Anxiety is a psychological state characterized by cognitive, somatic, emotional, and behavioral components. These components combine to create an unpleasant feeling that is typically associated with uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry. Anxiety is a generalized mood condition that can often occur without an identifiable triggering stimulus. As such, it is distinguished from fear, which occurs in the presence of an observed threat. Additionally, fear is related to the specific behaviors of escape and avoidance, whereas anxiety is the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable.
The most important clinical point to emerge from studies of social anxiety disorder is the benefit of early diagnosis and treatment. Social anxiety disorder remains under-recognized in primary care practice, with patients often presenting for treatment only after the onset of complications such as clinical depression or substance abuse disorders.
Treatment options available include lifestyle changes; psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy; and pharmaceutical therapy. Education, reassurance and some form of cognitive-behavioral therapy should almost always be used in treatment. Research has provided evidence for the efficacy of two forms of treatment available for social phobia: certain medications and a specific form of short-term psychotherapy called Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the central component being gradual exposure therapy.
Research has shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be highly effective for several anxiety disorders, particularly panic disorder and social phobia. CBT, as its name suggests, has two main components, cognitive and behavioral. In cases of social anxiety, the cognitive component can help the patient question how they can be so sure that others are continually watching and harshly judging him or her. The behavioral component seeks to change people’s reactions to anxiety-provoking situations.
As such it serves as a logical extension of cognitive therapy, whereby people are shown proof in the real world that their dysfunctional thought processes are unrealistic. A key element of this component is gradual exposure, in which the patient is confronted by the things they fear in a structured, sensitive manner. Gradual exposure is an inherently unpleasant technique; ideally it involves exposure to a feared social situation that is anxiety provoking but bearable, for as long as possible, two to three times a week. Often, a hierarchy of feared steps is constructed and the patient is exposed to each step sequentially.
When medication is indicated SSRIs, such as fluoxetine, sertraline, paroxetine and escitalopram are generally recommended as first line agents. SNRIs such as venlafaxine are also effective. Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam, clonazepam (Klonopin) and diazepam are also sometimes indicated for short-term. They are usually considered as a second line treatment due to disadvantages such as cognitive impairment and due to their risks of dependence and withdrawal problems. These medications need to be used with extreme care among older adults, who are more likely to suffer side effects because of coexisting physical disorders. Adherence problems are more likely among elderly patients, who may have difficulty understanding, seeing, or remembering instructions.