A Look at Isaac Marks' Work on Social Phobia

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For some people the idea of social situations can lead to fear and anxiety. This is not just mere shyness, but an overpowering anxiety and extreme self-consciousness that can cause avoidance of the situation. In the 1960s and 70s Isaac Marks’ work on social phobia showed that it was clinically different from other phobias.

Who is Isaac Marks?

Isaac Marks was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1935. He first studied medicine and then trained as a psychiatrist from 1960-1963 at the University of London. As a psychiatrist he was interested in studying phobias, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. As he studied phobias, Marks became convinced that social phobias should be classified differently from other phobias and worked to bring others to the same understanding.

Dr. Marks was the first to psychiatrist to carry out clinical trials of social phobias and other fear-related syndromes. He explored the basis and mechanisms of fear and defensive behavior. By studying fear, he was able to establish a scientific basis for understanding it. He used analogies between animal and human behaviors to help describe the origins of fear. Marks then analyzed the development, symptoms and treatment of these fear-related phobias. In his research he not only utilized the field of psychiatry, but also drew upon genetics, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and psychology to make his conclusions.

Significance of Marks’ Research

Before Marks’ research, all phobias were classified together since social anxiety has many of the same symptoms of other phobias. To distinguish social phobia from panic, anxiety or other phobias, Marks’ quantitatively measured the level of distress and physical or emotional impairment caused by a social situation. Due to the distinguishing of the phobias, people with social phobia are now able to be treated for their condition rather than just for their symptoms.

Part of Isaac Marks' work discovered that social phobias were mainly cognitive in nature, with an imbalance of the amygdala and the frontal regions of the brain. The amygdala is part of the limbic region which controls emotions, breathing and heart rate. He found an increased response in the amygdala results in increased anxiety.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

With the discovery that social phobias were cognitive based, Marks explored the idea of cognitive behavior therapy. This helps patients to approach their fears by changing destructive thought patterns and it also helps to combat their physical and emotional responses. Marks said, “if you cure an anxiety reaction with medication, you cure it for a year. If you cure it with a psychological treatment, you cure it.” This therapy coupled with his research and knowledge of the cognitive behavior of social phobias has allowed many people to overcome this disorder.

Thanks to Isaac Marks’ work on social phobia, those who suffer from it can be clinically diagnosed and treated. This is critical, since social phobia is now the third largest mental health care diagnosis in the world.