A typical member of the Alpha Girl Club, Nikki*, 22, bears all the hallmarks of your modern over-achiever: a varsity graduate, full-time marketing executive and owner of an online boutique, she's currently looking to take on a graphic design course. Oh, and maybe dabble in floristry too. Articulate, chatty and fashionable, you'd never guess that she suffers from a debilitating social disorder.
"I've always been outgoing -one of those girls who did dancing, gymnastics and singing when I was younger, and I was always friends with everyone," she says. "But in high school 1 developed a fear of speaking in public that I just can't kick."
Affecting around two to three percent of people, regardless of race or social group, at some point during their lifetime, social phobia, or social anxiety, is the inability to endure certain situations - particularly public speaking, using the phone, eating and drinking in front of others, being watched or approaching authority figures - for fear of being judged by others. "I'll do pretty much anything to avoid standing in front of a crowd that's going to listen to what I'm going to say." says Nikki.
"As long as the focus isn't on me, or what I've done or organised, I don't feel anxious." Nikki's condition means she's been unable to secure her driver's licence due to nervousness, nearly failed a piano exam she was more than capable of passing and has given up on her childhood dream of singing. Not to mention, the tension that comes with planning events, which forms part of her marketing role and her business. "One day, before a sale for the boutique. I felt dizzy, I was blushing, sweating and had an overall feeling of panic," she says. "I was going crazy anticipating everyone coming through. I felt really anxious about what people would think." Reality check In the era of competitive reality TV shows, like America's Next Top Model, So You Think You Can Dance and Idols, judging others has become a form of entertainment.
But for the social phobic, the idea of being critiqued by strangers is as appealing as kissing Randall Abrahams. "It usually develops between the ages of 12 and 27," says Dr Adam Guastella, a senior clinical researcher at the Brain and Mind Research Institute in Sydney. "Between those ages, there's increasing demand for people to be more social and to be evaluated as individuals. We all experience some social anxiety - it's a normal human response - but when the fear starts to interfere with parts of the person's life, it's a problem." While Nikki was strategic in her avoidance of university presentations ("I'd actively keep track of my assessments, and if I was going well in a subject, and the presentation was only worth 10 percent, I'd just skip it"), Noni*, 28, an advertising copywriter, feels she's missed out on career opportunities because of her social phobia.
"A job came up for a more senior creative job, which involved going to photo shoots and presenting to key clients, but I felt like I wouldn't be able to do it," she says despondently. "I'm the girl who eats her lunch at her desk and avoids Friday night drinks, and I know that it has stopped me from advancing in the company. I love what I do but the industry's all about big personalities and standing out from the crowd - I'd rather blend in." Social anxiety can affect a person's ability to form new friendships or find partners, but it also puts a strain on the sufferer's current relationships: "I rarely go to my partner's work functions, which he hates," says Noni. So how do smart, driven young women like Nikki and Noni develop their fears? Social phobias can be inherited and learnt, with parental role modelling and early social experiences playing a major part. Raised by a mother who worked from home and had few friends, Noni can see where her compulsion to shut off may have come from. While being adopted, Nikki has no recollection of her biological parents but, like most young women, can remember in vivid detail some of the awkward high school experiences that contributed to her fear of being judged. "The 'Gossip Girls' at my all-female school were the typical clique - the pretty, popular girls," she recalls. "They'd pick on people and make snide comments.
After coming back from a school camp one year, I felt so crappy about my self-image that I made Mom take me shopping for a new wardrobe!" Ml. stage right Of course, controlling our outer image - hair, clothes, make-up - is easier than addressing what's going on inside. To that end, many social phobics will use alcohol or drugs to simply "get through" situations, while others will socialise selectively (with one group of friends) or avoid mingling altogether. "The problem with avoidance is that it doesn't give you the chance to learn that you actually can cope with that experience and see that it won't turn into a major disaster," says Dr Guastella. "I'd encourage people to go into situations they fear and not let their anxiety get the better of them." This is a sentiment echoed by US psychologist Susan Jeffers, whose bestseller, Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway (R133, Exclusive Books), encourages people to take responsibility for their emotions and reactions. "Our need to control the outcome of events keeps us petrified when we think about making a change or attempting a new challenge," she writes. "The knowledge that you can handle anything that comes your way is the key to allowing yourself to take healthy, life-affirming risks."
This may be easier said than done. The frustrating thing for social phobia sufferers is that they, for the most part, realise their fears are irrational - that the world is not going to end if they "um" and "ah" their way through a speech - though many won't admit they have a problem because they'll feel they've failed. Fighting the fear It's important that social phobics know they're not alone in their fears, but that seeking help should be a priority, as the problem won't go away. It's treatable but not curable. "People with social anxiety catastrophise: they believe that other people think very negatively of them. In some ways they believe they're worthless or not a good person," says Dr Guastella. "This can turn into depression, social isolation and financial and employment difficulties down the track, so it's really important people seek treatment as early as possible." Recent research by Dr Guastella and his team has found that a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and medication is the most effective treatment leading to overall wellbeing. Lifestyle changes (more exercise and healthier food to relieve anxiety and promote positive self-esteem) and taking small steps to get out of one's comfort zone can also have a positive effect. In typical Alpha-Girl style, this is something Nikki's already working on: "I've been meaning to look into Toastmasters..."