By Chuck Potrykus, Pacific Medical Centers, for the Auburn Reporter
The holiday season is full of cheer, family traditions and spending time with loved ones.
However, for many people, the idea of walking into a crowded room, talking with coworkers at a holiday party, traveling away from home, or attending large family gatherings can trigger additional anxiety, depression, or both.
This increased stress and anxiety is known as social anxiety disorder – a common disorder that affects nearly 15 million people, or seven percent, of American adults. Individuals with this disorder often try and avoid situations that they know will cause these feelings.
In an effort to reduce the stigma around this disorder, licensed mental health counselor Chuck Potrykus with Pacific Medical Centers has provided valuable insights on how to effectively identify and treat this surprisingly common condition.
1. What is social anxiety disorder?
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is intense anxiety or fear or being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation. People with social anxiety disorder may worry about acting or appearing visibly anxious or being viewed as different or awkward.
Social anxiety disorder is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobias. While the average age of onset for social anxiety disorder is during the teenage years, you can develop this disorder at any time.
2. What are the signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder?
While social anxiety disorder is different than shyness, it is common for people to lump the two together. The primary difference is that a shy individual can be in a social situation but may be quiet or removed from the conversation. Someone with social anxiety disorder physically feels they are unable to participate in social situations and oftentimes will avoid leaving their home due to this extreme fear. At times, these individuals believe that social situations could actually kill them, as the stress may cause them to have physical symptoms of increased heart rate, problems breathing and panic attack-like body reactions.
This anxious state can last anywhere from days to weeks, which is incredibly tough on the body. This leads to a variety of problems, including a constant buzzing or static sound in their mind, making their everyday lives feel nearly impossible.
The holidays typically tend to worsen social anxiety symptoms, as there are many family gatherings and work obligations this time of year. As a result, I often see an uptick of patients this time of year.
3. Is there a cure for social anxiety disorder?
In my world we don’t really use the word cure, the word management is most important because it’s realistic and possible. A combination of medication and therapy is the best treatment method for those suffering with social anxiety disorder.
Medications including anti-depressants, beta blockers and SSRIs can help the individual slowly acclimate to everyday life and eventually feel comfortable enough to venture out of the house and partake in social obligations. This, in turn, can break the belief that something is broken or wrong with them, taking the negative narrative away.
Therapy is also an excellent tool for those suffering with social anxiety disorder, as a therapist can help you slowly get comfortable and feel safe participating in everyday activities. When looking for a therapist, I recommend patients work to find the right fit. Finding a therapist is like job hunting – it can take time to find the right fit, which can also be difficult for those suffering with social anxiety disorder. However, you can find the right fit faster by ensuring the therapists you are meeting conduct Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Exposure Therapy to help you overcome the fears and social anxiety of everyday life.
At Pacific Medical Centers, we offer an integrated approach to health care, meaning we work alongside a team of medical professionals making it easy to treat the whole patient, not just a part. This makes it easier for those suffering with social anxiety disorder, as I can have a session with my patient and then walk them next door to meet with their primary care physician. Fewer visits to the doctor mean higher success rates in getting those suffering with social anxiety disorder to their medical appointments.
However, despite the availability of effective treatments, fewer than 5% of people with social anxiety disorder seek treatment in the year following initial onset and more than a third of people report symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help. This is because many people with social anxiety disorder feel the act of seeking treatment is too much for them handle.
4. Can family or friends help those suffering with social anxiety disorder?
The holidays are a perfect time to help those suffering with social anxiety disorder, as the biggest gift you can give is the gift of help. If you know someone suffering from this disorder, I recommend reaching out to that individual in a non-judgmental way to let them know you are there for them. Sometimes just offering to go to the grocery store or their medical appointments can make a huge difference in whether they go. Be their set of training wheels, until they can fully go and do things on their own.
Helping someone with social anxiety disorder is a priceless gift you can give and in the spirit of the holidays, I encourage everyone to help someone, as your help can make a life changing impact!
Chuck Potrykus is a licensed mental health counselor at Pacific Medical Centers (PacMed) at its Canyon Park location. He received his degree at Argosy University in Seattle. Chuck’s medical interests include anxiety, coping skills, brain/body relationship, sensory integration and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). In his free time, he enjoys painting, hiking, biking, film and improvisation acting.
Pacific Medical Centers (PacMed) is a multi-specialty medical group with nine neighborhood clinics in the Puget Sound area. Founded in 1933, the PacMed network is one of the largest throughout the Puget Sound and offers patients more than 150 providers for primary and specialty care. PacMed’s culture focuses on its mission of delivering high-quality health care focused on the individual needs of its diverse patient population with an emphasis on improving the quality of health in the community.