April 10 -- WEDNESDAY, April 9 (HealthDay News) -- Social anxiety disorder prevents some 15 million Americans from leading normal social and romantic lives, a new survey finds.
The disorder leaves many isolated, ashamed and often misdiagnosed. Thirty-six percent of those with social anxiety disorder have symptoms for 10 years or more before seeking help, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America reports.
"Social anxiety disorder is when somebody has an intense, persistent and irrational fear of social or performance situations," Jerilyn Ross, the association's president and CEO, said during a teleconference Wednesday.
"The condition causes people to avoid common, everyday situations and even other people for fear of being judged or criticized or humiliated or embarrassing themselves," Ross said.
Social anxiety disorder can interfere with daily routines and job performance, Ross noted. "It also makes it very difficult for people to develop friends and romantic partnerships," she said.
People with this disorder recognize their fear is excessive and irrational, Ross noted. "But they feel powerless to do anything about it," she said.
Social anxiety disorder can start in the early teens, Dr. Mark H. Pollack, director of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said during the teleconference.
"This is a disorder that starts affecting people early on," Pollack said. "The typical age of onset is early adolescence, age 12 or 13, and many individuals report a history of anxiety dating back to earlier childhood."
The disorder also has physical symptoms, including heart palpitations, feelings that their throat will close up, sweating, blushing, faintness, trembling and stammering, Ross said.
In the survey, pollsters questioned 578 people with anxiety, 276 people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 287 people with social anxiety disorder.
Among people with the disorder, 75 percent said the condition affected their ability to do normal activities. In addition, 69 percent said they didn't want people to think they were crazy, and 58 percent said they were embarrassed by their condition, Ross said.
However, when the condition is diagnosed and treated, many reported improvement in their lives. In fact, 59 percent who were receiving treatment said treatment had a positive effect on their ability to have a romantic relationship. In addition, 39 percent who had received treatment said knowing that treatment can be successful aided their decision to get help, Ross noted.
The disorder can be effectively treated. Among the techniques that have been successful is cognitive behavior therapy, which helps people get a sense of control over their lives, Ross said.
In addition, relaxation techniques and medications have also been effective. Combination therapy that includes behavior therapy and medications has also been effective. Commonly prescribed medications include various types of antidepressants.
Among other key survey findings were:
For more about social anxiety disorder, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.
SOURCES: April 9, 2008, teleconference with: Jerilyn Ross, president and CEO, Anxiety Disorders Association of America; Mark H. Pollack, M.D., director, Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders, and professor, psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston