Focusing on Relationships Helps People With Social Phobia

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 19, 1999 (Cleveland) -- Focusing on improving interpersonal relationships, such as those with relatives and friends, could improve symptoms of social phobia, according to early results from a small study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Social phobia is characterized by avoidance of social situations due to the anxiety of being embarrassed or humiliated in public. Everyday activities, such as using public bathrooms or eating in public, may lead to anxiety. The onset may occur in adolescence and may be associated with overly protective parents or limited social opportunity. Males and females are equally likely to be affected with this disorder.

Interpersonal psychotherapy has been long studied and known to help people with depression. This study, albeit small, is the first to examine its use as treatment for social phobia.

"With interpersonal psychotherapy, you focus on real-life problems and challenges in primary relationships and how those might impact on the person's level of social anxiety," says lead author Joshua D. Lipsitz, PhD. "This is the kind of psychotherapy that is really more akin to [what] ... many old-fashioned psychotherapists do. It pays attention to issues and the person's broader life context and their primary relationships. We find that if we pay attention to that and work with the patient with improving specific parts of their primary relationships, as a result, their social phobia symptoms improve," Lipsitz tells WebMD.

He and colleagues studied interpersonal psychotherapy in nine people with social phobia who were aged 25-49. During the first three sessions, the therapist and patient discussed the patient's social phobia symptoms and decided which were the most treatable. They also agreed on one main interpersonal problem area to focus on. Role transition -- adapting to new demands and giving up old familiar roles, such as moving away from home, making a job change, or making new friends -- was listed as the most important interpersonal area that these patients wanted to focus on. After 14 weeks of therapy with a psychologist, 78% of these people reported that their symptoms of social phobia had been much or very much improved, and almost all of their clinicians agreed that the symptoms had significantly approved.

Lipsitz, who is a psychologist at the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City, says that it's important to note that these results are very preliminary, and they are currently conducting a larger study to better determine the what the best duration and focus of interpersonal psychotherapy is for people with social phobia.


Vital Information:

  • Social phobia is the fear and avoidance of social situations for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated.
  • Examples of social phobia can include fear of public speaking, using public bathrooms, or eating in public areas.
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy, which focuses on improving interpersonal relationships, can improve the symptoms of social phobia, according to a preliminary study.
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