When nine-year-old Nicole moved with her mother to a new city, she started to dread school. Her worries about her new class kept her up at night. She stopped eating and drank six cans of soda every day. She began faking illnesses so she could stay home from school. It was obvious that something was very, very wrong.
“Nicole has been tearfully refusing to go to school because she ‘wants to go home’ and is ‘scared to go back’ to her class- room,”
says psychology professor Thomas G. Plante in his book, Contemporary Clinical Psychology. These are classic early signs of a social phobia.
More than 5 million people in the United States live with some kind of social phobia, and for most of them, their fears started out much like Nicole’s. Many phobics, at an early age, begin to feel terribly uneasy around other people, especially if they have to do something in front of someone—give a speech, introduce themselves, or even walk past a large group. A social phobia makes a person worry nonstop that others are watching him, judging him, or laughing at him. And because the world is full of people, a social phobia is very hard to ignore. There is no avoiding it. Everywhere one goes and everything one does, someone might be watching.
“Typically, your concern is that you will say or do something that will cause others to judge you as being anxious, weak, ‘crazy,’ or stupid,”9 says Bourne. We all feel nervous sometimes, but Bourne says that for social phobics, this concern is much stronger than the situation calls for.
People develop all sorts of social phobias. Some fear eating in front of other people because they might choke or spill on themselves. Some are afraid of taking tests. The fear of writing in front of someone, even just signing a paper, is a common social phobia. Other people are so uncomfortable with the idea of using a public restroom that they find it hard to be away from home for a long period of time. One social phobia, though, appears more frequently than all the others: the fear of speak- ing in front of a group.
“The fear of public speaking is the most common social phobia,” says Bourne. “In fact, this is the most common of all phobias.”
The fear of talking in front of people can be so strong that it affects major life choices such as the kinds of classes or col- leges students choose or the kinds of jobs adults pick for them- selves. Many people who have a fear of public speaking say they have turned down great opportunities, such as a special award or a promotion at work, because they would have had to give a speech to accept it.
Social phobias, such as the fear of public speaking or of pub- lic restrooms, are not equally strong for everyone. Some people who dread using public toilets, for example, can force them- selves to do it when there is no other choice, but for others, a public bathroom is never an option. Some people with a fear of public speaking can manage to do it in front of very small groups, but for some, the fear is so strong that they struggle to talk to even one other person. All social phobias, though, make it hard to live normally. According to Bourne,
“you would be given a formal diagnosis of social phobia only if your avoid ance interferes with work, social activities, or important relationships.”
A fear is only labeled a phobia when it begins to direct a person’s day-to-day decisions or affect the way he lives his life.
Social phobias are usually much harder to live with than spe- cific phobias, because it is more difficult to avoid people than it is to stay away from a particular object or situation. Still, even social phobias usually cause stress only in certain circumstances. If a woman is terrified by public restrooms, then attending a baseball game at a large stadium may be totally out of the question, but she might still be able to visit public places as long as they have private bathrooms.
Some phobics have such an extreme case of fear that they find it hard to go anywhere public at all. They worry that if they leave home, they will panic, and their fear of fear itself erases their chances of having a normal life. These people have the worst and most complicated fear of all—agoraphobia.