Imagine the sweaty palms, dry mouth and pounding heart that often precedes a big interview or public speaking. Imagine the butterflies in your tummy and the uncontrollable blushes that heat up your cheeks. Now imagine that all of this occurs when you are just going to wander around the shops or to catch up with a few friends. Welcome to the life of someone suffering from social anxiety disorder.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Many people confuse social anxiety disorder with being shy. In fact, social anxiety disorder is the severe and persistent fear of social situations. It is also called social phobia because sufferers are literally afraid of social outings with others. More than being afraid of others, this disorder causes people to fear the ways in which they may interact with, and embarrass themselves in front of, other people.
What Are the Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder may be present in children, teenagers and adults, but may manifest itself differently depending on the age of the sufferer. In children, common symptoms include:
- Crying or “freezing” in social situations.
- Avoiding social outings with peers.
- “Hiding” with older teenagers or adults, rather then interacting with children their own age.
- Throwing temper tantrums when faced with a children’s social event.
- Not recognising that their fears are disproportional to the social skills required of them.
Teenagers and adults, while they may very well recognise that their fears are disproportional to the social situation they are facing, may still show varied symptoms of social anxiety disorder including:
- Racing heartbeat.
- Excessive sweating.
- Dry mouth and throat.
- Involuntary shivering, trembling or muscle twitches.
- Negative thoughts.
- Panic attacks.
- Confusion or feeling “muddled.”
- Fear of being watched or observed.
- Fear of meeting strangers or making small talk.
- Fear of being the centre of attention.
- Avoiding social situations, including those related to work or school, due to panic and fear.
What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder?
Unfortunately, scientists are unable to pinpoint a cause of social anxiety disorder. Possible causes include:
- An imbalance in naturally occurring chemicals in the body.
- An overactive amygdala in the brain causing more fear than others experience.
How is Social Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?
While there is no one test that can diagnose social anxiety disorder, those worried that they may be suffering from it should see their GP. During this appointment, it is likely that a doctor would:
- Ask for a description of symptoms.
- Carry out physical tests to rule out a biological cause of these symptoms.
- Review the social situations that result in these symptoms.
- Make a referral to a psychological specialist who may administer a questionnaire or self evaluation.
How is Social Anxiety Disorder Treated?
Currently there is no cure for social anxiety disorder. Those who suffer from it will expect to suffer to greater or lesser degrees throughout their life. There are a number of treatments to help manage social anxiety disorder, however, such as:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy, in which a sufferer will work with a therapist to break negative thought cycles and implement more positive ways of viewing social situations.
- Anti-depressant medications.
- Anti-anxiety medications.
- Beta-blockers, which block the stimulating affects of adrenaline and therefore slow down racing hearts, control trembling and more.
- Combinations of these treatments.
Can Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder Help Themselves?
In addition to visiting their GP and trying any combination of treatments for social anxiety disorder, those who have been diagnosed with this disorder can also take control of their own life and move towards feeling more comfortable during social events. Small steps towards this end might include:
- Going out to eat with close friends or relatives.
- Making eye contact when meeting new people.
- Asking strangers for directions, or shop clerks for help locating an item.
- Engaging in small talk with members of the community.
- Taking up stress-relieving hobbies.
- Rewarding themselves for successful social interactions.
No matter what, social anxiety disorder suffers should be encouraged and rewarded for their good work. If your child or someone you know suffers from social anxiety disorder, take the time to tell them how proud you are of their efforts, day after day.