For years, Mansij Basu didn’t know why he would rather not mix with people, especially if they are from other parts of the country. He wasn’t xenophobic. It’s just that he always felt that he will be humiliated by these people. “I was averse to socialising. I would go to my workplace, and hope that the day finishes at the earliest so that I can get back to my home and live my life with myself,” Basu, a banker, says. But he has gone past it, thankfully, as he was treated by experts who understood what lay behind his social phobia.
Social phobia is one of the disorders identified by excessive, specific, and consistent fear and avoidance of an object, activity, or situation. People with social phobia may avoid doing activities in public, such as eating or speaking, as well as using public bathrooms. He or she fears that people they do not know may judge them, which in turn would make them anxious.
The usual treatments include counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy—in which the patient learns about the things and situations he or she fears and how to tackle that fear. There are anti-depressants as well as other anti-anxiety medications that might be of some help. But these have their share of side-effects and one must be careful.
It is in this area of treatment that the researchers have found a new way. According to a new study by Ronald Sladky, led by Christian Windischberger, which has been recently published in the magazine PLOS One, functional magnetic resonance tomography was used to measure the changes in the brain activity of socially-phobic patients and healthy test subjects while they were looking at faces. The experiment stimulated situations in which the subjects saw faces without actually meeting them. “The study demonstrated that people with social phobia initially exhibit greater activity in the amygdala and in the medial, prefrontal cortex of the brain. However, after a few faces this activity recedes,” says Sladky. This finding contradicts the common perception that the emotional circuit of socially-phobic individuals is unable to adapt adequately to this stress-inducing situation. It was found that some areas of the brain—which otherwise were over-stimulated—were bypassed when the anxiety got lessened, a characteristic typical of anxiety. The researchers, therefore, concluded that “there are functional control strategies even in the emotional circuits of people with social phobia, although the mechanisms take longer to take effect”.
This means an individual has the inner strength to deal with social phobia. And the solution lies in being more sociable.
THE WARNING SIGNALS
● False beliefs about social situations and the negative opinions of others.
● Fear of specific situation, such as speaking in public, or other fears.
● Eating or drinking in front of others.
● Writing or working in front of others.
● Being the centre of attention.
● Interacting with people, including dating or going to parties.
● Asking questions or giving reports in groups.
● Using public toilets.
● Talking on the telephone.