The Mental Prison of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety (social phobia) has been described as like being a prisoner inside your own head with thoughts acting like prison guards. It can mean that even the most basic encounter with other human beings can feel like an obstacle course. Social anxiety usually means lost opportunities, loneliness, low self-esteem, and it can make us physically unwell. It can be a highly debilitating condition, but there are things we can do to improve the situation, and mindfulness is one option worth considering.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
The term ‘social anxiety’ has now entered common usage as referring to the difficulties people experience in social situations. It is important to keep in mind that it also refers to a medical diagnosis – in that case the term social anxiety disorder (SAD) is used. Here we will be looking at both of these uses of the term.
Social anxiety usually develops in childhood or early adulthood, but it can appear later in life. It is often a response to difficult experiences such as:
- Being bullied.
- Feeling publicly humiliated.
- Feeling rejected by other people.
- Emotional trauma.
- Conflict at home.
There is some evidence to suggest that some of us may be genetically predisposed towards developing social anxiety.
Is Social Anxiety the Same as Introversion?
It can happen that an introvert has social anxiety, but they are not the same thing. Introversion is when people have a natural inclination to being alone. Those with social anxiety may also prefer to be alone, but this is often a coping mechanism they have developed to deal with their discomfort around other people. It is frequently the case that those of us with social anxiety would love to be comfortable around other people, but this is not something an introvert will usually yearn for. In fact, it is this wanting to be around other people that is one of the things that makes social anxiety so troublesome.
It is also important to distinguish between social anxiety and shyness. When people are shy, they will not feel the same level of discomfort during encounters with other people as those of us with social anxiety. Shyness can be more of a personality trait, and it doesn’t necessarily get in the way of day-to-day living to the same extent as social anxiety.
What is It Like to Have Social Anxiety?
Not everyone experiences social anxiety the same way, and there can be a high degree of variation in symptoms and the intensity of these symptoms. Some of us will only experience social anxiety in certain situation such as formal events (e.g. job interviews), when meeting strangers, or in big groups of people. The most common things people will experience include:
- Negative self-talk when engaging with other people.
- Worrying about future social encounters.
- Feeling unable to speak – the mind goes blank.
- Low self-esteem.
- Feeling judged by others.
- Finding it difficult to make eye contact.
- Speaking too fast.
- Feeling shame about previous social encounters (e.g. “why did I say that?”.
- Feeling overwhelmed when around other people.
- Physical symptoms such as nausea, sweating, blushing, tachycardia, and shaking.
- Panic attacks.
- Turning to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to be more comfortable in social situations.
- Avoiding other people.
When people experience these symptoms long-term in a way that severely disrupts their life, they may be diagnosed as having social anxiety disorder.
What is Mindfulness?
Imagine if another person were to follow you around all day and constantly make comments about how you were performing. When you were engaging with other people, this companion would be providing a commentary and saying things like, ‘I don’t think these people like you’, or ‘why did you say that?, it sounded stupid’. This constant feedback from your stalker would make you anxious, wouldn’t it? Well, this is what it can be like for those of us with social anxiety only that it is our own mind that is providing the constant criticism.
Mindfulness is a way to experience what our mind is doing in a more objective way. It is like we are taking a step back from our thoughts and emotions and by doing this we are less impacted by what is going on. When we take this backward step, we can start to see that much of our thinking is habitual rather than relevant or a true reflection of what is going on (e.g. we can start to notice that our thoughts have a negative bias when it comes to our dealings with other people). Mindfulness is not the same as metacognition (the ability to think about thinking), but it can certainly make us more objective about our thoughts. Experiencing our thoughts mindfully can lead to insights that changes our relationship with thinking.
“Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thoughts before they tip you into a downward spiral.”
Mark Williams – Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World
Mindfulness also decreases the intensity of thought, emotions, and other body states. The following analogy may be useful in explaining how this works: imagine pouring a tablespoon of salt into a cup of water, it would taste very salty, wouldn’t it? Now, imagine pouring that same tablespoon of salt into a lake, it would be far less salty. Mindfulness is an expanded state of awareness, and just like the salt in the lake, the contents of the awareness lose their intensity because they are now in a much bigger space.
Loving-Kindness (Metta) Practice
Mindfulness can not only put us in a position where we are impacted less by our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, but it can also make it possible to influence how we experience social encounters. Loving kindness practice is where we deliberately create the perception of friendliness towards ourselves and other people.
There are plenty of free guided loving-kindness (also known as metta meditation) to be found online. If you practice these regularly, you are likely to find that you feel more comfortable in your own skin, and more comfortable around other people. Loving-kindness can also help us to develop self-compassion – this is where we are able to direct that sense of friendliness towards our own discomfort in a way that is comforting. This means that you will have a way of self-soothing when you feel the physical symptoms of social anxiety. There are also other practices you can do (e.g. Tonglen) for developing compassion.
Does Mindfulness Provide a Solution to Social Anxiety?
There is growing scientific support for the use of mindfulness in the treatment of social anxiety disorder. One study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4283801/ ), using functional magnetic resonance imaging, found that the majority of participants in their study (14 out of 16) showed improvements such as increased self-esteem, decreased anxiety, and decreased negative self-talk. Another study in 2014 (https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/9/6/751/1664700) found that mindfulness ‘significantly reduced state anxiety in every session that subjects meditated’.
People are different, so the real question is, ‘will mindfulness work for you?’ The only real way to find this out may be for you to give it a try. Don’t be put off because you don’t like the idea of sitting meditation, there is also the option to use movement meditation (e.g. Tai Chi or yoga) as a basis for developing mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, but it has gained increased popularity in recent years due to its effectiveness as treatment for anxiety, depression, substance abuse problems etc. This means there are now many resources where you can learn about mindfulness such as YouTube, podcasts, online courses, and smartphone apps.
At 180 Sanctuary we provide a mindfulness as well as other approaches that can help you manage social anxiety. Our internationally acclaimed program is offered in an idyllic location in Northern Thailand. Contact us now to find out more.