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Social Anxiety – How Mindfulness can help

posted Jul 24, 2019, 2:17 AM by Fidelma Farley   [ updated Jul 24, 2019, 3:11 AM ]

It’s not easy experiencing anxiety about socialising. I had it for many years, and it was tough. All that second guessing about what people might think about me, or are thinking, or were thinking – it’s exhausting. 

Social anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways, including:
Being consistently late for social occasions, as the anxiety delays getting ready and leaving on time.  I was so bad, my friends took to telling me that the start time was 30 minutes earlier than it actually was, so there was some chance I’d arrive within a reasonable time! Or it can be the opposite – consistently arriving very early for social occasions.
Finding it hard to leave social occasions for fear of drawing people’s attention, even for the short time it takes to say goodbye. Or it can be the opposite – consistently slipping away without saying goodbye to anyone.
And then the big one – worrying about what people think. This type of rumination can go on for days before the event (‘what will people of me, of how I look, of what I say’), during the event itself, sometimes making it difficult to talk to people, and then after the event, going over and over what people may have thought (‘what did people think when I said this, what did they mean when they said that’).

It’s easy to say to ourselves that none of this matters, but that doesn’t help. The feelings of anxiety are still there, the racing mind is still there. In fact, social anxiety has its roots in a universal and very primal fear – the fear of being rejected by the tribe. For our ancestors to survive, they needed each other and the mutual support of the tribe. Banishment from the tribe meant almost certain death. Even for us today, feelings of isolation or exclusion are very painful, and the prospect of those painful feelings triggers this primal fear of judgement and rejection. Even if a person isn’t actually alone, just feeling isolated internally can have a negative impact on their physical as well as their mental health. 

I Give You Back
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
of dying.

Joy Harjo

So how can mindfulness help?
Firstly, mindfulness develops self-awareness so that we get to know ourselves in all our messy glory. We get to know what are values are, what’s important to us. When we know ourselves better, we’re less swayed by what others think, which means we’re on more solid ground when we relate to others, not the shifting sands of what we think they think.

Secondly, through mindfulness practice you come to see that thoughts are not facts, they’re just mental events that may or may not be true. In my individual and group mindfulness classes, this phrase, ‘thoughts are not facts’, is regularly named as one of the things that has had the most positive impact. It’s one I turn to all the time, especially if I find myself falling into old habits of worrying about what people might think of me.

Thirdly, mindfulness meditations like the Loving Kindness meditation develop a sense of common humanity, a sense that even though there are, of course, differences between us all, we share so much simply by being alive on this earth. This is a powerful antidote to feelings of isolation, as it helps us to recognise that we are not alone, that the feelings we experience are experienced at some point by human beings all over the world. Everybody wants to be loved and accepted, everybody wants to be happy.

A short Mindfulness exercise
Although mindfulness has the most effect when practiced regularly, ideally through mindfulness meditation, even a few minutes a day of being mindful can make a difference.
- Start by noticing the contact of feet on the floor, and your bum on the chair if you’re sitting. Notice the solidity of the ground supporting your body. 
- Then pay attention to three breaths, focusing particularly on each exhalation, as this helps release tension. Placing a hand on your tummy helps to keep the attention on the breath, and it’s quite comforting too, though it may not be possible to do this, depending on where you are.
- If your inner critic is loud, silently saying to yourself, ‘It’s ok, it’s ok’ can lessen the inner critical voice and provide reassurance. 

It’s good to pick a time of day that you do this regularly, for example, in the shower, waiting for a bus, when you sit at your computer, before you go to sleep at night, but you can do this exercise as often as you wish during the day.