Martha Langley on social phobias

SOCIAL phobia is one of the most common forms of anxiety disorder. It's not the same as being shy and it isn't just about social situations. It can affect every aspect of life including things most of us do without thinking, such as making a phone call or popping out for a newspaper. Someone with social phobia may avoid all interactions with other people, or may only have certain situations they can't face.

They may, for instance, be able to cope at work every day, but be quite unable to go to the office Christmas party. Other people become virtually housebound as they can't deal with any contact with other people.


I used to do a big family shop every Friday but since I had a miscarriage I can't face the crowds and the queue at the checkout. I get my husband to do it at the weekend but he says it spoils his time off. What can I do?

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Forget the supermarket for now. Rebuild your confidence by visiting smaller shops at quieter times. Keep repeating the experience until you feel comfortable, then move on to something more challenging – choosing a more crowded shop, or stay in there longer. When you are ready to face the supermarket again, choose a quiet time and don't stay too long. Repeat this until you're comfortable and gradually build it up until you're able to shop like you used to.


I've always hated formal occasions and usually find a way to get out of them – luckily I work shifts so that gives me a get out. But my sister is getting married and wants me there. What can you suggest?

It can help to work out what it is about formal occasions you dislike so much. Is it getting dressed up? Is it being trapped somewhere until the ceremony is over? Or is it the feeling of being on display? Probably the most common worry is feeling trapped, and there are plenty of places to get used to that – in theatres and cinemas, on public transport, in church and such like.

You can use the same idea as I mentioned in the previous answers – gradually build up your ability to tolerate the thing you dislike. Take it in small steps, keep repeating each one till you feel comfortable, and you'll be surprised how far you get. It'll feel wonderful to be there for your sister's special day, so go for it.


I've always been a bit shy but recently it's got much worse, and I can't face social events unless I have a little drink first. I never drink at work or if I'm driving, but the thought of walking into a party or club is too much. Is this a problem?

The bad news is it's never OK to use alcohol like this and the good news is you can do something about it.

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Your first step should be to work out a programme that allows you to slowly get used to social situations. Instead of parties and clubs, try other things that don't bother you so much – cafes, restaurants, the gym. Start small, with less crowded places that aren't so intimidating, and gradually build up your confidence.

While you're doing this, it's best not to drink at all, so you can be sure you aren't creating an alcohol problem for yourself. Later on, when you've got your confidence, you can return to social drinking.

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Martha Langley is a writer and volunteer with various mental health charities. She is the co-author of Free Yourself from Anxiety, available from Amazon and other bookshops. Anxiety charity First Steps To Freedom is open every day from 10am to 10pm, call 0845 120 2916

• This article was first published in The Scotland on Sunday, April 18, 2010