Overcoming Social Anxiety

by Wellness Editor – MH

Do you occasionally feel shy or nervous in social environments? Research suggests that you are not alone:

  • A 2011 study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that over 12 percent of “somewhat or very” shy teens met widely-used criteria for social phobia
  • According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), social anxiety disorder afflicts roughly 15 million adults in the United States alone
  • The ADAA also reports that anxiety disorders account for $42 billion of the $148 billion annual cost of mental illnesses to the US economy

Social anxiety can certainly make life more difficult and much less enjoyable. Fortunately, steps can be taken to reduce its grip on your mental wellbeing.

Medication Options

The NIMH states that people with social anxiety (also referred to as “social phobia”) are usually treated with medications, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs are the two medicines most often prescribed to social anxiety sufferers. Though antidepressants are obviously designed to combat depression, they can also be a useful tool against social phobia. In fact, the NIMH points out that such drugs are likely used more often than anti-anxiety medications to treat social anxiety.

As with other potent medicines, both antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs carry the risk of side effects. There are several types of anti-anxiety medications used to address anxiety problems; however, doctors usually prescribe them for only short-term use. If taken for too long, it is possible for some people to become dependent on a class of anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines. The undesirable consequences of antidepressants can include headaches, nausea, increased appetite, diminished sexual desire and sleeping problems. The risk of side effects is especially pronounced among children, teens and young adults.

It also bears mentioning that antidepressant labels have been assigned a “black box,” which is the strongest type of advisory given to drugs approved for public consumption. The black box marking stresses that antidepressants could generate suicidal thoughts, or may even cause users to attempt suicide. Fortunately, many people take such medicines without encountering serious side effects. Those who experience adverse effects are urged by the NIMH to consult with their doctor.

The Role of Therapy

Many people who struggle with social anxiety are also treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of psychotherapy aims to help those with mental disorders by highlighting negative thought patterns. To do this, a therapist might instruct a person to keep track of their thoughts with a journal, or to closely study their views regarding themselves, other people and certain events. Likewise, some people undergoing CBT are asked to monitor their responses to various situations.

Once these patterns have been identified, the next step is to replace them with healthier and more positive thoughts. A number of social anxiety sufferers are treated with exposure therapy, a form of CBT that has a person directly tackle anxiety-inducing fears and thoughts. By exposing people to feared situations and items at a gradual pace, exposure therapy seeks to reduce their negative reactions to these triggers.

Cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment method. For example, a therapist may deem it necessary to use other therapies in conjunction with the exposure method. Additionally, a person’s diagnosis, amount of family support, symptom severity and stress levels can all influence the length of their therapy. Generally speaking, CBT treatment involves 10 to 20 therapy sessions.

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