Social phobia, fear of people

Social phobia, also known as social anxiety, is a mental disorder characterized by an intense fear of one or more types of social situations in which the person is being observed or believes he/she is being observed.

Social phobia causes a series of changes in a person’s attitude and state.

  • Changes in their thinking: magnification of the criticism suffered by others. One of the main characteristics of social phobia is a high level of anticipatory worry about a situation that is expected to be faced in the future.
  • Changes in physiological responses: excessive sweating, muscle tension, accelerated heart rate, and short, shallow breathing.
  • Changes in behavioral responses: repetitive movements, tense body language or excuses to get out of the situation.
  • Affective changes: People with social phobia often avoid situations with excuses such as “I don’t feel like it” or “I prefer to be alone” in order to avoid having to go through a negative public appraisal.

People with social phobia try to avoid these situations as much as possible. Or they go through them trying at all costs to make sure that others hardly notice their anxious response. This “don’t let it be noticed” attitude is one of the most influential factors in the persistence of social phobia, as it prevents people affected by this disorder from generating emotional, cognitive and behavioral management tools.

Approximately 10-13% of people experience social phobia at some point in their lives. Fear of public speaking is a very common type of social phobia.

What are the causes of social phobia?

The origin of social phobia disorder lies in different possible causes. On the one hand, there is a certain biological vulnerability that predisposes to social phobia, i.e. a hereditary component. Some people have a tendency to be socially inhibited and to experience intense anxiety.

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The educational factor is also a possible cause of social phobia. Social role models influence the coping with or avoidance of certain situations. As do one’s own social experiences. For example, there are people who feel public criticism as a particularly harmful experience. Faced with these experiences, the person learns a series of beliefs that make him/her feel incapable of facing certain social situations successfully and incapable of overcoming the negative criticism of others with calmness and integrity.

When stressful life events, such as a family problem or work stress, are added to these factors, the likelihood of social phobia increases.

Treatment for social phobia

Psychological treatment of social phobia consists of two clinical tools: cognitive restructuring and exposure. Both tools have to be worked in parallel.

Cognitive restructuring aims to make the person understand why he/she perceives, attends and interprets social situations as an insurmountable threat. It consists of a treatment through which cognitive mechanisms are developed so that the patient firmly believes that failure in front of others is probable and catastrophic.

On the other hand, exposure seeks to relearn a basic process: to stop running away from an anxious situation. The patient gradually overcomes situations in which anxiety is no longer the protagonist.

The duration of psychological treatments for social phobia is about 15 sessions.

If a person suffering from social phobia does not receive psychological treatment, he/she usually suffers serious emotional and social consequences. It is common for some people with social phobia to resort to the consumption of alcohol or other substances in order to dampen the responses to the anxiety provoked.

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Source: fusion of several models or schemes of social phobia from different authors. By Julia Vidal