Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
(for those of you just now tuning in I am working on a book on social anxiety disorder and conveniently exploiting this blog for the purpose of motivating me to get the dang thing written. This chapter will be early on in the book. Your feedback is welcome and cherished even!).
In nature the only constant is change. There is no standing still in the world, at least not for long. Our bodies respond to gravity over time, our minds open up with experience and contemplation or shut tight, and when it comes to mental health in general and phobias in particular, we are either getting better or getting worse.
Avoidant behavior, which means avoiding the thing you are afraid of, is the very thing your phobia tells you to do. Unfortunately this strategy offers short term gain for long term pain: it strengthens phobias.
One way to think about avoidance is that it’s like taking out a high interest payday loan to remedy running out of money: it’ll work for a short period of time but then it’ll make the original problem even worse.
A commonly occurring example of phobic avoidance can be seen among people who are afraid of flying and who, as a result, do not fly. On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable behavior, especially if you are lucky enough to live close by to your extended family and not care for seeing the world. Unfortunately not only does this avoidant behavior accidentally tell loved ones “you’re unimportant to me” it also makes you a perfect candidate for more phobias.
Why? Avoidance is a recipe for greater fear, and un-confronted fear is a hydra-headed monster that morphs and multiplies, showing up in more and more areas of one’s life.
If you succeed in avoiding flying for several years you are guaranteed to be more afraid of flying the next time you try. If you feed a phobia its food of choice, avoidance, you get more specific as well as more general phobias.
Cowboys have a succinct way of expressing this principle, “You got to get back on your horse.” If they get bucked off, they know the faster they get back on, the quicker they will overcome the fear of being thrown out of the saddle again.
I once worked with a boy whose very loving mother had gone around to all of his teachers in high school and asked them not to call upon her son in class because he had an upsetting experience of stammering and being unable to continue reading aloud in a class during his freshman year. He came into my office four years later, in a panic about the future. About to move away to attend college, he was terrified of being made to speak in class. Without his mother to buffer the professor’s expectations, he had to overcome his public speaking phobia in a hurry. Luckily he was highly motivated, smart, had good family support and he was able to do it. However I doubt they would have needed me in the first place if his mother had said to him four years earlier, “That sounds like a really tough experience,” and left it at that.
If you have social phobia, or any kind of phobia, repeated, dogged, and (temporarily) uncomfortable exposure is the most efficient, effective way to overcome it. This book will serve as a recipe that you can follow until you are comfortable making progress on your own.
Exposure that Doesn’t Work…
Is abuse! Imagine a three year old child crying out from fright after hearing the sudden, loud sound of a car backfire. Would you slap the child in the face? Of course not: You would comfort them. Yet, many people respond with agitation and negative self- judgment to their phobias. Engaging in such metaphorical face-slapping self abuse in terms of abusive, judgmental self-talk, does not help the fear subside, in fact it strengthens the avoidance of the situation altogether, which strengthens the phobia.
If your internal self talk sounds like, “I can’t. I should. I’m such an idiot” you may want to consider taking a more effective approach. Our frightened parts are young, and young frightened people need reassurance more than anything.
Even Worse Than Avoidance…
Is addiction! There are high co-morbidity (fancy therapist-speak for “at the same time”) rates of alcohol and drug addiction among the socially anxious because being mildly-to-strongly impaired temporarily stops the fear signals that the brain erroneously kicks out in social settings. The operative word here is “temporary.”
The problem is that our bodies and brains have the capacity to adapt to just about anything, so that as tolerance for the alcohol or drug(s) occur, more and more must be used. The more used, the greater the risk of negative side effects from the use itself such as addiction, accident, job loss, poverty, health problems and loss of motivation to heal the original problem of social phobia. What started out as a crutch to lean on for support thus becomes a constant, increasing source of pain and additional shame which if left untreated can be fatal.
Addiction is a form of enslavement. I hope you will join me in holding the belief that the human race has evolved beyond slavery. Addiction is a baffling, destructive disease in which the addict plays both perpetrator as well as victim.
If you have turned to drugs or alcohol to blot out the pain of anxiety, you may be sliding into the grips of an addiction. There are free, effective and community based support groups all over the world in the form of 12 step programs such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), and NA (Narcotics Anonymous).
If you have/had a loved one or parent who was or is addicted to alcohol, drugs or other compulsive behaviors, read Melanie Beattie’s book “Beyond Codependency” and go to an Al-Anon meeting. Al-Anon is a support group for family and friends of addicts—not just for family members of alcoholics but for all people with loved ones who have any kind of addiction.
Other addictions among socially phobic fly lower on the radar because they are slower to cause death. These include compulsive overeating (most commonly occurring in women) and compulsive sexual behavior (most commonly occurring in men) which includes compulsive viewing of pornography, use of prostitutes and unprotected one night stands. There are twelve step groups for these folks as well. OA, (Overeaters Anonymous) effectively treats compulsive overeaters as well as anorexics and bulimics. SAA, (Sex Addicts Anonymous) effectively treats pornography addiction as well as other sexual risk taking behavior. S-anon treats the partners of sex addicts in the same way that Al-Anon treats the partners of alcoholics and drug addicts. You can locate any of these groups with the search engine of your choice.
In spite of a commonly held misconception, you do not need to believe in God or be Christian to join a twelve step program. There are Buddhists, atheists and agnostics as well as Christians, Jews, Hindus, Shamans, Muslims and Pagans in the recovery movement.