Social phobia is an extremely distressing medical condition that involves an intense fear of scrutiny by other people in a social situation and that affects as many as one in ten people. It can be generalized, where the sufferer fears almost every social situation or more specific, where only a specific type of social situation is feared, with the most common of these being the fear of speaking in public. The symptoms can include blushing, trembling hands, nausea, excessive sweating and the sudden need to go to the toilet.
This fear is far more serious than normal feelings of shyness or being nervous in public as the disorder begins to affect almost every aspect of the sufferer’s functioning. They begin to adapt their whole life to avoid entering a situation where they are likely to come under scrutiny and where they fear they might experience the terrible symptoms. It affects their education, for example, subject choices at school will be made not on preference or ability but rather on whether oral presentations are required or not; their working life, for example, the career path chosen will often be related to the amount of social interaction the job will entail; and even their personal relationships.
As distressing as it is to suffer from social phobia, there is hope, as more and more attention is being paid to this disorder and its treatment. On the other hand though, little attention is paid to the experiences of the family members of these sufferers.
As the beginning of social phobia is typically during adolescence and sometimes in childhood prior to the age of ten, parents are usually the first to be affected by the child's disorder. Often the child is considered merely shy, but later as the problem worsens, the effects on the family become apparent, as any mother who has had to fight with her child morning after morning to go to school will know.
Later as an adolescent or young adult, the sufferer may begin to 'self-medicate' using alcohol or drugs to cope with their feelings of anxiety. Depression also commonly occurs in conjunction with social phobia, in fact more people with social phobia present for treatment with symptoms of depression than for the social phobia itself. These two added features of the disorder are obvious causes for concern by the family of the sufferer.
A study done by developmental psychologist Avshalom Caspi and colleagues also showed that the decisions made by socially anxious adolescents appeared to set the pattern for the rest of their lives. The study followed children who had been identified as shy and reserved during late childhood over thirty years and found that they did indeed experience difficulties in assuming the adult roles associated with marriage, parenthood and career. The men in general were found to be reluctant to enter the social settings required to become husbands, parents and members of the working world, while the majority of women were likely to have no work history at all or to have stopped working permanently after marriage or the birth of their child. Social phobia prompts women to select a more domestic lifestyle than their peers to avoid working outside the home, while for men for whom this has traditionally been more difficult to do, it has prompted them to either choose a more isolated career path, turning down promotions, or to use alcohol or drugs to help them to cope.
Families have different reactions to sufferers. In some families there may be disagreements or even estrangement as the family may not understand why their child 'doesn't try harder' and the parents may be disappointed, for example, a father who doesn't understand why his son does not want to take over the family business. In other families though there may be a protective atmosphere, where one or both parents attempt to help the child by doing things for them and allowing them to avoid situations they fear. This may sound supportive, but in essence exacerbates the problem. By helping the child to avoid the feared situations they are reinforcing the fear, as they are not allowing the child the opportunity to prove him/herself wrong.
If you suspect that your child, whatever age, is suffering from social phobia, you can contact the Depression and Anxiety Support Group.
If a family member has social phobia, there are a number of steps you can follow to assist them in their recovery:
§ Acknowledge that there is a problem - social phobia is not merely a severe form of shyness, but a medical condition that should be taken seriously
§ Be understanding - allowing a sufferer to explain their problem will help him/her to feel less isolated and ashamed of their condition
§ Do not regard social phobia as the fault of any particular person. Neither you nor the sufferer are to blame for the condition
§ Don't make assumptions about what the affected person needs - ask them
§ Don't sacrifice your own life and build resentments - while at home the sufferer should be encouraged to lead as normal a life as possible. Do not adapt your lifestyle to fit with their fears and anxieties
§ Don't enable avoidance - negotiate with the person to take one step forward when they want to avoid something
§ Gently encourage the sufferer to seek professional help - acknowledge that this may be a difficult decision as the vary nature of social phobia often means that sufferers are afraid to seek help from strangers
§ Once treatment is initiated, encourage the sufferer to persist and continue with treatment - recognise and show your appreciation for any improvement, no matter how small
§ As treatment begins to take effect the sufferer will be encouraged to begin facing up to fearful situations and locations. Your support and understanding in this regard is vital
§ Find something positive in every experience - when the sufferer only manages to go partway to a particular goal e.g. a party, consider that an achievement rather than a failure
§ Remember that it is all right to be to be anxious yourself; it's natural for you to be concerned and even worried about the person with social phobia
§ Be patient and accepting, but don't settle for the affected person being permanently disabled