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This page uploaded 31 July 2009
By Catherine Madigan

Social phobia is a largely misunderstood condition that affects one in 10 people. Here is one sufferer's terrifying story.
Prisoner Of My Own Mind
The thought of speaking to others is a terrifying ordeal that sets 34-year-old Jennifer's heart and mind racing. She's one of many Australians who suffer from social phobia.

'At school I never put up my hand to answer questions because I didn't want to draw attention to myself, and I dreaded standing at the front of the class having to do show and tell. I'd forget what I wanted to say and I'd start to stutter.

I remember having to read a story aloud to the rest of my class when I was nine. I read very softly because I was so self-conscious, but the teacher told me to speak up. Then I spoke so much louder that she thought I was being smart and told me off, but I was just so nervous that I was completely unaware of my voice.

At uni I chose subjects that didn't involve oral presentations. I wanted to do media studies and journalism, but I didn't think I'd be articulate enough or that my ideas were worth expressing, so I missed out on a career I would have enjoyed doing.

I've always worried about getting things wrong, and then wondering what people will think of me. My family is quite reserved and never drew attention to themselves, so I grew up that way.

I hated parties and didn't go to clubs until I was 23. But I danced with my eyes closed because I didn't want to engage with anyone. Most of the time I enjoyed my own company, listened to music and had a couple of close friends.

After leaving uni I had my first child, Fiona. During pregnancy my biggest fear wasn't that I'd not be able to cope with a child, but how I'd cope organising the parties. I knew mums and kids would come to her parties and look at me to know what was happening, and of all things during pregnancy I dreaded that most.

I didn't have a first birthday party for Fiona, but when she turned two I invited her playgroup friends and their mums to our house. The morning of the party I was nervous and short of breath.

I had palpitations, and my face ached because I was so tense. I organised food and party games, but I couldn't enjoy the day because I was so nervous and scared.

A few years ago I finally went to see a psychologist who specialises in treating social phobia, who taught me to role play situations I find stressful. She helped me rehearse what to say in a situation, and taught me to challenge all my negative thoughts, things like: "Nobody is going to be interested in what I have to say."

Now I remind myself that just because I feel a certain way, doesn't mean that's the way things actually are.

Recently I arrived at a work function and discovered that I had to meet guests as they arrived. I felt hot and flushed, a bit sick in the stomach and I had a lump in my throat, but I gradually slowed down my breathing, relaxed my muscles and took the evening step by step, and I survived.

Now I have learnt how to meet new people, and I finally feel anticipation and excitement rather than dread and fear.'

Printed in New Idea magazine, May 31, 2000. Reprinted with permission.

Social Phobia - The Facts
Around 1 in 10 people are affected by social phobia in their lives. About 30 per cent of people with social phobia have a genetic predisposition, ie, are born sensitive.

Other people grow up in critical and demanding families and develop low self-esteem and a lack of confidence, says Melbourne psychologist Catherine Madigan.

Social Phobia includes a fear of public speaking, of talking on the phone, of eating in front of people, of interviews or dating, of meeting people or starting conversation.

'In around 40 per cent of cases social phobia develops before the age of 10, and 95 per cent of cases have started before the age of 20,' Catherine says.

'It won't just go away. Many people spend their life avoiding situations they fear, but they miss out on relationships, job opportunities and making friends.'

The symptoms of social phobia include a fear of being judged, worrying about being embarrassed in public, avoiding social situations or facing those situations and being extremely stressed.

Physical symptoms can include heart palpitations, hot and cold flushes, blushing, trembling and muscle tension.

Catherine teaches clients to challenge and question their negative thinking patterns. And she says meditation, deep breathing and relaxation can also help.

For information about social phobia call Catherine Madigan on (03) 9819 3671.

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