Dear Dr. Gail: I work in a law office and for many years have been a notary. One day an attorney who I didn’t know well asked me if I would notarize his clients’ signatures on some forms. I agreed to do so. While I’m not a very outgoing person, it has never bothered me before to meet with and to notarize documents for people whom I don’t know.
The problem is that while I was working on these documents, I became breathless and shaky, and my heart started racing. Since then, I have the same reaction whenever I am asked to notarize anything — and it’s worse when people watch me. Sometimes it’s hard for me to sign my name in front of people. I am at a loss to understand this and am not sure how to stop it. Can you enlighten me? — Legally scared
Dear Scared: People can develop fears and phobias related to almost any situation. It sounds as though your reaction is being triggered by some unconscious conflict regarding your job or office situation. You say these episodes began when you dealt with an attorney whom you didn’t know well. Because you mention that fact so prominently, that is probably why you felt so uncomfortable.
You also describe anxiety related to completing your task in front of others. This sounds like a type of performance or social anxiety. Many people experience fears of an activity they must do in front of others, such as speaking, singing, even using a public bathroom.
Often a single event can trigger feelings of anxiety. It sounds as though there was something about the situation with this one lawyer — the nature of the documents, the people involved, the dealings with strangers — that caused your response. You might have had conflicts with this particular attorney, or with other authority figures, in the past.
You also may have anxieties about saying “no.” As a consequence, you feel obligated to perform tasks that you feel uncertain about. In turn, this makes you feel nervous and angry. Now, each time you find yourself in a similar situation, you feel connected to the original conflict.
Desensitization is often a helpful treatment. This works by gradually exposing yourself to difficult situations and building up your tolerance for them.
In your case, which seems so closely connected to things going on in your life, I believe it is important to get to the root of the problem. Once you understand why you felt so uneasy in the original situation, you may be able to separate your feelings from your physical response. Understanding this will also help prevent a ripple effect, where your feelings can spread to situations well beyond your notarizing tasks.
While there are medications for social phobias and performance anxieties, for a relatively mild reaction like yours, which doesn’t seem to be too debilitating, I suggest your first course of action should be to try to temper your symptoms by better understanding why they occur. You might benefit from meeting with a professional therapist to uncover the underlying conflict and work on desensitization.
Dr. Gail’s bottom line: Unconscious conflicts can lead to symptoms that don’t seem related, but understanding them can go a long way toward reducing anxiety symptoms.