Controlling Social Phobia
“The most important thing for people with phobias to remember is that phobic disorders do respond well to treatment. It’s not something they have to continue to suffer with.”—Dr. Chris Sletten.
HAPPILY, many social phobics have been helped to reduce their anxiety and even to face the social settings that they feared for many years. If you suffer from social phobia, be assured that you too can learn constructive ways to deal with this disorder. To do so, you will need to address (1) your physical symptoms, (2) the beliefs you hold about the situations you fear, and (3) the behavior that your fears elicit.
Bible principles can help. True, God’s Word is not a medical textbook, nor does it mention the term “social phobia.” Yet, the Bible can help you to “safeguard practical wisdom and thinking ability” when dealing with your fears.—Proverbs 3:21; Isaiah 48:17.
Managing Your Symptoms
The physical symptoms of social phobia vary from one person to the next. How does your body respond as you approach a feared situation? Do your hands shake? Does your heart beat rapidly? Do you experience abdominal distress? Do you perspire or blush, or does your mouth become dry?
Granted, it is unpleasant to contemplate sweating, stammering, or trembling in front of others. But anxiety over what might happen will not help. Jesus aptly asked: “Who of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his life span?” (Matthew 6:27; compare Proverbs 12:25.) Indeed, dwelling on your symptoms and on what others might think of them will only make matters worse. “Imagining that others notice their nervousness makes people with social phobias still more anxious,” observes The Harvard Mental Health Letter. “They come to anticipate the resulting awkwardness and poor performance—an expectation that sets off further alarms when they approach feared situations.”
You may be able to reduce the intensity of your symptoms by practicing slow breathing from the diaphragm. (See the box “Watch Your Breathing!”) Also helpful is regular physical exercise and muscle relaxation. (1 Timothy 4:8) You may also need to make some life-style changes. For example, the Bible counsels: “Better is a handful of rest than a double handful of hard work and striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:6) So make sure that you are getting sufficient rest. In addition, watch your diet. Do not skip meals or eat at irregular times. It may be necessary to cut back on caffeine, which can be a prime offender in stirring anxiety.
Most of all, be patient. (Ecclesiastes 7:8) One team of doctors reports: “In time, you’ll notice that, while you’re still apt to feel some anxiety in certain social situations, the intensity of your bodily symptoms will decrease considerably. Most importantly, with practice, your self-confidence will increase, and you’ll be better prepared to enter the social situations you fear.”
Challenging Your Phobic Beliefs
It has been said that you cannot experience a feeling without first experiencing a thought. This seems to be true of social phobia. Hence, to reduce your physical symptoms, you may need to examine the “disquieting thoughts” that fuel them.—Psalm 94:19.
Some experts say that social phobia is, in essence, a fear of disapproval. For example, while at a social gathering, a social phobic might say to himself, ‘I look foolish. People must notice that I just don’t fit in. I’m sure everyone is making fun of me.’ A social phobic named Tracy had such feelings. In time, however, she questioned her beliefs. She came to realize that people had better things to do with their time than to analyze and judge her. “Even if I say something boring,” Tracy concluded, “is it valid for someone else to disapprove of me as a person because of this?”
Like Tracy, you may need to challenge distorted thinking as to the likelihood—and the severity—of others’ disapproval in social situations. Is there really valid reason to believe that people would become upset with you if your worst fears came true? Even if some did, is there cause to conclude that you would not survive the ordeal? Does the opinion of another person actually change your value as a person? The Bible wisely advises: “Do not give your heart to all the words that people may speak.”—Ecclesiastes 7:21.
One team of doctors writing on social phobia stated: “Problems arise when people attach too much meaning and importance to the inevitable rejections that life brings. Rejection can be very disappointing. It can really hurt. But it doesn’t have to devastate you. It’s really not a catastrophe unless you make it one.”
The Bible helps us to view ourselves realistically. It acknowledges: “We all stumble many times.” (James 3:2) Yes, no one is immune to imperfection and its sometimes embarrassing manifestations. Appreciating this helps us to make concessions for the weaknesses of others, and it encourages others to be just as understanding with ours. In any event, Christians know that the one whose approval really matters is Jehovah God—and he does not focus on our errors.—Psalm 103:13, 14; 130:3.
Facing Your Fears
To win your battle with social phobia, sooner or later you will need to confront your fears. At first, the very thought of this might seem daunting. Until now, perhaps you have avoided social settings that would incite your fears. Likely, however, this has only eroded your confidence and further entrenched your fears. With good reason, the Bible states: “One isolating himself will seek his own selfish longing; against all practical wisdom he will break forth.”—Proverbs 18:1.
In contrast, facing your fears may tend to reduce your anxiety.* Dr. John R. Marshall says: “We often encourage our socially phobic patients—particularly those whose fears are relatively circumscribed, such as public speaking—to force themselves to become active in settings and organizations that require social contact.”
Confronting the situations that you have feared will convince you (1) that embarrassing flaws will most often not result in the disapproval of others and (2) that even if they do result in some disapproval, this is not a catastrophe. Remember, though, to be patient with your progress. Recovery is not accomplished overnight, nor is it realistic to expect all signs of social phobia to disappear. According to Dr. Sally Winston, the goal of treatment is, not to get rid of the symptoms, but to make them not matter. If they don’t matter, she says, they go away or at least improve.
Christians have strong incentive to overcome social fears. Indeed, they are told to “consider one another to incite to love and fine works, not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together.” (Hebrews 10:24, 25) Since Christian activity often involves interacting with others, working hard to control your social fears can greatly aid your spiritual advancement. (Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 2:42; 1 Thessalonians 5:14) Keep the matter before Jehovah God in prayer, for he can supply you with “power beyond what is normal.” (2 Corinthians 4:7; 1 John 5:14) Ask Jehovah to help you to acquire a balanced outlook on the approval of others and to cultivate the necessary skills to do what he requires.
