Human interaction in social situations changes according to the venue, and the problems each individual might be facing. Unfortunately, some psychological problems can interfere with the way a person behaves in public and how they interact with others, therefore, in some situations, allowances for a departure from normal behavior might be necessary.
For Alex, going to a party can be a traumatic experience. Although friends surround her, Alex begins to feel anxious and nauseated just moments after arriving. She tries to steady her hand as she holds her drink, but efforts are futile, and she excuses herself and heads to the bathroom. Alex suffers from Panic Disorder, and even when people who are aware of her invisible illness surround her, it is hard for Alex to shake the old feelings she has always experienced when she makes an effort to be part of a crowd. Alex knows that in a few moments she will feel better and wishes to resume the conversation with her friends outside, but she is concerned that she will need to excuse herself again if she becomes dizzy or has palpitations.
Alex’s most dire concern is that she will lose control and pass out in the company of friends, and she will feel so embarrassed that she’ll swear off going to a party ever again. Alex knows this is unlikely to happen, but her thoughts seem to be running away with her physical responses, despite having been in therapy for several months to “unlearn” her behaviors and learn new, behaviors that are normal in social situations. Unfortunately for Alex, she is still learning, and tries to use her newly acquired coping techniques to get past the worst of what is happening right now.
Alex is distraught and angry, and wonders if she can ever regain control of herself and rid herself of her patterned, irrational thinking. She went to a funeral a few weeks ago where there were hundreds of people, and nothing happened at all. She gives this some thought for a few moments, and decides it is likely that peoples’ thoughts were so diverted to the family of the deceased, that they barely noticed her anyway. Maybe if she keeps her mind on how she felt at the funeral, she will be able to stay focused long enough to realize that everyone is not looking at her now either. Alex returns to the party, and slowly but surely, begins to relax and enjoy herself.
Alex’s problem is common. Panic Disorder is not a visible illness and many people are unaware of the precursors and consequences of feeling as Alex does during a panic attack. Her disorder, said her behavioral therapist, was a learned response that Alex had developed after being humiliated in her school play during high school. She had tripped over on stage and thought she would die from embarrassment. Now, every time Alex finds herself in a crowded social situation, her thoughts return to that dreaded evening in her teen years, and Alex finds herself reacting mentally and physiologically, and has trouble regaining her composure. Meanwhile back in the ballroom where the party is being held, Alex’s cousin is having problems of her own.
Sandra, Alex’s cousin is a recovering alcoholic. She has attended AA meeting in the past, and swore they were of no value. Sandra might have seen some value had she been ready to admit she had a drinking problem, but she abruptly stopped going to the meetings. In recent months, however, Sandra had seen a remarkable improvement with Alex and her panic attacks, and decided to attend an appointment with her to check out the environment and the people in it. After a couple of appointments she felt confident that she too, could be helped and Alex’s therapist arranged for her to see a counselor.
Sandra had been doing exceptionally well since she started seeing her new counselor. She was glad because her experience in a group situation had been less than effective, so she decided that must have been the problem. However, this was her first big night out since her therapy began, and she was so afraid of succumbing to the constant offers of alcohol that she got flustered and lost track of the conversations of which she had been an active part until a few moments ago. Sandra leaves the party and heads for the restroom, disgusted with herself for feeling tempted, and wondering what would have happened if she had taken a drink before Alex came back to the party. How could she possibly support Alex if she gave in and let her addiction regain control?
Social Facilitation and Conformity
Social facilitation is a problem for anyone who has an addiction to alcohol. Conforming to the social norms that apply to people without addiction problems, and taking a drink would be easy for Sandra at any other party, but she knows everyone at this particular venue and she would only disgrace herself in front of them if she gave in and ordered a martini. Even worse, she would be disgusted with herself later, and she knows that just one drink would be a monumental setback for her from a therapeutic perspective. She does not want to feel like that about herself, so she stays close to Alex. Together they enjoy the rest of their evening and return home safe, sober and sound.
Sandra has been reading loads of material her therapist has given her over recent months, and was intrigued by the concept of social loafing. She feels that this phenomenon applied to her at the party this evening, and she is concerned that going anywhere without Alex in future, and not being able to “socially loaf” might be her downfall. Social loafing refers to the way people behave in a group – the way each relies on the other to carry most of the load of conversation or action. However, according to Kowalski and Westen (2009), “the more people involved in a task, the harder it is to coordinate efforts—to say nothing of the fact that people in a group frequently rely on others to pick up the slack for them”. She explains her concerns to her therapist at their next appointment, and is reassured that over time, the feeling of being so dependent on Alex will dissipate as she becomes more self-confident and empowered to take control of her own life. He tells her that as she is physically and mentally much healthier now, she will be able to resist the temptation to drink alcohol as a means to escape stress or boredom. He also tells her that in time, the need to lean on someone else will not enter her thoughts, and he is proud that she recognized that social loafing is a dysfunctional behavior to acquire anyway.
Sandra’s therapist goes on to suggest getting a full-time job. This is something that Sandra is now excited about, rather than feeling nervous that she will get drunk one night and not show up for work the next day. She has lost several jobs over the years because she was feeling weak, but now that has all changed. Sandra is becoming stronger and more powerful every day, and she is happy to see that Alex is finally regaining control her of her life too.
When a person has a psychological disorder, they may or may not behave the same as other people do in social situations. Knowing about the person’s problem can be helpful to them, but it is important to accommodate their behaviors in a way that is beneficial to them, and not offer pity. Although a comforting pat on the shoulder can be a friendly gesture to some people, others may see it as patronizing and feel angry or ashamed. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to mental illness has everything to do with how a person feels when it is common knowledge they have been affected by a psychological disorder. Circumstances are not always identical, however, and a warm greeting and casual conversation can reinforce any display of confident behavior in a person who is usually ill at ease in a social situation. People with psychological problems welcome such interaction. It is also a great facilitator for future, appropriate behaviors and the feeling of well-being for someone in a situation that has been a constant source of discomfort and stress in the past.
Kowalski, R., Westen, D. (2005). Psychology (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.