Social phobia: when a person is too scared to move

April 23, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

Add this to the list of ills the ego is heir to: not foot-in-mouth disease exactly, but anxiety about foot-in-mouth disease.

In scientific terms, it's "social phobia," which means extreme fear of being humiliated.

And, according to psychologist Sally Winston of Sheppard Pratt Hospital, recent research suggests that it's more widespread than anyone suspected, because people who have it are too embarrassed to admit they've got a problem.

So they arrange their lives around avoidance of social interaction. Or they go out, among people, but can't use public restrooms; they're afraid someone will hear what they're doing.

They beg off from public speaking. Or they give lovely lectures, but come away from the microphone clammy and quaking.

They may calm themselves with alcohol: Between 30 percent and 50 percent of alcoholism or problem drinking may be masking social phobia, Dr. Winston says.

Or they function with apparent normalcy, but worry themselves sick before and after: "They leave the situation in agonies over something they said," Dr. Winston says. "They have a lot of obsessive ruminations; they worry: 'What if people thought I was nervous? What if I go there and get so anxious I have to leave and people wonder about me?' "

To the layman, this might look a lot like shyness, though it's really different: Social phobia is a disorder, with psychological and physical manifestations, Dr. Winston says, while shyness is a personality trait, an introverted way of responding to the world.

It's also different from agoraphobia, which is fear of having a panic attack and dying or going crazy away from home, according to Dr. Winston; social phobics, in contrast, are afraid that a panic attack or other faux pas will make them look crazy to others.

In fact, social phobics are so eager to avoid appearing odd that they'll even stay away from lectures about the disorder.

Sheppard Pratt, therefore, offers free screening by phone, with Dr. Winston or Dr. Thomas Fillion. "With a few brief questions, we should be able to figure out whether social phobia is part of the problem," Dr. Winston says.

If it is, the caller can make an appointment for further assessment and treatment at Sheppard Pratt; or, if time or finances are unsuitable, the caller can be referred to a community mental health center.

For information, call 938-4900, and leave a message for Dr. Winston or Dr. Fillion.

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