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Case study - social anxiety disorder

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Jack, 28 years old, 10 years in the RAAF as an electronics technician

I reckon I was OK until high school. It was there that I started to get really anxious if I had to do a presentation to the class. I’d worry about it for days and the night before I couldn't sleep. When it came to the presentation, I’d be sweating, blushing, my mouth would go dry… it was like torture. It felt like everyone in the class was laughing at me. Other social situations were really difficult too. Going to parties, chatting up girls… I just couldn't do it. I’d stick close to one or two mates, let them do the talking, and just tag along. I've been pretty much the same ever since. When I was doing my tech training in the air force, I’d sit at the back of the class hoping no-one would notice me. If there was any chance I’d have to talk in front of the class, I’d call in sick or make some lame excuse. If it was a party, I’d get blind drunk first (and usually end up making a real dick of myself). I was OK if it was only a couple of mates, but with people I didn't know or large groups, I was cactus. I knew it was stupid and irrational, but that just made it worse. Why couldn't I just pull myself together and be confident like my mates?

Taking action

I was missing out on so much. My career was being affected – I should be a flight sergeant by now, but I never pushed myself forward. My social life was crap, and as for girlfriends… well, that seemed impossible. In the end I decided to bite the bullet. I couldn't face seeing anyone in uniform, so I found a GP in town and made an appointment. I was dead scared when the time came, but I forced myself to go in. The doctor was a woman about the same age as my Mum – I think that made it easier. She asked lots of questions like, did I avoid doing things because of being embarrassed, and did I worry a lot about what people thought of me? Of course, I said yes to all those and she told me I had “social anxiety” or “social phobia”. It was a relief to know that it had a name and I wasn't the only person who had these problems. In fact, the doc said it was quite common, which made me feel a bit better. She also said there was a clinic at the University where they treated that kind of thing.

Well, long story short I rolled up to this clinic and they told me that I would go into a treatment group… a group for God’s sake. Didn't they understand that was my worst fear? But when I got there it was nowhere near as bad as I’d expected. Of course, I was terrified before I walked in, but all the others in the group had exactly the same problems as me and I knew they were finding it as hard as me to be there. We had to introduce ourselves and once I’d said something (and the world didn't end!) I felt like maybe I could do this group thing after all. We met every week for 12 weeks. We learnt about social anxiety and what causes it. We learnt ways to calm down physically, like relaxation and breathing. We discovered what a big impact our “self-talk” has on how we feel (I was telling myself how horrible this would be and how I’d look like a complete idiot, so I don’t know why I was surprised when I got anxious). The hardest – but I reckon the most important – part of treatment was the practical stuff. We had pretend meetings and parties, we went out to shopping centres and had to talk to strangers, we had to give talks… all those things I hated. But the more I did – combined with the other stuff we learnt – the easier it got.

Now?  Well, I’m not exactly Mr Confident, but I’m a hell of a lot better and I don’t avoid things anymore. Sure, I still get anxious if I have to give a talk, but everyone does. I don’t put myself down. And I’ve met a girl… it’s early days, but we get on really well. I feel like my life is beginning to turn around.

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