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How to Manage Social Phobia: Part I

All people have fears and situations they would rather avoid. But for someone suffering with a phobia, these same fears and uncomfortable situations be experienced so intensely that they can make everyday living almost impossible. Jerilyn Ross, the founder and president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America and author of the book Triumph Over Fear, tells us more.

Interview with Jerilyn Ross, MA, LICSW, cofounder and president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, is a condition in which a person may avoid or dread being in common social situations--situations in which they fear being judged by others and/or embarrassing themselves. Some examples are speaking in public, eating in front of others, writing in front of others, or even urinating in a public rest room. A variant of social phobia is called generalized social phobia disorder. In this case, any situation that involves interaction with people causes tremendous distress and the person tries to avoid all contact with other people. Going into a bank or store and talking to a clerk or salesperson, for example, will cause distress.

Ross says that this is not the same as shyness. The person is so terrified of interacting with people that it will affect every aspect of their work. People with social phobia have difficult times dating and are usually underemployed. Their fear prevents them from going on job interviews and getting promotions.

The psychological symptoms include rapid heartbeats, sweating palms, blushing, trembling, and a strong fear of becoming immobilized. Some people with social phobias have panic attacks; some don't. In a panic attack people experience a sudden burst of terror and fear that they will lose control of themselves. In fact, people who have this phobia do not lose control, but at the time they are convinced that they will.

One example might be a highly functioning person who dreads having to introduce himself to those gathered around a boardroom table. Just imagine being allergic to people. That's the best way to describe how a social phobic feels, says Ross. Most phobias affect more women then men, but social phobia tends to affect both equally. If left untreated, a person with social phobia can develop other illnesses, including depression and alcohol or substance abuse.

Specific Phobias

If a person has a specific phobia, they have an involuntary, irrational, inappropriate fear of an object, place, or situation, and this generally leads to avoiding that particular circumstance. Fears of heights, bridges, elevators, water, insects, or animals are all examples of specific phobias.

What causes phobias?

We know that phobias are caused by a combination of nature and nurture. When someone develops a phobia, thre's a good chance that someone else in the family has some sort of phobia.

Can stress cause an anxiety disorder?

If someone is predisposed to developing a phobia, stress can trigger a panic attack, which can develop into a phobia.

Can a phobia be cured?

We can effectively treat up 90% of people--who can go on to lead full productive lives. In some cases the phobia goes away.

When should you seek help for a phobia?

If the phobia is interfering with your life to the point where you are avoiding common everyday situations, then you should seek help.

What type of treatment is available to treat phobias?

For most phobias, we help people to challenge and modify their negative thoughts and behavior. The average length of treatment is 12 weeks, treating them once a week for about 45 minutes to an hour. But that can also vary from case to case.

You must acknowledge that the phobia is real. The worse thing to say to someoe with a phobia is: "Oh, come on. Get over it. Just do it." It trivializes the problem for the person.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 19 million US adults between the ages of 18 and 54 have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorder is an umbrella term that covers several clinical conditions, including phobias, the most common being specific phobias. About one in every ten people will have trouble with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Most phobias can be treated successfully, and individuals can lead a normal life.

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