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Unreasoning Fear: Can Social Phobias Be Conquered?

There are hundreds of phobias and millions of people who suffer from them. Not surprisingly, researchers think phobias develop out of a terrifying experience such as being attacked by a dog or being involved in a plane crash. But not everyone who has had a bad experience develops a phobia. Sometimes phobias run in families, giving weight to the theory that our DNA carries within it all the experiences of our ancestors. But it’s more likely that ‘inherited’ fears are just something handed down from our parents, such a fear of snakes or spiders.

What is a phobia?

The difference between a phobia and a sensible fear is the panic that grips a phobic person. A phobia is like a fear gone wild, robbing a person of all reason. A healthy respect for the dangers of fire or of falling off a cliff is part of a healthy reality, but when someone is preoccupied with thoughts of fire or heights, these fears can be limiting at best and debilitating at worst. One of the cruelest aspects of a phobia is that it can dominate a person’s thoughts even when the person knows the fear is irrational.

Phobias are generally separated into three broad categories.

Simple phobia

Simple phobias are connected to one thing or to a specific activity such as ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), ombrophobia (fear of rain), aerophobia (fear of flying), or ornithophobia (fear of birds), or mysophobia (fear of germs).

Social phobia

Social phobia is a fear of suffering humiliation in a social setting. These phobias would include fear of public speaking, fear of eating with other people, inability to use a public restroom, fear of socializing with the opposite sex, and refusal to meet strangers, such as in a job interview. Because these phobias cause nervousness and therefore poor performance, the victim is reassured that the phobia is justified.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is a group of fears involved with being in public places. 60% of those with phobias suffer from agoraphobia or panic at being in a place they consider unsafe. These people are afraid to venture outside their homes, drive or use public transportation, or even walk into a store. This is also a type of social phobia and it can be debilitating.

Those who suffer from phobias report hands getting clammy, trembling or knees shaking, muscles aching, eyes blurring, and profuse sweating. Phobics might also experience shortness of breath, a racing heart, light-headedness or feeling like you’re going to pass out, an upset stomach, or a sense of losing control. Some resort to alcohol to deaden their panic. In a recent study involving a group of alcoholics, 20% of men and 17% of women reported having some type of social phobia.

Can social phobias be conquered?

People who seek treatment have an excellent chance of ridding themselves of phobias. A variety of techniques can be used including visualization, meditation, aversion therapy, desensitization, and alternative methods such as sound wave technology, singing bowls and tuning forks, all of which can train your mind to understand that there is nothing intrinsically fearful about the dreaded situation.

To desensitize yourself, you can first meditate to relax completely, then visualize the panic-causing situation in your imagination, whether it’s the mall, a pub, church, school, or any other place where people gather. In your mind’s eye, you will confront your fear. If you experience typical panic symptoms, allow them to come and accept them. Know intellectually that this is simply a reaction to your fear. Nothing that happens will hurt you.

Next you can try aversion therapy. This is a step in which you will go to a relatively safe place, such as a mall or library, with a trusted friend or family member. You will experience all the symptoms of panic, but you will experience them as an observer and try to detach yourself from those physical feelings.

You can also try modeling. This is where you will see other people coping with a situation that terrifies you; you will see them behaving normally and rationally in what you consider to be a frightening situation. This helps to diminish the phobia.

Alternative methods of alleviating symptoms include tuning forks and Tibetan singing bowls to calm you and ease anxiety.

Avoidance can eventually turn into total isolation. It’s important to face your fears and cure your phobia a bit at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself or you could make your phobia worse. Use the mind over matter technique and understand intellectually that there is no foundation for your fear. Make a list of what you see as the scariest situations then start with the least scary, something small you feel you can handle. Then move into larger situations. Bring someone with you to help ‘talk you down’ and practice visualizing yourself being okay in social situations.

Laughter is great medicine so learn to laugh at yourself. Being a social klutz is not the worst thing in the world and you may discover it’s not as bad as it might have seemed. Surround yourself with trusted friends who can help you laugh and show you that it’s not so bad.

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