The most effective treatment for social anxiety disorder doesn’t involve medication
Reading Time: 2 minutes
Cognitive therapy on its own is more effective long-term than just drugs or drugs and therapy combined for treating social anxiety disorder, according to a new study.
Social anxiety disorder – or social phobia – is a diagnosis for people who find it hard to function socially, owing to high social anxiety.
Nearly 12% of the population will experience social anxiety disorder during their lifetime.
Until now, the most effective treatment for social anxiety disorder was considered to be a combination of cognitive therapy (aka cognitive behaviour therapy) and medication.
The study compared the most recognized methods for treating social anxiety disorders.
Study participants were put into four groups:
- The first group received only medication;
- The second group received only therapy;
- The third group received a combination of the two, and
- The fourth received a placebo pill.
The study compared the outcomes for the four groups.
A follow-up assessment was also conducted one year after treatment ended.
Lead researcher, Hans M. Nordahl, professor of behavioural medicine at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) said:
This is one of the best studies on social anxiety disorders ever.
It’s taken ten years to carry out and has been challenging both academically and in terms of logistics, but the result is really encouraging.
The study found nearly 85 per cent of the cognitive therapy only group significantly improved or became completely healthy using only cognitive therapy.
This is around 20-25% better than typical results for social anxiety sufferers.
We’ve set a new world record in effectively treating social anxiety disorders.
This is the most effective treatment ever for this patient group.
Treatment of mental illness often isn’t as effective as treating a bone fracture, but here we’ve shown that treatment of psychiatric disorders can be equally effective.
The study actually found the participants in the therapy only and therapy + medication groups were doing equally well during and right after treatment.
But after a year, those who had received cognitive therapy only were doing the best.
Patients often rely more on the medication and don’t place as much importance on therapy.
They think it’s the drugs that will make them healthier, and they become dependent on something external rather than learning to regulate themselves.
So the medication camouflages a very important patient discovery: that by learning effective techniques, they have the ability to handle their anxiety themselves.
In fact, sometimes medication is unhelpful for social anxiety patients.
Nordahl pointed out:
A lot of doctors and hospitals combine medications – like the famous “happy pill” – with talk therapy when they treat this patient group.
It works well in patients with depressive disorders, but it actually has the opposite effect in individuals with social anxiety disorders.
Not many health care professionals are aware of this.
“Happy pills” like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may have strong physical side effects.
When patients have been on medications for some time and want to reduce them, the bodily feelings associated with social phobia, like shivering, flushing and dizziness in social situations tend to return.
Patients often end up in a state of acute social anxiety again.
The study was published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics (Nordahl et. al., 2016)
Image credit: medicaldaily