By Dr. Emma Warnock-Parkes
At the Oxford Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma (University of Oxford, UK) run by Professors David Clark and Anke Ehlers, our research is focused on improving treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder. So I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the website by the wonderful people at the Kukes Foundation.
A few weeks of successful procrastination later and my thinking style had become more self-critical: “You should not have left it this long Emma! For goodness sake get started! But how will it sound? What will readers think of it?” All people experience critical self-evaluation and fears of what others may think at times. However, for the 12% of us who will experience social anxiety at some point in our lives, this fear of negative evaluation is incredibly distressing and can have a profound impact on so many aspects of life. The far-reaching and devastating impact of social anxiety on the lives of so many is the reason why I started working on treatment development.
Social anxiety disorder distorts your self-image, giving you a negative impression of how you are coming across to others. I just finished seeing Lucy for a course of Cognitive Therapy. Lucy is a wonderful young woman: friendly, warm, interesting and bright. Yet when treatment started she saw herself as “boring, stupid and vulnerable.” Because of this distortion she, like many others, had hidden her true self away for many years. In her words: “I couldn’t be myself. I was always trying to put on a front, to be accepted. It was exhausting.”
Yet there is good news: social anxiety disorder is a treatable problem. Scientific research has shown that talking therapies like cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can be highly effective. These treatments work by helping correct the distorted perception people have of themselves. Talking is involved, but the focus is mostly on doing things differently. To make treatment more accessible, our team is currently testing the effectiveness of online cognitive therapy.
I recently asked Lucy if she would be happy to share how treatment had helped her. She wrote:
“I am finally able to say yes when someone asks me to go out or when a new opportunity comes up. I am also a lot kinder to myself. Above all, I am able to live my life without feeling restricted by anxiety.”
My hope for the future is that more people, like Lucy, will get access to effective treatment. Seeking help can be scary, many people feel anxious about going to see a therapist. If you are considering starting treatment I commend you and encourage you to remember that with the right help social anxiety can be overcome. Testament to this is a card I recently opened from a young man I had just finished working with. The front read – “I’ve got 99 problems but Social Anxiety ain’t one.” It made me smile: he was a very intelligent man with a fantastic sense of humor. The power of cognitive therapy was that he now realized other people saw him that way too.