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Who is judging who?

Social Anxiety

This article is written by Carolyn Barker, Co - Ordinator of the Panic Anxiety Disorder Association Inc in South Australia. It was the feature article in PADA's July 2000 Newsletter. We thank Carolyn and PADA for giving us permission to include it on our website.

Social Phobia or Social Anxiety is not well understood by the general public. It is defined as a fear (anxiety) of being judged, criticised and evaluated by other people. This fear is recognised by the individual as irrational, but the fear of judgment in social situation persists.

People who experience Social Phobia find it difficult to perform particular tasks or behaviours in the presence of others such as writing, eating, being introduced, speaking to a group, or doing anything where they feel attention is drawn to them and they may be judged negatively by others. This fear elevates anxiety levels and produces a variety of symptoms which may include shaking, sweating, trembling voice, nausea, rapid heart beat, hyperventilation, dizziness, blushing, tightness in the throat, 'mental blanks' and/or confusion. Anxiety becomes more intense when the person fears they're going to be singled out, ridiculed, criticised, embarrassed or belittled.

Life is difficult for the person with a Social Phobia because they feel they don't fit in with everyone else. They feel something is wrong with them. Therefore, it is easier to stay away and avoid social contact whenever possible.

 

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More than anything else, a person with Social Phobia does not want others to know he/she is afraid. The bind that people with Social Phobia find themselves in, is this -

The more afraid they become, the more likely they are to experience symptoms, therefore, the more likely their worst fear will be realised - that others will notice how afraid they are and make a negative judgment. 

A man finds it difficult just walking down the street through fear that he may see someone he knows. All sorts of anxiety- provoking thoughts swamp his mind, 'What if I can't remember their name? What is I can't think of anything intelligent to say? What if I start to stammer and make a fool of myself? What if they think there must be something wrong with me?' With anxiety peaking, he becomes super vigilant, perceiving anyone and everyone as a threat. He crosses the street rather than risk a stranger ask directions. His behaviour is erratic, he's tense and uneasy, and it shows on his face. His fear (anxiety) has created all the signs by which a person may judge him as 'having something wrong with him', the very thing he so desperately wants to prevent.

People perceived as 'authority figures' can create particular fear in the mind of someone with Social Phobia. Sometimes this can be traced back to memories where a significant adult (parent, teacher, doctor, lecturer, boss) brought about feelings of fear, shame or guilt in the young person. This does not mean we need to dwell on the past. Rather, in understanding how these feelings originated, a person can begin to examine the appropriateness of perpetuating such feelings, when dealing with 'authority figures' in the present.

Most people experience high levels of anxiety before, during and after job interviews, but to a person with Social Phobia, an interview, is pure torture. They're afraid of coming across as nervous, anxious or fearful. They just know they'll blush or give stupid answers to the questions. They just know the boss will notice there's something not quite right. Past experience tells them this is likely, which only goes to add to the anxiety. So their worst fear is realised; they do feel afraid, they do blush and they do believe they've made a fool of themselves.

Who's judging who?

People with Social Phobia are so afraid of being judged. But who is really doing the judging? Who is really inflicting all the hurt and suffering? When a person won't enter a room because they fear being judged, isn't it that person's belief that they don't measure up which creates the fear?

The person with Social Phobia is convinced it will come from someone else, but all while, it's their own judgments which continue to be critical in a most ruthless way.

Rejection

Perhaps the start of the disorder occurs when a person has spent so much time rejecting themselves; seeing themselves as unworthy, unlikable and flawed, that they develop the expectation that others will also reject them. They begin to feel vulnerable in social situations. This vulnerability causes high levels of anxiety and a range of anxiety symptoms. The manifestation of these symptoms in the presence of others intensifies the belief that they will be rejected. The desperate need to prevent this from occurring only heightens anxiety. ('If people see how scared I am, they won't like / accept me')

The need to be in control, to hide their symptoms and appear 'normal' is usually so arduous a task they prefer not to subject themselves to social situations.

I used to hate going out so much. I'd do anything to avoid it. The only problem was, I didn't dare tell anyone what was going on, so every now and then I'd get invited to go somewhere. From the first moment I'd think everyone was looking at me. I couldn't stand the thought of talking to someone, so I'd go off to a corner to be alone. I'd look around the room and think all the other women were prettier, funnier, more confident than me. The more I sat alone, the more I hated myself for it. By the time I could make a respectable retreat back home I was exhausted. I felt like I had just done ten rounds in a boxing ring. When I really thought about it, I realised no-one had actually done anything to me, I'd done it all myself. All those people I was so afraid of didn't do anything. They'd just sensed I wanted to be alone and they left me to it. Then I started to wonder why I was doing this to myself. Why was I behaving in ways which could lead to someone thinking I was strange, while being so afraid of this very outcome? Then it dawned on me. It wasn't to do with what other people thought of me, it was all about what I thought of me! It sounds so simple, but it was a revelation. That meant I could stop seeing other people as the reason for my anxiety and start working on what it was within me which bought about my feelings of unworthiness.

Treatment

Social Phobia is just one way anxiety can manifest. The key to recovery is the development of anxiety management skills and then practising them in anxiety provoking situations. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has been proven to be the most effective form of treatment. Relaxation techniques such as meditation also help. Addressing Self Esteem issues adds to the overall healing process.

Carolyn Barker

 

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