Social anxiety disorder: 'The thought of attending parties used to fill me with fear'

It gets in the way of everyday life, but can be treated by rationalising negative thoughts which circulate through the brain, such as “they think I’m stupid” or “I’ll make a fool of myself”

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Three years ago I was on my way to a party. There would be drinks, music and good people. It should’ve been fun. But I didn’t feel excited, I felt sick.

“What if I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say and people thought I was weird? What if I made a fool of myself?” It was freezing outside, but I was sweating buckets and my stomach tightened into knots. I couldn’t think straight.

I’ve battled Social Anxiety Disorder since the age of fifteen. The main problem was that I didn’t know what I was dealing with, and I thought I was the only one. By definition it’s “a disorder in which a person has an excessive fear of social situations.” Although I personally prefer my own definition, “the idea of social gatherings or being the centre of attention makes a person feel sick with dread. Convinced they’re going to make a fool of themselves, be judged negatively by others or have a massive freak out that results in a heart attack!”

The physical symptoms are the most devastating, blushing (sometimes for no reason), shaking, sweating and stuttering, to name a few. If someone merely said my name I would turn the colour of an angry tomato and not understand why.

Julia Shearn, a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy counsellor working in Cardiff, said social anxiety tends to begin in childhood or teenage years but can continue into adulthood. "Social Anxiety Disorder gets in the way of everyday life," describes Shearn. "It is a really intense fear and it's outside the realms of what people expect from levels of anxiety."

‘Shy’ and ‘quiet’, are words often used to describe those who suffer from it, but the truth is much more devastating. People who have social anxiety don’t want it anymore than someone who has flu, it’s not a choice - it just happens.

After the party I knew that something had to change, I couldn’t let this control my life anymore.

I went to see my local GP and to my amazement discovered that social anxiety was much more common than I thought, and more importantly it can be treated.

SSRIs (fancy acronym for mild antidepressants) and beta blockers are generally prescribed. Are there side effects? Yes. Are they worse than the years of misery that you’ve faced? Not even close. The SSRIs top up the serotonin in the brain, which anxiety sufferers lack. Basically, they don’t have enough neurotransmitters, which can cause problems. Beta blockers reduce the physical symptoms. Believe me, the luxury of not having a red face during meetings was wondrous.

CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is also particularly effective at treating social anxiety. The basic principle is to extract and rationalise all the negative and irrational thoughts that circulate through the brain, such as “they think I’m stupid” or “I’ll make a fool of myself.” CBT can be obtained via the NHS, but there will naturally be waiting lists. Charities such as Anxiety UK will try and help members get CBT within a week but it can take longer. They also have a free and completely anonymous helpline.

Dr David Carbonell, founder of the Anxiety Treatment Centre, has one key piece of advice - be honest about your condition. "The path out of Social Anxiety Disorder is much easier when you come to see that secrecy is not your friend. Others will generally be as accepting of your flaws as you are of theirs; and that when you give up your efforts to hide and oppose your visible anxiety symptoms, that's when they become less frequent and disturbing."

Recovery doesn’t happen overnight and like many things it requires hard work and commitment.

But a few months ago, as I confidently gave a presentation in front of two hundred people - something I never thought I could do - I knew that all the effort had been worth it.

Claire Eastham blogs about her experiences with anxiety and panic attacks at http://weallmadhere.com/

For more information visit:

www.anxietyuk.org.uk

www.nhs.uk/conditions/social-anxiety

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