Dec. 14, 2007

Tough Love For Holiday Anxiety

SMU psychology professor Jasper Smitsí message for people with social anxiety sounds like tough love, especially during the holiday season.

ďAct normally, even if you donít feel normal,Ē Smits says. Avoiding parties or family functions tends to feed anxiety. But gradually approaching those heart-thumping social situations, after taking a look at whether your usual behaviors and responses are helpful or even realistic, will actually help reduce the fear you feel.

This is tried and true cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which includes exercises such as keeping a diary of events and how you feel about them, questioning and testing assumptions about certain situations, and even ďtrying onĒ new responses and behaviors.

Smits has a short list of holiday survival tips for people with social anxiety.

  • Bring someone with you who understands your uneasiness.  Itís a bit of a crutch, but OK if it leads to attending social events on your own.
  • Go to the party.  Imagine you are not anxious. What would you do if you felt no fear? Thatís the behavior you want to imitate.
  • Believe that you are not the center of attention. People suffering from social anxiety often have the mistaken perception that people will notice their every move.
  • Avoid crutches, if possible. Carrying a drink you donít sip or practicing breath control may get you through in the short term, but when next December rolls around, youíll still be anxious.
  • Set time limits.  Tell yourself, ďI can stand this if itís only for 90 minutes.Ē If you set a goal, and meet it, you will feel good about what you accomplished.
  • Pick a few important events and attend those. Itís not necessary to accept every invitation.
  • Donít be too hard on yourself!  You will probably do much better than you expect and, if you donít -- itís not the end of the world.

It sounds rough, Smits concedes, but gradual exposure to uncomfortable social situations will change the way you think about them. Fear is a learned response, and psychologists find that the brainís response to social situations can be altered by repeated exposure.

ďBe courageous,Ē Smits says. ďI know you feel like leaving and your heart is pounding. Stay with it even though you fear it. Over the course of 10-20 minutes, youíll feel better. Then youíll feel great the next day, remembering what you did.Ē

Smits is beginning an important National Institutes of Mental Health study investigating the use of long-time tuberculosis drug D-cycloserine to augment CBT for social anxiety. Fifty to 75 percent of people with the disorder respond favorably to either CBT or traditional anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication.  But since D-cycloserine has been shown to help people better remember what is learned during therapy, Smits and his research partners at Boston University and Massachusetts General Hospital believe that combining D-cycloserine with cognitive behavioral therapy could significantly raise the success rate for treating social anxiety with CBT. Thatís big news, since one of every seven people suffers the intense fear of social situations and public speaking that characterizes anxiety disorder.

# # #


Media Contact:
Kim Cobb
tele. 214-768-7650