How to Tackle Social Anxiety Post-Pandemic with Mindfulness
Do you have social anxiety?
Years of lockdown mean that a lot of us are still a little out of practice when it comes to social engagements. Even though we’ve been emerging for a while, those years took their toll on our mental health — some scientists even say that social anxiety may be a lasting phenomenon post-pandemic.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is already one of the most common anxiety disorders in America — Mental Health America reports that seven percent of Americans qualify for a diagnosis. You can find out if you have it through a quick and easy social anxiety test. However, you don’t need to be formally diagnosed with SAD to experience social anxiety.
Let’s face it — the world has been a scary place, and it’s only natural that we’re feeling on guard. Yet the costs of avoiding social engagements are high. Succumbing to our social anxiety and staying isolated has negative mental, emotional, and even physical health repercussions. We may experience a fear of missing out or find ourselves spiraling into cave syndrome, being way too comfortable hiding away than is good for us.
Luckily, we have an incredibly useful tool for managing social anxiety — mindfulness meditation. There’s plenty of research showing how effective it is for treating both anxiety and depression.
In this article, you’ll learn about social anxiety affirmations, how to go at your own pace, and how to take care of yourself first so you stay mentally balanced in social situations. Are you ready to dive in? Let’s get into it!
What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
First, let’s go over what it is. Known as Vipassana or “insight meditation,” this technique originates from ancient India and is said to be the form of meditation the Buddha himself used. It’s now practiced all over the world by people from all walks of life. Whether in a meditation retreat or at home, there are countless people who are using this time-tested technique to overcome the challenges of being a human.
The concept is simple. You sit with your thoughts, emotions, and sensations and notice them all without pushing them away or grasping at them. In doing so, you learn to identify with and attach to them less. For some, this leads to profound insights, hence the name “insight meditation.”
Mindfulness has evolved with the times, with places like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction popping up with their own spin on the technique. Teachers like Tara Brach have made strides to popularize it. Mindfulness can also be viewed as a way of life that is simple, slow, and, of course, mindful of the present.
#1: Start with a Guided Meditation
When you think of meditation, do you imagine you should be sitting in a zen-like state with no thoughts whatsoever drifting across your mind and a blissful smile on your face?
It’s not all that simple. The point of meditation isn’t to get rid of thoughts or to have more positive thoughts. It’s simply about noticing your thoughts, not identifying with them, and learning to let them go. Ironically, this does eventually slow down the speed of your thoughts and give you more control over them, but it’s the journey that’s the real practice. So, those new to meditation might find the process challenging at first.
One way to make it easier is to have a focal point. Whether it’s a guided meditation, a mantra practice, or a visualization practice, quieting the mind is much easier when it has something to grasp onto. And while the incredible benefits of straight mindfulness meditation (which doesn’t necessarily include any guidance or the focal point) are a result of how challenging it is, there’s nothing wrong with starting off gently.
Besides, a guided practice can be peaceful and relaxing, which is great if you’re prone to anxiety. You don’t have to practice mindfulness in a social situation to benefit from it socially. Simply getting into a relaxed meditation state on a regular basis can help reduce physical symptoms of anxiety — like an activated sympathetic nervous system — that can heighten worry in social interactions.
If you do graduate to a straight mindfulness practice, you will be in for something wonderful. The practice of being able to watch thoughts pass, not attach to them or identify with them, and allow them to pass by is an invaluable life tool. The more practice you get, the easier it is to distance yourself from distracting self-conscious thoughts, like “What is she thinking of me?” or “Did I just say something weird?” in social situations. Studies also have shown that mindfulness meditation can reduce rumination and worry, both hallmarks of social anxiety.
#2: Make Mindfulness Meditation a Habit
To really reap the benefits from a mindfulness practice, try to incorporate it into your daily life. Even just a few deep breaths can be beneficial, and you can do this at any point in your day. For example, play a game where when you hit a red light, you take several deep breaths (eyes open of course!). Or, set up reminders around your house — some people will tie a red ribbon in various places, and when they see the ribbon, it’s time to come back to the present.
You can make a goal to be mindful of three times you go from sitting to standing, or you can decide that every time you pass through a door, you will pay attention to your feet on the floor. Practice mindful cooking or mindful dishwashing, really taking your time to notice what you’re doing. Try taking a mindful walk where instead of listening to a podcast or music, you give yourself space simply to be.
We’re so used to distractions that you may find being mindful makes you a little antsy. That’s part of the practice — learning to stay rooted in discomfort rather than run away from it is incredibly helpful for social anxiety. Over time, you will learn to fear discomfort less and instead lean into the experience. As you drop into the moment, you can more easily let thoughts drift by, which is helpful when your mind is spinning during a social interaction.
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#3: Engage Your Senses
Here’s a quick, easy, and enjoyable way to immediately pull yourself out of your head when it’s spinning with anxious thoughts — just focus on your senses. Take a moment to look around you and notice two or three things you see, hear, feel, etc. This practice can immediately ground you into your body and into the present, whether you’re spinning out about a recent interaction, worried about attending an event, or right there in the midst of a party.
