Michaela Jones contributes this week's guest blog exploring how social anxiety can act as a barrier to recovery. Michaela is Community Director for Wired into Recovery.
Glossophobia. Not a word that trips off the tongue is it? But in many ways it should. From the Greek glōssa meaning tongue and phobos meaning dread it is something that will effect three out of four of us at some time in our lives. As such it is one of the most common phobias.
Often described as a fear of public speaking (and in its more debilitating forms social phobia or social anxiety) I prefer to think of it as the fear of speaking in public. Research shows that many of us would rather die (!) than speak in front of a live audience and for years glossophobia has featured in the global top ten, often sneaking in ahead of fear of death, the dark and spiders.
All very interesting I am sure, but what has this got to do with recovery? Well quite a lot to be honest. In a study by Book, Thomas, Dempsey, Randall and Randall in 2009, the authors bemoan the fact that (at that time) no study had assessed the impact of shyness on the treatment experience. A gap in the market methinks? But one that leaves me feeling uncomfortable as social anxiety was a key factor in my own alcoholism, and in the addiction careers of many others.
As Book et al say, “....it would seem to make intuitive sense that social anxiety could present a challenge in addiction treatment settings, which often involve small groups and encouragement to participate in self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous ( NA).”
Controlling for factors such as depression and worry they found that “....social anxiety was a unique predictor of endorsement that shyness interfered with willingness to talk to a therapist, speak up in group therapy, attend AA/NA, and ask somebody to be a sponsor.” In fact socially anxious substance misusers were 4-8 times more likely to endorse that shyness interfered with addiction treatment activities.
They go on to say that, “These findings have clinical and research implications.”
Indeed they do. And those clinical and research implications are for wiser heads than mine - although I could suggest a few pointers! - but I feel qualified to at least comment (in recovery terms) as someone who has intimate knowledge of how ‘tongue fear’ can get in the way of accessing the very support we need.
“I can’t, but we can” has rightly become one of the mantras of the growing UK Recovery Movement. But getting from the “I” to the “we” doesn’t happen by magic. Addiction is by its very nature a path that leads to isolation and introversion. The path out of this to participation and engagement is much more than a hop, skip and a jump to the other side. Imagine, if you will, walking into a party where you don’t know anyone, people appear to be speaking a language you don’t quite understand and are so much better dressed than you are. ‘Nuff said.
As with all things in recovery (and in life) there is no one answer, but an awareness amongst treatment professionals and peer supporters that an unwillingness to participate in groups may be down to more than sheer bloody mindedness would help. And I am sorry to say that, “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, is not necessarily a healthy way of dealing with phobia. Any arachnophobics out there feel like entering a room full of spiders? Thought not.
Of course, fear of speaking in public is only one barrier to getting connected, but that is another ten blogs at least. However, Virtual Recovery Communities do provide a means of engaging with others at a time, place (and pace!) and with a level of disclosure that suits the individual. This is social networking with a purpose. On-line communities provide an environment in which people can learn from each other and provide mutually beneficial support, access role models that show recovery from addiction is possible and illustrate the multitude of pathways to recovery. They provide a means for individuals to share their own experiences and perspectives and to draw on the value of lived experience. Ultimately they may represent the missing link, a gateway to recovery for the many of us who, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, find walking into a group environment an initial step too far.
Wired In is one such community. With over 3,000 members it is made up of people in active addiction, people on maintenance, people in recovery, recovery communities, treatment professionals and family members. There are people from all recovery pathways: The Fellowships, SMART Recovery, natural recovery, faith based, buddhists, peer support, sponsorship, maintenance, mindfulness and my own personal favourite - pic ‘n’ mix (drawing on different traditions and approaches to create your own, personal recovery pathway). There are people from all age groups, all ‘types’ of substance addiction, all parts of the country, different ethnic backgrounds, different social groups....As one regular blogger describes it, “It is a community of people from all walks of life with a common goal. Recovery. For me, it simply helps” - Tony, Chorley.
This blog article is not intended to be a plug for Wired In to Recovery. I am a great believer in horses for courses and virtual recovery is not an answer in itself. But virtual communities, moderated and managed well (just like any group), can provide a bridge, a means of connecting, for those (like myself) who in early recovery found it next to impossible to share their inner thoughts and feelings with people face to face.
The views expressed here are those of the author.