Surgery offers hope for social phobia sufferers

In the weeks before Christmas many of us will find ourselves standing in a room full of people, drinks in hand, chatting away, and enjoying the buzz in the room.

While most of us feel a quiver of nervousness before entering a room full of strangers, or even friends, the anxiety levels usually drop in line with the alcohol imbibed. But some people never get beyond the threshold, suffering panic attacks, and generally avoiding all manner of social gatherings.

The festive season can be the most stressful time of the year for people suffering from social phobia. But if psychotherapy and medicine does not help, there is a new option: surgically blocking certain nerves in the spine.

According to the Finnish psychiatrist who developed the technique, Päivi Pohjavaara, there is a clear improvement in many cases.

“The majority, around eighty per cent, of patients had at least some benefit from the blocking,” she told TT. “Some of them were greatly helped.”

The procedure, called endoscopic sympathetic block (ESB), involves attaching metal clamps to certain nerves. It is carried out through keyhole surgery and under general anaesthetic.

According to the Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Association, social anxiety is the third largest psychological challenge in the world today.

This “blockage of the stress nerve” showed great long term improvement in people who had not found traditional psychotherapeutic or behavioural treatment helpful. Pohjavaara’s evaluation covered people with treatment-resistant social phobia who underwent this surgical procedure between 1995-2000.

Päivi Pohjavaara drew on her own experience of speaking in public when explaining why she wanted to study it more closely: “I naturally also knew from personal experience what it meant to be afraid of speaking in public.”

“But I had not really understood what it could be like if the social fears were so huge that you would have to skip school or isolate yourself in your home completely,” she added.

Sources:, Göteborgs Posten (TT)

Lysanne Sizoo

Lysanne Sizoo is a certified Counsellor, specialising in bereavement, fertility and cultural assimilation issues. She also runs a support and discussion group for English speaking women. You can contact her on [email protected], or 08 717 3769. More information on