Treating Social Anxiety Disorder: Why Therapy is Essential
Social anxiety disorder can cause severe emotional distress and functional impairment, interfering with your ability to participate in and enjoy life. While medications are available to help alleviate symptoms, they are typically limited in efficacy. As such, therapy is an invaluable part of the recovery process, particularly if your social anxiety disorder stems from a history of trauma. By seeking treatment in a warm, supportive environment, you can begin a process of profound transformation that will redefine how you experience yourself and the world around you.
“Shy” is how most people described Ellen as she was growing up. In fact, for many years it is how she described herself, believing shyness was behind the way she feared being called on in class, the way she blushed when speaking to strangers, the way she declined party invitations. And it didn’t dissipate with age. “Eventually it got to the point where I would put off making appointments because the thought of having to talk to someone on the phone was too much,” she explains. “I dreaded having to go to the grocery store and talk to the cashier. I trembled during job interviews and my hands would shake when I signed for deliveries.” And, of course, the worse the symptoms got, the more she feared them, which only made them more severe.
“I knew it wasn’t normal, but I was also so used to it didn’t alarm me. It wasn’t a break from my norm; it was my norm. So I didn’t think, ‘Obviously I have a mental illness!’” Ellen says. Then, one night while browsing the Internet she found something: between the cutest dog pictures of the week and quizzes revealing which Kardashian you are was a collection of Tumblr posts describing social anxiety disorder. It was as if someone had crawled into her brain.
Social anxiety level: “Mentally rehearsing the word, “Here!” over and over before the professor calls your name during roll call.
Having an anxiety disorder is like that moment where your chair almost tips or you miss a step going down the stairs but it never stops. #social anxiety
Me: I have to be somewhere in six hours. Time to start psyching myself up.
“It was like a light bulb went off. My behavior had a name and it wasn’t shyness. It was social anxiety disorder.”
Knowing what her condition was called gave Ellen a new framework for understanding and speaking about her experiences; her condition was not an immutable facet of her personality or benign shyness, but a debilitating mental illness. However, finding a name for her disorder was only the first step in her journey toward recovery. Healing from social anxiety disorder would require finding both medication and therapy to alleviate her symptoms and open up new possibilities for taking control of her life.
The Benefits and Limits of Medication
Social anxiety disorder can be deeply painful and disruptive, preventing you from engaging in even the most basic social and professional tasks. As such, it is natural to want relief as quickly as possible, which often means wanting medications that will rapidly lift distress and restore normal function. And, indeed, there are medications that treat social anxiety disorder; antidepressants like SSRIs and SNRIs are commonly used to alleviate symptoms and improve functionality. Benzodiazepines may also be employed on a short-term basis to address acute presentations of the illness.
But medication is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to treating social anxiety. This is because medication alone often does not fully resolve symptoms, nor does it imbue you with the skills you need to effectively cope with remaining social distress or address any underlying issues that contribute to your disorder. This last piece is particularly significant because social anxiety disorder is often tied to experiences of trauma, particularly childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In these cases, social anxiety disorder may be a manifestation of deeper psychological wounding. Unfortunately, pharmacotherapy cannot automatically heal you from your traumatic history or give you the emotional resources necessary for recovery.
Whether trauma is present or not, the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs you have about yourself and the world around you do not necessarily shift because you are taking medication. In fact, they may continue to distort your view even if the acuteness of your symptoms is pharmacologically diminished. Without interrupting those damaging patterns, recovery will most likely remain elusive.
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The Value of Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder
Because medication alone is not enough to adequately treat social anxiety, therapy is an invaluable part of the treatment picture. Therapy gives you a safe space in which to explore your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and their origins while simultaneously learning the skills you need to make meaningful changes.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be particularly useful in disrupting harmful emotional and behavioral patterns and replacing them with healthier alternatives. According to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, “CBT is more effective [than medication] and, unlike medication, can have lasting effects long after treatment has stopped.” Not only does CBT produce better outcomes than medication, it also allows you to avoid unwanted side effects. Evan Mayo-Wilson, lead author on the study, also notes, “The other issue is that drugs often stop working. With [CBT], you’re teaching people skills that they take with them after the therapy ends.” As such, Mayo-Wilson and many other mental health professionals now believe that CBT should be the first choice for treatment of social anxiety disorder.
However, CBT is not the only form of therapy from which people with social anxiety can benefit. Other modalities include:
- Psychodynamic Therapy: Psychodynamic therapy help you create a deeper understanding of how interpersonal relationships, early childhood experiences, and unconscious processes inform your emotional and behavioral patterns.
- Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR has been found to help people with social anxiety disorder break through rumination and cope with anxiety-producing stimuli.
- Somatic Experiencing: Somatic experiencing seeks to restore alignment of the autonomic nervous system by releasing destructive energy and promoting emotional, physical, and behavioral self-regulation.
- Group Therapies: Participating in therapy groups targeted toward your unique needs can be profoundly beneficial for people to explore and process psychological distress with the support of peers who understand what you are experiencing. These groups also provide you with the opportunity to learn and practice new social skills in a safe environment.
These therapies allow you to investigate the impact of social anxiety disorder on your life and develop effective strategies for coping with anxiety as well as any underlying conditions or trauma.
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Breaking Through Barriers to Treatment
Despite the availability of effective therapies for social anxiety disorder, the disorder itself can often act as a barrier to treatment participation. After all, therapy is a social experience, the very thing that activates your anxiety. However, if your disorder has come to interfere with your wellbeing and functionality, intensive residential care is often the best way to restore tranquility.
Seeking out a small, intimate treatment milieu can help you minimize your anxieties about engaging in treatment and keep you from feeling overwhelmed. In these programs, you are able to rapidly establish trusting relationships with compassionate clinicians who understand your unique needs and will work with you to ensure you are as comfortable as possible. Throughout your stay, you will be treated with kindness, acceptance, and love and you will never be judged for your illness. You will also have the opportunity to form meaningful connections with other clients, who will be some of your greatest allies through the healing process; all of you are experiencing your own challenges and can provide invaluable support for each other as you begin your recovery journeys.
You should also look for a treatment program that will allow you to engage in a broad spectrum of evidence-based and holistic therapies. By participating in a multi-dimensional curriculum, you can draw from the best of each modality to create a truly comprehensive treatment experience and open up multiple avenues toward healing. Combined with judicious use of medication, this gives you the opportunity to break through your social anxiety disorder and build a strong foundation for ongoing wellness.
Social anxiety disorder can be profoundly painful and frustrating condition, but it is also a treatable one. With the right therapies delivered in a warm, supportive environment, you can develop the inner resources you need to enhance your confidence, restore functionality, and create the life you want.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.
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