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The Sensible Psychology Dictionary Psychiatric Diagnoses in Plain English

Social phobia

DSM Classification

(The psychiatry bible)

Social phobia (social anxiety disorder)

A marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.

Note: In children, there must be evidence of the capacity for age-appropriate social relationships with familiar people and the anxiety must occur in peer settings, not just in interactions with adults.

Sensible Psychology Definition

Shyness (feeling shy and awkward in front of others)

Worrying about social events in advance, or panicking during them. If you’re extremely shy, just thinking about mingling with other people can make you breathe faster, your palms sweat and your heart pound.

Shyness causes some people to blush, and some to fear public speaking, but non-shy people also blush and worry about giving presentations.

Note: Children normally feel shy at first when meeting new people, even other children.

Social phobia is easy to explain

From our perspective, the high prevalence of social phobia or ‘social anxiety’ can be partly explained by our human history. In days gone by, the constant threat of predators meant there was safety in numbers. The threat of being cast out of the tribe felt so deadly because, potentially, it really was deadly. A human being alone in a world of natural predators with no recourse to the ‘hunting team’ would have found it tough to survive very long. This may be why so many of us so strongly fear being viewed unfavourably by a group. The need to be included and the fear of exclusion are two sides of the same coin.

The fear of exclusion can sometimes so outweigh the desire for inclusion that it actually gets in the way of actually getting included.

People who experience social anxiety often fear they will be rejected socially or will ‘come across badly’. This fear may be so great that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and prevents them from meeting their emotional needs to connect with others and so find social fulfilment and acceptance.

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Treatment for social phobia

It is common for social phobia/social anxiety disorder to be treated with anti-anxiety medication and/or antidepressants (see Drugs and medications). People often find themselves taking these medications (and putting up with the side effects) for long periods of time, without seeing much (or any) improvement in their social interactions.

Psychotherapy may be used to help the sufferer address their fears. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) focuses on helping people examine what they think and do with a view to changing their unhealthy habits of mind and behaviour.

The sensible psychology approach

In our view, social phobia is not a ‘disease’ but a learned response. People can learn to react in a different way.

Effective treatment for social anxiety will

  1. teach relaxation skills to help the sufferer stay calm, relaxed and positive in social situations
  2. address the thinking patterns that keep the sufferer misusing their imagination to create frightening scenarios
  3. teach necessary social skills where appropriate
  4. use hypnosis to enable the sufferer to ‘practise’ social confidence in their minds before actually engaging in social situations.(1)

Rehearsing success makes for success.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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