by Yadid Berman
In today’s modern world social anxiety is on the rise, driven by a reduced sense of belonging and a rise in stress, anxiety and depression.
Anxiety disorders are becoming a common mental health issue, with the charity Anxiety UK reporting that one in 10 of us are likely to have one at some point in our lives.
Could mindfulness, a mental health intervention gaining popularity, be a possible answer?
What is Social Anxiety?
Having fears and insecurities around socialising is not abnormal. Most of us experience this at some point, such as when starting at a new school or workplace.
But if it is a constant issue for you, which affects your daily life and ability to cope, you might have social anxiety.
Social anxiety can have many symptoms, both physical, mental and emotional. This can look like:
- fear of scrutiny by others
- avoidance of social situations
- difficulty with eye-contact
- flushing, hand tremors, nausea
- self-imposed isolation
- a reduced number of friendships and intimate relationships.
Read more in our article, ‘What is Social Anxiety Disorder?’
Why do I have social anxiety?
To understand why mindfulness and social anxiety are such a perfect fit, it can help to understand why you have social anxiety.
Social cognition, or our ‘social mind’, involves how we take in, analyse, and use information from our interactions with others. We make decisions, such as on how others perceive us, and ‘store’ these decisions as ‘truths’.
Of course our social mind is useful and even crucial. If we don’t have a sense of how others perceive us, or care about it, then we can be socially difficult, or even with social conduct disorder.
But if we had difficult experiences in the past, especially in childhood, and our brain stored certain ideas about how we are perceived? We can have strong fear and shame the isn’t helpful.
For example, if Alex was teased by his big family for being the ‘baby’ who is ‘shy and never has anything to say’? He can believe he is out of place and a poor addition to social gatherings, even when as an adult he is highly educated and not shy.
Do you have negative thoughts?
Back in our cave man days, it aided our survival to always be searching for signs of a predator in the jungle. Always searching for danger was a good thing.
Enter the ‘negativity bias’. The idea is that evolution has caused negative information, comments or events to be stored and remembered better than positive events.
As explained in an abstract by psychologist Dr. Amrisha Vaish et al, “We dwell on something negative, even if something positive is equally or more present.”
This cognitive bias adds to being hyper-sensitive, and perceiving signals of rejection or lack of care and acceptance in situations where these are actually not present.
Social phobia and low self-esteem
It is also very common for people with social anxiety to experience frequent thoughts and feelings of unworthiness, inadequacy and self-judgment.
Low self-esteem affects your ability to remain present and centred while interacting with others.
Social anxiety and mindfulness
Mindfulness, as explained by Jon Kabat-Zinn (known for introducing mindfulness to the modern world and psychology), is, “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”.
Through the practice, you explore, investigate and develop acceptance and curiosity towards the thoughts, feelings and body-sensations that make up your moment-to-moment experience.
You learn to develop a kind and compassionate attention towards the unconscious deep-seated fears that prevent you from getting close to others.
Mindfulness also helps you notice the good things around you and not just the negative.
A pilot study looking at the effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), a talk therapy that integrates mindfulness into its approach, found that it did help social anxiety, mostly because it raised the participants ability to see positives.
[Ready to try mindfulness? Try our free and easy ‘Guide to Mindfulness‘ now.]
How to use mindfulness to help social anxiety
So how does one overcome social anxiety with the use of a mindfulness practice?
1. Accept that it is a process.
Where you are right now when it comes to socialising and anxiety is not static. It can definitely be changed and moulded over time. Don’t believe thoughts such as “this is just who I am” which may be running through your head.
2. Tune into your desire for change and connection.
Keep your highest aspiration and goals in mind – such as wanting to have more meaningful, loving and supportive connections in your life.
3. Start small and work upwards.
Trying to do big 40-minute mindfulness sits right off the bat will just lead to frustration. Try ten minutes a day, then raise it 15, and then 20.
And this is true for your social exposure, too. Take challenging but manageable steps, bit by bit putting yourself into experiences which feel outside of your current comfort zone.
4. Keep a mindfulness journal.
Track and write down exactly how you felt and what you were thinking before, during and after your meditations. This will help you gain more insight into the process and journey you’re going through.
You can also use your mindfulness journal to record your achievements with your social anxiety. Seeing the small steps keeps us moving forward. Did you have an easier conversation with a colleague? Manage to look your difficult boss in the eye?
5. Find a therapist, mentor or coach to work with.
Working with a skilled therapist or mentor who is experienced in mindfulness-based approaches such as MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) or MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) can be a tremendous help. He or she can help you see the blind spots in your perception and help you develop your practice.
Ready to try mindfulness to help your social anxiety? We connect you with highly experienced, London-based MBCT therapists. Or use our online booking site to find a registered therapist in your area of the UK.
Still have a question about mindfulness and social anxiety? Post below.
Yadid Berman is a Mindfulness teacher, who has practiced and trained for over 14 years in both Europe and Asia. He currently helps people overcome Social Anxiety mainly using Mindfulness practice at BeatSocialAnxiety.com/Community and his YouTube channel at BeatSocialAnxiety.com/Channel.