Nervousness control: Social Phobia

It is said that the top ten greatest fears of humanity are:

  1. Death
  2. Uncertainty
  3. Embarrassment/Shame/Humiliation
  4. Nudity/Loss of privacy
  5. Neophobia
  6. Fear of Strangers
  7. Fear of Germs
  8. Rejection
  9. Social Phobia
  10. Needle Phobia

According to*, “Social Phobia is the third largest mental health problem in the world today.” Furthermore, Social Phobia “prevents people from leading the life they want; it stops them from taking the job they are good at.” As the late Professor Michael Shea commented, “You may be brilliant at what you do, but unless you are recognised as such, you may well be ignored.”

Social interaction does not exclusively imply recreational occasions and events. Social interaction is any interaction with another person. In the business environment, this is necessary and unavoidable. The leader interacts with the team to lead, inspire and motivate. The effective manager mobilises the team and affects the bottom-line. The team provides solutions, questions and feedback to develop procedures, plans and improve execution. This can only be done through clear communication. What is it, then, that creates such fear and anxiety in an individual that the fear of social interactions becomes debilitating? And how can it be overcome?

Neuroscientists have been able to identify the neural circuitry of fear in great detail and they have said that fear is crucial for our survival. It is the subconscious trigger that is able to establish, almost instantaneously, between fight and flight. When one becomes anxious and fearful, the neuroscientists have determined that neurons fire on the right side of the prefrontal cortex. Epinephrine and Norepinephrine are secreted which causes the elevation of systolic and diastolic blood pressure leaving the individual feeling stressed, under pressure, defensive, anxious and nervous.

David M. Clark and Adrian Wells writes in A Cognitive Model of Social Phobia** ** that “the core of social phobia appears to be a strong desire to convey a particular favourable impression of oneself to others and marked insecurity about one’s ability to do so. As a consequence of previous experience interacting with innate behavioural dispositions, social phobics develop a series of assumptions about themselves and their social world that make them prone to believe that they are in danger in one or more social situations.” People suffering from social phobia believe that they are in danger of behaving in such a way that they will be rejected, lose their status and credibility and that people will perceive them negatively. The problem is that, more often than not, the danger people feel in social situations is more imagined than real which results in inappropriate responses and a vicious circle of self-doubt and self-criticism.

Clark and Wells explain that “when social phobics think that they are in danger of negative evaluation by others, they shift their attention to detailed monitoring and observation of themselves.” This is not only detrimental to the individual; it also negatively affects the outcome of the social interactions which then, in turn, gives the individual additional perceived evidence to support the fear and ultimately causes the individual to become more anxious, nervous and fearful for future interactions.

Situations that have been identified to cause significant distress for individuals with social phobia are:

  • Meeting new people
  • Being criticised
  • Having to do something in front of others (for example: public speaking and presenting)
  • Meeting superiors
  • Having to make eye contact

Let us look at an example:
Steve is an intellectual and productive accountant at a reputable investment company. Colleagues have complimented his excellent technical ability and analytical mind. His goals are to become a partner and perhaps the CFO. However, Steve is extremely self-conscious and anxious about speaking in public.

Steve is invited to an event which will be attended by all the executives of the company. He realises that this is a good opportunity to network and introduce himself to his superiors. Prior to the event, Steve starts visualising the evening. He recalls previous failures and starts to imagine everything that can possibly go wrong at the event. The visualisation is so vivid that he already feels anxious. His heart rate is increasing and he is aware of his shallow breathing.

At the event, Steve is overwhelmed by his anxiety. He shifts his attention entirely on how he perceives his own actions and he displaces those perceptions on the people around him. His enhanced awareness of his own actions interferes with his ability to take note of how the people around him are actually reacting. He perceives his hand as trembling terribly and believes the people around him can notice it and are judging him accordingly. Thus, he avoids shaking anybody’s hand and keeps his hands in his pockets. He is petrified of stumbling over his words and accelerates his pace of speech which causes shallow, fast breathing patterns which in turn increases his heart rate and makes him feel dizzy. All of these experiences make Steve feel out of control and, to him, supports his reasoning to fear the social interaction.

Steve’s introspective information produced and examined by his critical self-focus constructs an impression of himself that he assumes is what the other people are actually noticing and what the other people think of him. His intense self-interrogation has made it impossible for him to be able to gauge the true thoughts and perceptions of the people around him. He was unable to make eye contact to read the people’s facial expressions and body language; he was unable to ask questions and engage in a conversation to hear their opinions; and his fear made him withdraw and close himself off from the people and he made himself come across as unapproachable.

This is something that occurs every day: In the boardroom; around the coffee machine and even on the phone. It can carry on for a person’s entire life and causes people to say things like, “If I had my life to live over, I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.” (Don Herold). Researchers found that the only effective way to eliminate this fear is through cognitive-behavioural therapy and coaching. Social Phobia is not something that an individual needs to allow. Social Phobia and powerful nervousness is a challenge that can be faced and mitigated.


** A Cognitive Model of Social Phobia by David M. Clark and Adrian Wells, The Guilford Press, A division of Guilford Publications Inc. 1995.

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