Does this scenario sound familiar? The boss says you need to do a presentation in front of some high-powered executives. A week later, you're facing 25 cold, stony faces. You begin to sweat. Your throat tightens and you feel like you're choking. Your heart is doing a tap dance against your ribcage. You begin to feel dizzy and wonder if you're going to be able to stand up. Or how about this: Every time you go out to dinner with someone you're interested in, you freeze up with anxiety. You feel the sweat forming on your brow; your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. The words stick in your mouth, and you feel like a complete idiot. You are very sure the person you're with also thinks you are a complete idiot. As a result, you now keep to yourself, avoiding contact with anybody except business connections.
If these descriptions sound like you or someone you know, you may already know something about social-anxiety disorder, also called social phobia. This disorder is defined as the intense and persistent fear of being scrutinized, judged adversely or humiliated in social situations. When social-phobia sufferers find themselves in the feared situation, they often experience panic attacks. As much as 13 percent of the general public suffers from social phobia over the course of a lifetime, and many will suffer impairment in their educational, financial and vocational lives. Nearly one third of social-phobia sufferers wind up abusing alcohol, probably as "self-medication" for their anxiety. Some even consider suicide, especially if social phobia is accompanied (as it often is) by another psychiatric disorder.
Some studies show that social phobia is more common in women than in men; however, in most clinical settings, the sexes are about equally represented. Social phobia typically has its onset in the mid-teens, sometimes in a youngster with a history of shyness. Onset of social phobia can follow a specific, humiliating event, or develop insidiously over many years. Children who show "selective mutism" (refusing to speak in certain social situations) may suffer from a form of social phobia. For some, social phobia is confined to a few very specific situations, such as public speaking. For others, social phobia is more pervasive and extends to nearly all social situations. The bad news is that, if left untreated, social phobia is usually a chronic, unremitting, lifelong disease. The good news is that there are now several effective treatments for this debilitating disorder.