Transcendental Meditation®

Social Phobia

By Elaine Pomfrey

Everyone at some time in their lives experiences fear in social situations, usually when they are children or young adolescents. They may be shy to meet new people or afraid to enter a crowded room. This fear is diagnosed as social phobia when it is excessive, persistent and interferes with daily living. Therapy, medication and relaxation techniques can be effective in reducing the symptoms of social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder).

Socially phobic people fear that they will embarrass themselves or that others will judge them poorly. They feel very anxious and excessively self-conscious when interacting socially. Social phobia can be limited to one situation, like going to the mall, or can be experienced in all social situations. In either case, someone with social phobia can dread a situation for weeks and at the last minute, decide not to show.

When stressed, socially phobic people may experience blushing, nausea, shaking, trouble speaking, stomach upset or heavy sweating. They may be aware of their fears, but unable to overcome them. Sometimes their fears sideline them resulting in missed work, school or gatherings with friends.

Social phobia is the most common anxiety disorder: 15 million Americans age 18 or over experience it. The median age of onset of social phobia is 13. It is more prevalent among women than men.

Left untreated, social phobia lingers or sometimes worsens. People with social phobia are at risk for developing depression, drug and/or alcohol abuse and suicide. Socially phobic children can develop selective mutism. They cannot talk in the presence of certain people, e.g., a teacher, or in specific social situations, such as at church. The debilitating effects of social phobia can prevent the development of relationships leading to a lifetime of loneliness.

Richard Heimberg, PhD, who has studied social phobia for over 20 years, discovered that about 80% of social phobics who receive either cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or take medication can improve significantly. His 1998 study demonstrated that CBT created a more lasting effect than medication. Five years after treatment, patients who took medication were more likely to relapse than those who opted for CBT. Standard medications for social phobia include antidepressants in the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) class as well as benzodiazepines.

MeditationAny steps that reduce anxiety can help alleviate the symptoms of social phobia, like avoiding caffeine, exercising regularly or meditating. The Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique in particular has been proven to be twice as effective in reducing anxiety as other relaxation techniques such as the Relaxation Response, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, EMG Biofeedback, according to a meta-analysis of over 100 studies. Other research has suggested that the TM technique decreases anxiety in college students and also in adults on the job.

Social phobia can be overcome by first understanding the problem and then following through with the therapy, medication and/or self-help steps that have been proven to be effective.

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