Admittedly, each sufferer’s problems are unique, and each one will have different obstacles to face and different strengths to draw on. Some have made considerable improvement by using the suggestions that have been discussed. There are cases where additional help may be necessary. Some, for example, have been helped by medication.* Others have sought the help of a mental-health expert. Awake! does not recommend or endorse any particular kind of treatment. Whether a Christian pursues such treatment is a personal decision. He should be careful, however, that any treatment he receives does not conflict with Bible principles.
Men “With Feelings Like Ours”
The Bible can be of great encouragement, for it contains real-life examples of people who conquered personal obstacles in order to do what God required of them. Consider Elijah. As one of Israel’s foremost prophets, he displayed what may seem like superhuman courage. Yet, the Bible assures us that “Elijah was a man with feelings like ours.” (James 5:17) He was not immune to periods of intense fear and anxiety.—1 Kings 19:1-4.
The Christian apostle Paul went to Corinth “in weakness and in fear and with much trembling,” evidently having strong misgivings about his own abilities. And he did meet with a measure of disapproval. Indeed, some opposers said of Paul: “His presence in person is weak and his speech contemptible.” Yet, there is no indication that Paul allowed the twisted opinion of others to influence his view of himself or his abilities.—1 Corinthians 2:3-5; 2 Corinthians 10:10.
Moses lacked confidence in his ability to approach Pharaoh, claiming to be “slow of mouth and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10) Even when Jehovah God promised to help him, Moses begged: “No, Lord, please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13, Today’s English Version) Moses could not see his strengths, but Jehovah could see them. He viewed Moses as mentally and physically competent to fulfill the assignment. Still, Jehovah lovingly provided Moses with an assistant. He did not force Moses to face Pharaoh alone.—Exodus 4:14, 15.
Jeremiah too is an outstanding example in this regard. When he was commissioned as God’s prophet, this young man responded: “Alas, O Sovereign Lord Jehovah! Here I actually do not know how to speak, for I am but a boy.” The strength to carry out his assignment was not inherent in Jeremiah. Yet, Jehovah was with him. He helped Jeremiah to become “a fortified city and an iron pillar and copper walls against all the land.”—Jeremiah 1:6, 18, 19.
Therefore, if fears and anxiety cause you suffering, do not conclude that you lack faith or that Jehovah has rejected you. On the contrary, “Jehovah is near to those that are broken at heart; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.”—Psalm 34:18.
Indeed, the Bible examples mentioned above show that even stalwart men of faith grappled with feelings of inadequacy. While not requiring more than each could reasonably give, Jehovah helped Elijah, Paul, Moses, and Jeremiah to accomplish more than they might have expected. Since Jehovah “well knows the formation of us, remembering that we are dust,” be assured that he can do the same for you.—Psalm 103:14.
Some doctors recommend that if this step seems overwhelming, practice simply imagining yourself in the circumstance you fear. Unfold the scene with as much detail as possible. Your anxiety level may rise; but keep reminding yourself that the disapproval of others is not as likely or as severe as you think, and construct the ending of the scene to support that view.
Those who consider taking medication should weigh the risks and the benefits. They should also consider whether the phobia is severe enough to warrant drug therapy. Many experts feel that medication works best when it is combined with a treatment that addresses the phobic’s fears and behavior.
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Watch Your Breathing!
SOME social phobics are able to reduce the intensity of their physical symptoms by giving attention to their breathing. At first, this might sound strange. After all, everyone knows how to breathe! But experts say that many people with anxiety problems do not breathe properly. Often, their breathing is too shallow, too fast, or too much from the chest.
Practice inhaling and exhaling slowly. Breathing through the nose rather than through the mouth will make this easier. Also, learn to breathe from the diaphragm, since breathing from your upper chest increases your risk of hyperventilating. To test yourself in this regard, when standing up, place one hand above your waist and the other in the middle of your chest. While breathing, notice which hand is moving more. If it is the hand on your chest, you need to practice breathing from the diaphragm.
Of course, not every breath has to come from the diaphragm. (The normal ratio of diaphragm-to-chest breaths is about 4 to 1, but this will vary at times.) And a word of caution is appropriate: Those with chronic respiratory conditions—such as emphysema or asthma—should see a doctor before adopting new breathing techniques.
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When Fear Leads to Panic
FOR some social phobics, anxiety is so intense that it leads to a panic attack. This sudden, overpowering fright often leaves its victim hyperventilating, feeling faint, and believing that he or she is having a heart attack.
Experts say that it is best not to fight the attack. Rather, they advise the sufferer to ‘ride out’ the anxiety until it passes. “You can’t stop it once it starts,” says Jerilyn Ross. “It just has to run its course. Just keep telling yourself it’s frightening, but it’s not dangerous. It’s going to pass.”
Melvin Green, director of an agency that treats agoraphobia, likens the attack to a small wave that can be seen approaching a beach. “This represents your initial feelings of anxiety,” he says. “As the wave approaches land it grows larger and larger. This represents your feelings of anxiety growing. Soon the wave is very large and peaks. It then flows down into a smaller and smaller wave until it disperses on the beach. This image represents the start and finish of the anxiety attack.” Green says that sufferers should not fight the feelings but flow with them until they pass.
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To help alleviate anxiety, watch your diet, exercise regularly, and get proper rest
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Jehovah helped men like Moses to accomplish more in their service than they might have expected