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A look at Social Anxiety Disorder

Samineh I Shaheem
Filed on January 8, 2011

Soha skips meals throughout the day because she wants to avoid going to the grocery store. James wants to go to parties and other social events but he never goes anywhere because hes very nervous about meeting new people and worried about what they think about him.

Mona will always try to be the first person at any public event/gathering so that people don’t stare at her when she walks into a full room. Amir can’t walk down the street because he’s so self-conscious and feels that people are watching him and judging different aspects of his life. Amna will skip her first day at university because she knows that in some classes she will have to introduce herself to the whole class. Now at first it may seem that these people have little in common. However, upon closer inspection and deeper reflection, we can highlight one similarity noticed: they all exhibit an extreme form of social anxiety or shyness.

This ailment, alleged to affect a significant number of people around the world, (being the third largest mental healthcare problem in the world) and present in all cultures, is known as Social Anxiety Disorder. These people suffer from pangs of fear and tend to feel nervous and uncomfortable in social situations that fall into two categories: performance situations and social interaction situations.

Examples of performance situations include:

Public speaking and presentations

Talking in meetings or classes

Eating or drinking in front of others

Using public restrooms

Making mistakes in front of others

Entering a room where everyone is already seated

Being in public areas such as a shopping mall

Examples of social interaction situations include:

Going to a party, making friends

Initiating or maintaining conversation

Talking to strangers

Inviting friends over for dinner

Talking on the phone

Expressing personal opinions and being fearful of others disagreeing with them

Being assertive

Being in intimate situations

Talking to people in authority such as employer, professor or doctor

Returning items to a store or sending food back in a restaurant

Now we all may feel a certain amount of uneasiness in any of these situations. However those who suffer from a social anxiety disorder are almost crippled by these encounters. What’s remarkable is that the people affected by this complex and misunderstood disorder are aware that their fear, racing heart beat, blushing, dry throat and mouth, discomfort, trembling, irritation, difficulty swallowing, feeling of inadequacy and humiliation, muscle twitches and embarrassment are illogical reactions to everyday situations. However, they are not able to change or control them.

In order to try and help individuals like Amna, James and Amir we need to examine the causes of this disorder which could be biological, genetic, psychological or a combination of all three. So it is possible that someone has a biological and genetic disposition to social anxiety disorder. However if their past experiences haven’t negatively shaped their perceptions about things, its possible that they may never be afflicted by the disorder.

However, this diagnosis should not be made by the individual, instead a health care professional such as a clinical psychologist, should be consulted as soon as possible before the symptoms become more severe and affect one’s quality of life.

There is one thing that the distressed person could do and that is making sure they do not intentionally avoid situations which causes them anxiety. The reason for this is that the more an anxiety-provoking event is avoided, the more dangerous, unpredictable and frightening it may seem. Instead, the person should slightly remove himself from omfort zone and slowly practice placing themselves in tension inducing situations.

For example, if you are afraid of speaking publically, as an alternative to completely withdrawing from those around you, try and practice your communication skills amongst those who make you feel at ease and comfortable. Eventually, you could try having slightly longer conversations with colleagues, superiors or even acquaintances in public places. So the more you face your fears, practice social contact, visualise and imagine positive outcomes of contact as well as practice some assertiveness techniques, the sooner you will be able to reduce feelings of social anxiety.

Here are a few assertiveness techniques to try:

Stand tall and proud

Learn to give compliments

Maintain eye contact

Become more knowledgeable in topics which interest you so that you can talk about them more confidently

Prepare VERY well for a presentation/meeting/exam. Preparedness perpetuates confidence and eases anxiety

Be a good listener and show interest in the other person’s life if you don’t feel comfortable talking about yourself

Control your tone of voice

If the person didn’t acknowledge what you said, repeat yourself again, don’t back down

You see, by avoiding uncomfortable situations and allowing others to be witness to a lowered self-esteem and confidence, we’re actually perpetuating the symptoms of the disorder rather than helping it.

Finally, as a great thinker once said, ‘don’t let today be the tomorrow we worried about yesterday. ‘

—Samineh I Shaheem is an author, an assistant professor of psychology, currently lecturing in Dubai, as well as a cross cultural consultant at the Human Relations Institute. She has appeared on numerous radio programs and conferences and has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the United States of America, UK, Netherlands, and the UAE. Please forward your thoughts to OutOfMindContact@gmail.com





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