing someone, and will be more sensitive to criticism.
People with social phobia can learn to manage fear, develop confidence and coping skills, and stop avoiding things that make them anxious. But it's not always easy. Overcoming social phobia means getting up the courage it takes to go beyond what's comfortable, little by little.
Social phobia is generally treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both.
Here's who can support and guide people in overcoming social phobia:
- Therapists can help people recognize the physical sensations caused by fight-flight and teach them to interpret these sensations more accurately. Therapists can help people create a plan for facing social fears one by one, and help them build the skills and confidence to do it. This includes practicing new behaviors. Sometimes, but not always, medications that reduce anxiety are used as part of the treatment for social phobia.
- Family or friends are especially important for people who are dealing with social phobia. The right support from a few key people can help those with social phobia gather the courage to go outside their comfort zone and try something new.
Dealing with social phobia takes patience, courage to face fears and try new things, and the willingness to practice. It takes a commitment to go forward rather than back away when feeling shy.
If you, your loved one or child need help with a phobia, contact us for help.
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