Fifth-grader Yitzi cannot speak in front of the classroom. In fact, it is a wrestling act just to get him into the classroom to begin with. He refuses to get together with friends after school and spends much of his time at home alone in his bedroom. When his parents try to speak with him to try to figure out what is wrong, he cannot answer. Instead, he turns red and starts to sweat.
When his condition began to worsen, Yitzi’s parents took him for an evaluation and found out that he is suffering from social anxiety, a form of social phobias.
What are the symptoms of social phobias?
In 2001, Margaret Talbot reported (in The New York Times) that around 13% of the population is affected by social phobias. While social anxiety was originally considered a rare condition, in the late 90s, psychologists, teachers, and parents began to identify it as a much more common issue. Social phobias are characterized not only by nervousness when in social situations or when forced to give a presentation or speech, but also by a powerful desire to avoid most situations that involve interacting with others.
People who believe they might have social phobia exhibit some the following symptoms:
- Frequently blushing in front of people
- Sweating in front of people
- Trembling or shaking in front of others
- Heart palpitations around people
- Fear of embarrassment that causes them to avoid speaking to people
- Aversion to speaking to anyone in authority
- Going to great lengths to avoid criticism
- Excessive fear of strangers
The Social Phobia Inventory (SPIN) is a list of seventeen questions that people can answer in order to better assess their “shyness” or avoidance of others. Many people might exhibit one or two symptoms of social phobia – after all, who isn’t sometimes uncomfortable when speaking with strangers? However, it is the severity of the fear and the frequency of these reactions that classify people as having social anxiety.
Dr. Michael Liebowitz, a Columbia University psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at New York Psychiatric Institute, explains that there are two groups of people who suffer from social phobia. Some, like Yitzi, experience anxiety that is generated by multiple situations and this anxiety interferes with their day-to-day lives. In other instances, there are people whose fears are more specific. They might feel very comfortable presenting in front of the classroom, but would freeze when forced to eat a full meal in public.
Many children demonstrate signs of social phobia when they begin to go to school. What is often interpreted as severe shyness can be a sign of social anxiety. Children who fear school because they are anxious that they will have to read passages aloud, answer difficult questions, or play sports, might be suffering from a form of social anxiety. On the other hand, if a child who is just beginning school is having trouble leaving his or her primary caregiver it could simply be separation anxiety. Separation anxiety can be healed over time with gradual separation, whereas social phobia requires more specific discussions and intervention.
In The Elementary School journal, Leo Hanvik wrote an article entitled, “The Child Who is Afraid of School” in which he describes a few “dos” and “don’ts” for parents dealing with a school-phobic child. He explains:
Be attentive to your child’s feelings Punish your child if he or she expresses fear
Be firm about going to school Force your child to attend unconditionally
Model good stress management techniques Dismiss physical symptoms of stress
Hanvik clarifies that it is important for parents to understand that the physical symptoms that accompany social phobia are very real and should not be ignored. Parents need to learn how to deal with their child’s fear and anxiety in order to allow the child to acclimate himself to school.
In adults, social anxiety appears at work, social gatherings, or any situation that is novel and different. Adults with social phobia might hesitate to answer the phone, approach a coworker or boss, or ask the cashier at the supermarket a question. These hesitations arise from an “over-thinking” of social situations. Though socially anxious people understand that their fears are irrational and that not everyone is evaluating them at every moment, they cannot suppress their feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. Despite their logical thinking, they still continue to experience heart palpitations, blushing, and sweating when confronted with social situations.
Social phobias or anxiety is not rare and Dr. Michael Liebowitz says that he “has treated corporate vice presidents so frightened of public speaking that they consider abandoning their careers just to avoid the podium, and concert musicians who, when a performance looms, spend the hours leading up to it shaking and vomiting.” Nonetheless, through successful intervention these vice presidents and musicians lead healthy careers that are not handicapped by their anxiety.
Here are some suggestions for helping deal with social anxiety:
Raise awareness. Many people are not aware that social anxiety exists. Understanding that what you or your child is feeling is relatable and treatable may relieve some of the stress that she feels.
Reframe thoughts. You or your children can recognize that your thoughts cause your feelings and behaviors, rather than external things, such as people, situations, and events. The benefit of this recognition is that once you realize that the way you think influences the way you feel, you can then function even if the situation does not change.
Social skills training. Through role-playing and interactive activities, you can learn communication skills. If you understand that you have these skills in your social arsenal, you will feel more in control when you meet someone for the first time.
Breathing exercises. Teaching yourself or your children relaxation breathing can help reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety. This will, in turn, help you calm your mind when it begins to race.
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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