The familiar story goes like this: Because Moses burned his mouth as a child (an act which actually saved his life), he ended up with a slight lisp. In later years when his destiny to confront the king of Egypt was revealed to him by the Almighty, Moses asked, “Why me? I cannot speak well.” And yet Moses overcame his fear of speech and made some of the most famous remarks not only to Pharaoh himself but to thousands of ancient Hebrews who he supported and inspired by his words.
Moses, it appears, suffered from social anxietya form of extreme shyness that involves trouble dealing with people in public situations such as at work, school and in social circumstances. Like many people today, Moses may have thought he was the only one in the world who suffered the sweating, heart-pounding dread at the thought of speaking in public. But, for sure, he wasn’t. In the modern world national surveys indicate that one in eight Americans suffer from clinical social anxiety. While more women suffer from the disorder, according to Erica Goode writing for The New York Times, “men are more likely to seek treatment, perhaps because society deems extreme shyness in males less acceptable than in females.”
The severity of the disorder varies. Some people are just very uncomfortable at parties and the idea of making small talk to people they don’t know. Others are so handicapped by the fear of speaking that they it affects their daily lives. They may take on lonely, isolated jobs just to avoid interacting with people. They may even be terrified of answering the phone.
What’s the cause? Some degree of social anxiety is normal and necessary, says Dr. Michael Liebowtiz, a psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York. But clinically diagnosed cases seem to be show some genetic basis, according to researchers. Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University psychiatrist, showed that a good number infants and very young children classified as extremely shy go on to develop social anxiety as adults. There is also some biological evidence for the condition. Finnish researchers have found, according to New York Times writer Erica Goode, “that patients diagnosed with social phobia showed abnormalities in the brain’s dopamine system in comparison to normal subjects.”
Get Over It
If it’s gotten to the point where your very life is ruined by your shyness or fear of speaking in public (even asking for an item in the store), then it’s time to consider seeking help. Here’s what’s available to you:
Unavailable to Moses, there are now several medications that help correct the brain’s chemical system involved in this disorder. These include antidepressants that restore normal dopamine levels. Other antidepressants, like Paxil, modify serotonin, another brain chemical involved in mood and well-being.
This is a form of therapy in which you are helped to overcome your negative thoughts about speaking and are then encouraged to slowly try new behaviors. It takes courage, a lot of work and patience to do this, but the results are highly successful, especially if combined with medication.
There are various support groups and public speaking seminars designed to help you overcome your fears. Again, just attending them will not do the trick; you receive assignmentsnot just sympathyand it only works you if you work at overcoming your fear of talking to people.
Moses succeeded in overcoming his shyness because he had the backing of the Almighty, who assured him that He would be there for him and would give him the words he needed. But Moses did more on his own than he realized. It may have been God’s words, but Moses forced them to come out of his mouth. And that’s the key to overcoming social phobia and anxiety. Regardless of therapy, medication or group meetings, you have to have the will power to do it. Chances are, you do.
Why not practice at this year’s Seder? Happy Holiday.
Ilene Springer wrote this article for the on-line magazine Jewish Family & Life!-ww.jewishfamily.com