Health: Fighting social phobias

Drugs and DIY software can help, reports Roger Dobson

JANUARY SALES can be a real problem for Vivian Birch. On a bad day her social phobia is so severe she can't answer the phone, and even the prospect of talking to shop assistants or of travelling on public transport terrifies her.

"Sometime I'm so frightened of even the phone that I can't bear the noise it makes, and I have nightmares where the phone is walking up the stairs to strangle me in bed. Now I have an answer-phone which I use on a bad day so there is no chance of me having to talk to a stranger," says 29- year-old Vivian.

She is one of an increasing number of people suffering with social phobia, or extreme shyness. It's a problem that peaks at this time with the pressures of New Year parties, office dos, eating out, and other social occasions.

For millions of people shyness like this is a chronic problem that can wreck lives, ruin any chance of a relationship and even lead to suicide. Some psychologists believe that the problem is increasing as people lose their social skills in an age of telephone-banking, automatic checkouts and tele-working.

"These days you exchange information and not emotions. There is no sentiment, no face-to-face contact, no small talk, and some kids would rather play computer games than play with real live friends,'' says Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University in the US, a leading authority on shyness.

Social phobia is described by the American Psychiatric Association as a pronounced and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur, and it estimated there are around two million social phobics in Britain alone. Sufferers experience a range of symptoms that can include mutism and other speech problems, low self-esteem, social anxiety, loneliness, uncontrollable blushing, physical shak- ing, and extreme difficulties in forming relationships.

Nature and nurture, genes as well as social conditioning, are thought to play a part, and one research team working with twins reared apart, found around one in six of the population are born with a predisposition to shyness, although most shyness is thought to be acquired in early childhood.

"Over the past 10 years shyness has been increasing at the rate of around one per cent a year until now it is about 50 per cent which suggests there is something significant happening in our society which is increasing the level of shyness,'' says Zimbardo.

Vivian Birch, whose responses to socially phobic situations include mutism, dizziness and nausea, has tried a number of different therapies to ease her problems. She is currently taking Seroxat for the depression that is an integral part of social phobia for one in three sufferers. The same type of formulation has been described as an anti-shyness pill, and increasing numbers of similar drugs are on the market or in development.

"Since January I have been taking Seroxat. I am finding it very helpful and it has made quite a difference to me. I don't see anything wrong with a drug for social phobia if it gets people to a stage where they can tackle the problem," she says.

Another new treatment for social phobia, computer-based psychological therapy, is being pioneered by The Maudsley Hospital and the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

The computer programme, FearFighter, that Professor Isaac Marks and his team have produced, involves half-a-dozen one-hour sessions which show the patient how to use exposure therapy to confront his or her fear.

"The essence of our programme is about self-treatment. The types of homework that could be set for social phobia might be for them to ask someone the time at a bus stop, or to engage a stranger in conversation for one minute," says Professor Marks.

The Maudsley programme has been used by 90 patients, a third of them social phobics. The results are expected to conclude that it is as successful as face-to-face therapy.

The Maudsley self-care clinic is on 0171 919 3365, and the Phobics Society runs a self-help network, telephone 0161 881 1937.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015