When you can’t put a thought down, it can be helpful to pick something else up — in this case, it’s observation of what’s around you. In other words, your senses are your immediate doorway into the present. So, decide to find three green things in your sight or to notice two pleasurable smells or to identify a few sounds.
If you’re not in a social situation, go for a beautiful mindfulness walk in nature, and stay completely focused on your senses. You could also take a bath, cook a nice meal, or cozy up under a blanket with a delicious tea. Get out of your head and remember that life is about enjoyment. You deserve to relax.
#4: Focus Your Attention Outward
Where does social anxiety come from? A lot of it has to do with being self-conscious, of course, which means we’re generally focused on what’s going on inside of us. So, another quick trick to reduce social anxiety is to focus your attention outward.
Instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next, how what you just said landed, what you look like, how you’re being perceived, etc., focus on the other person. Replace fear and self-consciousness with curiosity. Ask questions, and really listen to the answer. (So many of us, socially anxious or not, are just waiting for the moment it’s our turn to speak.)
The more you mindfully focus on what they have to say, the less time you have to worry about what you’ll say or doubt yourself. Plus, people can tell when we’re showing an interest in them and are likely to be flattered. By listening well, you’ve just scored a few points in terms of how your social interaction is going.
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#5: Practice Thought Stopping and Substitution
For those prone to anxiety, all it takes is one negative or self-doubting thought to set off a cascade of spiraling self-criticism. Like a virus raging out of control, that one thought can completely take over the anxious person’s brain and even set off alarm bells that cause sweaty palms, a shaky voice, and other physical symptoms of anxiety.
Sometimes our negative self-talk is so habitual, it’s practically invisible to us. But a mindfulness practice will help us become more aware of those self-harming thoughts and stop identifying with them. You can really nip these thoughts in the bud by saying out loud (if you’re alone) or in your mind “Stop!” or “Enough!” This is a technique used by psychologists, so even if it feels a little strange, know that it’s a very valid way to stop negative thinking.
It’s helpful to pick a few mantras or replacement thoughts to use as soon as you notice negative thought patterns arising. Then, after you stop the negative pattern, try a new thought, like, “I’m a beautiful, accomplished person,” or, “It’s completely natural to be nervous about this, but it’s going to go great.”
#6: Focus on Your Breath
Another brilliant technique from mindfulness practice is the simple act of focusing on the breath. It may seem obvious, but simply focusing on three deep breaths can slow down your heart rate, reduce social anxiety, and give you the space to speak mindfully or mindfully react to a stressor. It’s actually kind of magical — just take a few deep breaths, and you will likely feel so much better about the thing you chose to say or the way you chose to react in that situation.
You can also try a technique that’s designed specifically to lower anxiety quickly. Breathe in for five seconds and breathe out for seven. It’s important that the outbreath be longer than the inbreath. This is known to stimulate the vagus nerve, a part of the nervous system that is responsible for our state of relaxation and even social engagement. When you practice this type of breathing, you’re allowing that nerve to do its job and bring you into the optimal state for both relaxation and connecting with others.
The next time you feel your anxiety start to rise, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, outside, or somewhere else private and just breathe.
#7: Drop Your Mask
It’s natural to devise some sort of behavioral band-aid or technique to cover our social anxiety. We may fear being judged as weak or incompetent, so we may smile more, speak more loudly, behave in a more placating way, go over what we’re going to say ahead of time to prepare, or have some other way to shield ourselves from being outed as nervous or anxious.
Yet one study showed that dropping these masks and behaviors actually improved people’s level of confidence and made them more likable! Likely, the pressure of having to keep up appearances heightens social anxiety even more. Plus, people respond well to authenticity, and they can naturally sense when someone is faking confidence. An authentic nervous person seems to be more likable than a fake confident one, at least according to this study.
So, letting yourself be nervous, awkward, and shy might be the best thing you can do for your anxiety. You certainly don’t need all the increased worry involved with keeping your mask from slipping! If you’re curious to try this approach, give yourself an exposure (psychological speak for trying something in a low-stakes situation to get used to it) with this technique. Not every technique is for everyone, so it’s okay to experiment.
Remember, everyone gets anxious, and as we emerge from years of lockdowns, everyone likely gets socially anxious too. So, you’re not alone. You are human, and being human is a beautiful thing.
You Can Connect Confidently with Others
Social anxiety has been on the rise as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. It’s perfectly natural to feel anxious around others, as it’s a very common anxiety disorder. If you’re socially anxious, you might experience sweating palms, a shaky voice, intense self-criticism, and rumination.
There is significant research showing how meditation techniques can significantly reduce symptoms of social anxiety. Meditation cultivates self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-control, even when you’re not meditating. This makes it easier to use techniques like thought-stopping and substitution, focusing on the breath, or focusing attention outward. It helps soothe the nervous system, making you less prone to anxiety in general.
It’s also free. So what’s stopping you? Don’t let your anxiety get the better of you. Let nothing stand in the way of your greatness!