Fear is a very normal part of the human experience; it helps us to avoid situations that may cause great harm or distress. There are times, however when this fear can become excessive, so much to the point that it prevents individuals from participating in normal everyday situations. These fears are known as Phobias.
Phobias can be defined as an overwhelming fear of an object or situation that poses small danger but invokes anxiety and avoidance. Psychology Encyclopedia, 2016) While there are many types of phobias, we will only focus on Social phobia or social anxiety disorder. Social Phobia, or Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as the fear of being judged by others and feeling embarrassed all the time. This feeling is stronger than the anxious feeling or fear that one may have at say meeting someone for the first time or giving a speech in a public setting.
In individuals that are not afflicted with Social Anxiety Disorder, this kind of anxiety will go away over time or can be compared with a brief bout of shyness, however, people that suffer with social phobia have an immense and sometimes debilitating fear of performing all sorts of tasks in the presence of others. The immense fear of being judged or feeling rejected by others is so strong that they will avoid participation in daily activities, doing things in front of others and/or going out in public and maintaining contact and relationships with others altogether. National Institute of Mental Health, 2010) Social anxiety disorder affects about a tenth of the American general population and can usually begin during the teen years, around the time when social acceptance from others is most crucial. It is known to be a condition that is more prevalent in women than men.
Although it is ranked as one of most known disorders, SAD mostly goes untreated and is known to be associated with other phobias or psychiatric disorders. (Schneier, et al. 2010) As more research is done to determine exact causes and best treatment plans for social phobias, psychologists have eluded to the theory that may relate some biochemical, genetic and environmental causes to the onset and development of social anxiety disorders. Researchers believe that an explanation for the onset and development of phobias, and specifically social anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of genetics or hereditary traits and/or societal triggers or some form of classical conditioning theory.
Studies have been done that examines and explains that the development of social anxiety disorders can be considered as learned or conditioned response. (Lissek et al. , 2008; Mineka, Oehlberg, 2008) Additionally, there is some suspect that a physical change or defect in the brain may also be a cause. There is also the theory that genetics may play a role in SAD, as the disorder is commonly found in people that are biologically related.
High stress levels and difficult life events may also contribute to SAD; however it does not confirm the notion that feelings of anxiety may occur from acute life changes. as the disorder relies on repetitive exposure to the stressor for it to become conditioned. The term, Classical Conditioning, a theory first experimented by Russian Psychologist Ivan Pavlov, is an automatic learning process by which a stimulus that did not previously cause a response now triggers a response after it is combined with a stimulus that already elicits a response.
Pavlov’s experiment explained how after a learning process, a neutral stimulant, such as a bell, is paired with an unconditioned stimulant, such as food, can evoke a conditional response of salivation in a dog, which would equate to the same unconditional response that would occur in the absence of the unconditional stimulus, food, alone. (Gluck, et al. 2014) Basically, the process of classical conditional is to bring about a response that would have or has already occurred but just with a different stimuli.
When classical conditioning is applied in the context of social anxiety disorders, the Unconditioned Stimulus, which is an embarrassing or judgmental experience, is paired with a Conditioned Stimulus, people or place, and produces the Conditioned Response which is fear or anxiety of feeling embarrassed or humiliated in a social setting or particular place, or being negatively judged by others or a particular person.
Studies have been performed to validate if an unconditioned stimulus such as humiliating experiences or insulting comments are causation for phobias such as Social Anxiety Disorder. Stressful or traumatic situations such as dealing with public humiliation or rejection from a friend or loved one, may lead to the onset of SAD. Individuals that are predisposed to SAD are found to have more sensitivity to the stressors in social situations and tend to more negative emotions and reactions as a result of defective thought process. Farmer, Kashdan, 2015)
Normally a person may not react to a stressful or traumatic social event and continue to engage in social activities, not linking their feelings of embarrassment to an person or place, and eventually dismiss the feeling entirely, while a person that is affected with SAD will tend to hold on to the feelings of humiliation and relate it to a specific event, place or person and have feelings of extreme anxiety even at the thought of being near that person, place or event.
Individuals that are affected with sad will use another learning theory that is called Avoidance or Aversive conditioning. This is a way of learning how to avoid or lessen the chance of dealing with or feeling the anxiety or embarrassment that would otherwise occur with participation. Individuals are reinforcing and strengthening the adverse response of the fear or anxiety and thereby maintaining and lengthening the disorder. (Gluck, et al. 2014) In the treatment phase of Social Anxiety Disorder, classical conditioning can be used as well.
As an option to or in conjunction with pharmacological treatment, Cognitive Behavioral therapy is recommended. The therapy helps the afflicted individual identify the self-destructive thoughts and stressors that may have contributed to their Social Anxiety Disorder. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps the individual to successfully gain social skills that will enable them to find enjoyment in attending and participating in social settings and activities without negative or adverse feelings.
Using the same Classical Conditioning theory that is explained in conjunction with the development of social anxiety disorder, the general assumption with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that the adverse learned stimulus can now be unlearned through the same process. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy involves two processes that may be used in conjunction or separately; Exposure therapy and Response Prevention.
Exposure therapy allows the afflicted patient to be exposure repetitively to the adverse conditioned stimulus as a way to desensitize them to the feelings of anxiety. (Meuret, Wolitzky-Taylor, Twohig, Craske, 2012) In this reversal process of classical conditioning theory, the Unconditioned Stimulus is now no embarrassing experience or humiliation, and the Conditioned Stimulus will still be the people or place, but the Conditioned Response will now be no feeling of embarrassment or humiliation.
The individual can now relate the person or place as not being a place to be feared or avoided. The study of Classical Conditioning theory when paired with Social Anxiety Disorder shows that there is a learning process that takes place and is applied to the development, maintenance and also the treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder. Understating this concept can help most individuals understand and work towards effectively dealing with a debilitating disorder.