Social anxiety - another form of SAD

SAD has become well known as the shorthand for Seasonal Affective Disorder, that cloak of despondency and gloom which can descend as autumn gives way to winter and the dark nights close in. For some people this is part of the normal rhythm of life to be accepted. For others it can be a very debilitating period. The condition is now fortunately widely recognised and acknowledged which has encouraged many of those affected to seek support by a variety of methods including effective counselling and therapy.

There is another form of SAD which is also particularly prevalent over the recent Christmas and New Year period and can be extremely distressing for sufferers. This SAD is known as Social Anxiety Disorder. This condition can vary in intensity. It can range from a feeling of slight unease at the prospect of attending a social encounter perhaps at work or with friends through to what for some, is a sense of absolute dread at having to attend a forthcoming party or function.

The recent holiday period and in particular the New Year celebrations, can be viewed by many as a great time to escape from the routines of life. It is an opportunity to relax, have fun and of course to over indulge. For those however who suffer from this form of SAD, the reality during the Christmas and the New Year festivities can be very different. The invitations to gatherings or parties even within the family circle or with close friends, can herald a period of disquiet and unease which persists right up to the time of the event.

As with many emotional concerns, views may vary as to the real nature of this complaint. Is this form of SAD just a natural reaction to being placed in a situation which may be a little awkward? Is it really so inappropriate to want to avoid attending a noisy crowded event. What is so wrong in wanting to find a way of not having to mix with people one might actually prefer to avoid in any setting?

Is this type of social anxiety an emotional condition that requires remedial action or is it just a basic consequence of living in a society which sees social interaction as an expected norm of behaviour? Is the sense of unease which occasionally comes from having to be a social animal, something that we should just expect and learn to tolerate?

If we go to social gatherings there will hopefully be some people whose company we enjoy and with whom we feel comfortable. With others we may be less sure. We may feel that we are being judged or even threatened especially if there seems to be unwanted attention.

If these difficult situations do arise, some will argue, that this surely just calls for improved social skills and the development of more effective ways of interacting with people. These competences can be gained through training and coaching rather than pointing to a need for a counselling or therapeutic intervention.

These are sensible arguments but perhaps the important factor is the degree of that unease and the resulting strategies that individuals feel forced to adopt. If the thought of the office party threatens to bring on a panic attack and results in an intolerable and persistent feeling of dread then perhaps some remedial action can be justified. If an immediate personal strategy at this time of year when invitations arrive, is to just refuse all form of social interaction and to hide away then perhaps there is a case for looking for some form of therapeutic support.

The causes of SAD can be many fold. Some therapists will be quick to look back to early years. The child from a large gregarious family may be more comfortable in groups than the only child brought up in social isolation. Conversely it may be that the young person from the large family group may have felt that they were ignored and not heard at home and as a result still carry those feelings with them into adulthood. As is always the case, there is will be individual stories to be told and personal narratives to be worked through.

What is clear however is that these invitations which trigger this condition will reappear on a regular basis and particularly around the end of the year? Those who endure this form of SAD face having to continually deal with two difficult challenges.

The first is having to wrestle with the decision on whether to attend or not – knowing that a decision not to attend may well invoke feelings of guilt at letting people down, resentment at having been put in an impossible situation or even a sense of internal anger at missing out on something which others are able to enjoy. The second challenge comes if the invitation is accepted when a resultant feeling of dread is carried around for weeks before being taken into the actual event.

Those are difficult challenges to live with but there are options. Counsellors and therapists can help individuals work through this condition. Techniques from basic CBT work to Solution Focussed Therapy can help sufferers to deal with the immediate symptoms. Deeper therapy perhaps from a psychodynamic perspective may help the client understand why the condition has such a hold upon them. That enhanced self-awareness may then empower the client to begin a process of resolving the issue.

Whatever the cause and however intense the condition, support can be found. We have recognised that the initial SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder is now accepted as a mainstream condition. It is as common as the flu virus and many people are now willing to seek openly help whether that is therapy or the sun ray lamp.

Perhaps the acknowledgement that this second form of SAD, this Social Anxiety Disorder is something which also affects many people may now encourage suffers to come forward and engage with the world of therapy.

We cannot do anything about the challenges which occurred last year but there is another opportunity ahead. Clients and counsellors can work together to ensure that later this year when those invitations reappear, 2015 can be a less threatening and a far more social and enjoyable year!

Geoff Boutle

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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