Few people truly love public speaking. So when you have to give a big presentation to your boss and a room full of your peers, it’s normal to feel nervous, get a little sweaty and rejoice once the presentation is over. Yet for some, the idea of public speaking evokes such fear that it’s debilitating and renders them unable to participate. That kind of anxiety may be considered a social phobia.

 According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 5.3 million Americans suffer from a social phobia, an overwhelming anxiety and self-consciousness in social settings. WebMD defines phobia as “a lasting and unreasonable fear caused by the presence or thought of a specific object or situation that usually poses little or no actual danger.”

A phobia can be considered a disability if it limits a major life activity, says Scott Barer, a labor and employment law attorney. “For example, if the phobia rises to the level of, or causes, a mental disorder that limits a major life activity, then the phobia could be considered a disability,” he says. “In that situation, the employee has rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and likely under similar state laws.”

 Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of “A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness,” shares three tips for working to overcome a phobia:

 * Address your stress: Phobias become stronger when overall stress levels are high. So take steps to reduce stress, such as meditation, exercise or deep breathing.

* Distraction: What you focus on gets bigger, so, for example, rather than focusing on your fear that the plane will crash, distract yourself by having a few good movies and magazines available to keep your mind on something else. The topic should be light, not stressful.

* Exposure: Ironically, avoiding your fear makes it stronger. A technique called systematic desensitization causes you to couple your fear with relaxation techniques. So, just like how Pavlov’s dog salivated at the sound of the bell, people’s bodies will relax, or at least not be so tense, when they are exposed to their phobia.

Additional source: Debra Auerbach, a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

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