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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Social Phobia

Q. When I walk into a situation that seems important for me to be successful in, it seems like my mind just shuts down and I can't think. Afterwards I can always see what I should have done but nothing ever comes to mind at the time. Why?

A. I can't say why, in your case, but what you describe sounds a bit like a type of anxiety disorder called social phobia (SP). This is quite a common condition, affecting as many as 3 in every 100 Americans. SP sufferers typically experience anxiety in social or performance situations, in which they are exposed to the judgment or scrutiny of others. Typical situations that induce such anxiety include parties, public speaking, musical performances, being in a position of authority, or dealing with authority figures.

In such settings, SP may manifest as shaking, sweating, palpitations, or blushing. Usually, the phobic person can recall having catastrophic thoughts during these experiences, such as, "If I don't perform well, I'm going to make a complete fool of myself, and I couldn't stand that!" Curiously, some people who report difficulty similar to yours seem to have a fear of success-and seem to undermine their own efforts in a kind of self-sabotaging process. This is described in E. Carol Webster's book, "The Fear of Success: Stop it from Stopping You!"

However, in my experience, what seems to be a fear of success usually proves to be merely a disguised fear of failure, just as in social phobia. The underlying thought process goes something like this: "If I allow myself to do well, I might get promoted (or get involved in a serious relationship, etc.), which I know I would blow after a few weeks. So, I'd better nip this in the bud and spare myself the humiliation later." These kinds of anxious and phobic fears often benefit from a form of treatment called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

In more severe cases of SP, Prozac-type medication may also be very helpful. For less severe cases, I highly recommend the book, "A Guide to Rational Living", by Drs. Albert Ellis and Robert Harper. This takes a cognitive approach not only to fear of failure, but to a myriad of other psychological problems that keep us from being fully successful or happy. You might also take a look at "The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook", by E.J. Bourne PhD. Here's wishing you some success!

May 2001

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