Sunday, July 22, 2012

Being Social With Social Phobia

Living with social phobia is extremely difficult at times. Previously referred to as social anxiety disorder, it can make doing everyday things nearly impossible. I used to have panic attacks on the way to school because I was terrified of how people would judge me. I moved around a lot, usually going to a new school each year. I would dread the first day of school. Going to lunch and having to find somewhere to sit when I didn't know anyone was my own personal hell. I would keep to myself as much as possible, quietly looking around to see if anyone was judging me. Someone was always judging me. At least that's how it felt.

Social phobia is a disorder that is characterized by excessive anxiety and fear of social situations where one may perceive that he or she is being judged by others. Some only suffer from social anxiety in specific situations, such as public speaking. Others, such as myself, suffer from generalized social phobia. Here are a few of my biggest triggers:

  • public speaking, or almost anything that requires me to speak to people I don't know
  • talking on the phone
  • social gatherings where I don't know most of the people
  • using public restrooms
When I would have to give speeches in class, my heart would start racing and skipping beats. My hands and voice would shake. Sometimes it was bad enough to make me cry. I was so scared that people were going to hate whatever I had to say. They would judge the way I looked. It's really an awful way to live.

Another condition which is similar (I would argue that I actually suffer from this and not just social phobia) is avoidant personality disorder (AvPD). The main difference is that sufferers of AvPD are typically more sensitive to criticism, actively avoid social situations, have severely low self-esteem, and don't think that their fears are unreasonable because they truly believe themselves to be unlikable. I haven't been formally diagnosed, but I can almost guarantee that I suffer from this based on the criteria in the DSM-IV-TR (yes, diagnosing yourself is bad). 

So how does someone with social phobia be, well, social? It's difficult, to say the least. I tend to stick with people I know. Making new friends is hard because I can't usually force myself to talk to strangers, but once that barrier is broken, it's a lot easier. Anyway, here are some tips for people who have problems with social anxiety. 
  • Stick with someone you know. Make it clear that you don't feel comfortable around people you don't know well. If you happen to be that friend, do not leave the person alone with the idea that forcing them to talk to strangers will help. All it will do is make them uncomfortable and possibly damage your friendship and trust.
  • If you have a school assignment that requires you to do something in front of the class, ask your teacher if there is any way to do it in private. For example, in my junior year algebra 2 class, we had to come up with a song for the quadratic equation. I actually cried as she gave the assignment. After class, I let her know about my social phobia and she allowed me to perform it for her after everyone left. This is a really situational suggestion, but it's worth a shot.
  • Breathe. This is just common sense. If you start to feel like you can't control your anxiety, take deep breaths. Do whatever it takes to calm yourself down. 
  • Don't avoid the situation. I've gotten a bit better at forcing myself to do things I don't want to do, but I used to be really bad. My junior year, I missed 55 days of school before finally dropping out. Most of those were anxiety related. 
  • Get help. Seek out a therapist who can help you overcome your fear. I haven't tried cognitive behavioral therapy, but I would be more than willing to give it a shot. There are medication options if necessary. Xanax can help in some situations, and some antidepressants have been approved for use with the disorder. See a psychiatrist if you think that medication might work for you.
  • Do things with your closest friends. No one says you have to meet new people to be social. Spend time with people you're comfortable around. There will be opportunities to meet people when you're ready.
  • Try meeting people online. Try a new MMO or a forum for something you love. A recent study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry* has shown that using the internet as a tool to overcome social phobia can be effective.
Social phobia doesn't have to ruin lives. It is merely an obstacle that takes time to overcome. What are your experiences with social anxiety? Comment or email me at with thoughts or suggestions!

Titov, N., Gibson, M., Andrews, G., McEvoy P. (2009). Internet treatment for social phobia reduces comorbidity. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43(8), 754-759.

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