THE LONELY WORLD
OF SOCIAL PHOBIA
As will appear in HERE IN RHODE ISLAND: HEALTH MAGAZINE MARCH 2017
Imagine standing in the checkout line at your neighborhood supermarket. Nothing is wrong. Yet you are almost rigid with fear again. And this sense of impending disaster is a familiar feeling.
Hesitantly you look around. As you suspected, all eyes are on you. They can see right through you.
Your vulnerability is as plain as if you wore a sign that said, “I am afraid of you. I am different.” The man behind you says something. You try to respond. You try to say something. You try to say anything. No words actually come out. ‘You stammer.”
He says, “What did you say?” You know he must be sure that you are a complete fool. Your mind has gone blank. All you want is to be alone in your room.
A nightmare? Well, sort of. It is a description of a typical incident in the life of someone with extreme social fear. It can even be a phobia. Social phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of other people. The Social Phobia Association estimates that 7% of all Americans suffer from it. Shame and embarrassment are their most common emotions.
Severity ranges from discomfort to immobilization. Sometimes the phobia centers on people in particular situations or particular kinds of people. Large gatherings. Strangers. Authority figures. Dating situations. Other times it is more generalized extending to family members and other people supposedly close and non-threatening. The social phobic feels as if he or she is being constantly judged, and found lacking.
How do social phobics cope? Often they respond in a very understandable way. They avoid any potentially threatening social interaction. They turn down invitations. They isolate. Often they lead lonely lives of extreme avoidance and self-inflicted isolation.
All the Lonely People. Where do they all come from?
What causes social phobia? Probably a combination of an innate sensitivity and lack of emotional support perhaps even oppression, in childhood. Social phobia is a learned emotional response. Just as we learn to speak, ride a bike, read and handle the myriad challenges associated with life, we learn how to perceive ourselves in relation to other people. The social phobic defines him or herself as less than others.
They see themselves as uniquely socially inept. They become preoccupied with what they regard as their defect. And they endow others with an aura of exaggerated prestige. The problem stems from childhood and is aggravated by the young social phobics experiences growing up into society. A painful self-fulfilling prophecy is acted out in a series of reactivating, highly emotional encounters. These crystallize the sufferer’s identification of himself as separate from and less than others. These situations might be job interviews that go poorly, social situations such as parties, romances gone bad, or downright bullying. These reinforce the social phobic’s view of himself as “less than” others and in danger of losing control of him or herself at a moment’s notice. They come to see other people as threatening and themselves as lacking any power for self-defense. Falling apart in public is a common worry of socially phobic people. They fear social situations where they will simply cease to function appropriately and make a fool out of himself or herself. Unable to speak. Incapable of thought. Utterly humiliated. Destroyed. Paralyzed with fear.
Often, they are also troubled by a mistaken belief that others can “see through them” to their fearful, vulnerable core. Instead of going about their lives, social phobics may literally wish they could sink into the floor and disappear from sight. In a way, this is exactly what happens. The social phobic comes to dread a repetition of the feelings of emotional devastation and, understandably, tries to avoid similar situations in the future. As with any intense irrational fear, their life constricts to eliminate or minimize the possibility of the phobic situation. Since the fear is of other people, it can lead to as complete isolation as the social phobic can manage. Their isolation reinforced the social phobic’s belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This leads to more avoidance and greater isolation. The workplace and other situations where they are forced to interact are torturous. Any social activity that can be avoided is. Yet, ironically, social phobics may be perceived of as “stuck up”, “snobby” or “condescending” by people who don’t know that they keep their distance out of crippling fear. Another irony is that social phobics tend to spend an excessive time thinking about themselves. Their focus is turned inward instead of outward. Social phobia can be a crippling problem that effects every aspect of a person’s life. Career. Social. Intimate relationships.
It is a lonely world.
All the Lonely People. Where do they all belong?
The good news is that there is hope for people with social fear, even the true social phobic. Psychiatric medication and psychotherapy are both often effective in reducing the social phobic’s suffering. Psychiatric medication and a diagnosis of social phobia are handled between you and your physician. The manufacturers of the anti-depressant Paxil present it as effective in treating social phobia. They are drawing the public’s attention to the existence of this phobia in a series of television commercials. But your doctor will have to be the one to prescribe any medication. The other often effective treatment modality is cognitive behavior therapy. This is a psychotherapeutic approach whose goal is to change thinking and behavior patterns that plague the social phobic. A cognitive behavior therapist guides the client to identify the self-defeating beliefs and thinking patterns that limit his or her life and to replace these with positive, reality-based perspectives. The therapist then directs the client to reinforce this new thinking with new behavior. You’ll find that David Burns’ book Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy offers a great introduction to cognitive therapy.
If this description of social phobia sounds even a little like your life, please do something about it. This may be more difficult than it sounds to the average reader. And many social phobics do not seek treatment. They assume this is just “the way they are.” But it is not. It is a learned response. This means it can be unlearned and that is well worth the effort. You are not alone. Help is available for the asking. If you have a family member or friend who seems to fit this description, you might urge them to take the step.
Sadly, support groups are few and far between. This is possibly due to nature of the phobia. If you are interested in starting one yourself, you should visit www.spnewsletter.com/frontdoor.html . This is the website of the Alliance for People with Social Phobia. They offer support for people including starting and running support groups. You might also try www.socialanxietysupport.com and www.socialphobia.org for information and support.
How Hypnosis can help with Fear of People
Working in conjunction with your licensed therapist, hypnosis can add another dimension by implanting new thinking patterns as post-hypnotic suggestions. Hypnotic suggestions can help the client raise their self-image as they learn to see themselves as worthy, whole, complete and equal to any and all whom they might meet. Hypnosis and visualization also allow the client to “practice” new behaviors within the safety of a hypnotically induced sensation of relaxation and peacefulness. In this way the client can gradually desensitize him or herself before reinforcing these ideas in real life.
The change can be immediate and dramatic; but more likely expect a gradual improvement as you begin to be less preoccupied with yourself and others reaction to you.
Please take a moment to write me with your own experiences with social fears.
John Koenig is a Board Certified Hypnotist and Certified Instructor with the National Guild of Hypnotists. He practices at the Warwick Medical Center and has helped Rhode Islanders overcome social fears through hypnotism and hypnotic coaching since 1998.