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Social Anxiety

Most of us experience some social anxiety in our lives. Sweaty palms before a big presentation, butterflies in our stomach before a job interview, heart racing on a first date — all very natural responses when our adrenaline is pumping.

Some anxiety is an expected and healthy emotion; part of what makes us human. But for people with clinical anxiety, including social anxiety disorder, the stress of these situations can become too much to handle. The mere thought of going out and mixing with other people can feel overwhelming. It can lead to becoming completely debilitated by social situations, or avoiding them altogether, which can have a negative effect on your health, happiness, and the ability to fulfill your potential in life.

Social anxiety can feel like a very isolating condition, but sufferers should be assured they are not alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 40 million US adults have some kind of anxiety disorder. Social anxiety is among its most common forms and social anxiety disorder affects approximately 15 million American adults. Another study found social anxiety disorder is the third most common psychiatric condition, after depression and alcohol dependence.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety disorders all share the general feature of excessive fear or worry, that can have negative behavioral or emotional consequences. Different diagnosable anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is worrying about things in everyday life, separation anxiety, which is the fear of separation from home or a loved one, panic disorder, which manifests in panic attacks that strike without warning, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is an obsession or compulsion to repeat certain behaviors or rituals.

There are also phobia-related disorders, which relate to intense fear or anxiety of specific objects or situations. Finally, social anxiety, which we will look at in detail here, is worrying about being evaluated negatively in social situations. When you look at GAD vs social anxiety, both are characterized by a disproportionate anxiety to a perceived threat, but the nature of that threat differs between the two. Someone with social anxiety excessively worries about meeting people and being observed, while someone with GAD worries about general life issues — both major and minor.

Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Causes can include exposure to stressful and negative life events in early childhood or adulthood, a history of anxiety or other mental illnesses in biological relatives, and some physical health conditions, such as thyroid problems or heart arrhythmias. Caffeine and other substances and medications can also produce or aggravate anxiety symptoms.

Social anxiety disorder

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states: "The defining feature of social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is intense anxiety or fear of being judged negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation. Although they recognize that their fear is excessive and unreasonable, people with social anxiety disorder often feel powerless against their anxiety."

People with social anxiety disorder may worry about acting or appearing visibly anxious — like blushing or stumbling over words — or being viewed as stupid, awkward, or boring. And many people also experience strong physical symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate, nausea, and sweating, or even full-blown attacks when confronting a feared situation. Sufferers will try to avoid these situations and when they cannot, their behavior is severely affected by their anxiety and stress.

Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe says: "The problem with anxiety is it inhibits our ability to deal with the problem that is causing it in the first place. It makes our capacity for rational thought dip, while it, itself, begins to spiral out of control. This makes it harder to address the issue.”

Wellness writer Lisa Lacage describes her battle with the disorder in “A Day With Social Anxiety,” a series of essays about living with a mental health diagnosis.

Lacage wrote about not answering her phone, having her family text her to make contact, and how she orders her drink on an app before entering a coffee shop so that she doesn’t have to order it in person. She even went to a hairdresser who doesn’t speak English to avoid any small talk.

"Social anxiety is a very specific beast, crippling a person in the one area of life that is so vital to their happiness — connecting with others,” she wrote. “I do not feel anxious on an airplane, or a rollercoaster, or watching a scary movie; but put me in an elevator with a stranger, and I am trapped in a horror film.”

Social anxiety can disrupt daily life and can interfere significantly with daily routines, performance at work or school, and the ability to have friendships or romantic relationships. And despite the existence of social anxiety disorder treatment, fewer than 5% of people with social anxiety disorder seek treatment in the year following initial onset, and more than a third of people report symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.

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Meditation will not get rid of all anxious thoughts — and that is not its aim — but it can change our relationship with them.

Managing Anxiety

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Panicking

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Switching Off

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How meditation can help

Meditation is a valuable tool as part of a social anxiety disorder treatment program, and can help manage its effects on our body and mind.

First, let’s look at the science. Like stress, which is a different condition to anxiety, but often overlaps, anxiety triggers the autonomic nervous system leading to a spike in the release of epinephrine and cortisol — the “stress hormones.”

In our bodies, when these stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, the liver produces more glucose, which activates our fight-or-flight mechanism, ultimately leading to an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels. But research has shown that meditating regularly can reduce levels of cortisol and can lower the heart rate and blood pressure.

In our brain, anxiety can wreak havoc on our amygdala — two almond-sized nuclei that are essentially tiny processing chips that govern our senses, memories, decisions, and moods. The amygdala is essentially our emotional thermostat that regulates our emotions, but is also impacted by certain factors. The more anxiety we experience, the more disproportionate and irrational the amygdala’s response becomes.

Studies using MRI scans show that a regular meditation practice can shrink the amygdala. And as the amygdala reduces in size, the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain governing our awareness — becomes thicker. By meditating, we can increase our capacity to manage social anxiety causes and the more we practice, the more effective it can be.

Also, the drip effect of constant anxiety can reshape the structure and neural pathways of our brain — a process called neuroplasticity. The brain gets reprogrammed if it is continually subjected to experiences, positive or negative. So just as constant anxiety can have a negative effect on the brain, a regular meditation practice can help rewire our minds for positive change.

One study — carried out by Oxford University using 238 healthy employees from Google and Roche — found that eight weeks of using the Headspace app resulted in a 31% decrease in symptoms of anxiety.

The best type of meditation for social anxiety

Meditation will not get rid of all anxious thoughts — and that is not its aim — but it can change our relationship with them.

Headspace’s Blue Sky Animation could be a good place to start when thinking about overcoming social anxiety. It compares the mind to a bright blue sky and our thoughts, feelings and experiences to the clouds that appear in the app. Meditation can help us to see our anxious thoughts with a clearer mind, and remind us that they will pass.

Headspace offers a 30-day Managing Anxiety pack to help with dealing with social anxiety by helping us to view our thoughts differently and let go of the destructive cycle that is allowing them too much control in our lives.

Two techniques used in the Managing Anxiety pack include noting and the body scan. By noting the anxious thought as what it is — just a thought — it can help us let go of it and move on. And through the body scan technique, we identify the physical sensation of anxiety in the body, which helps to diminish its power over us.

Puddicombe says: "When we sit down to meditate, we might expect that the mind is immediately going to become calm and clear, and what we quickly realize is we simply see our thoughts a lot more clearly.

“The feeling of anxiety, for most of us, we don’t like it. So there is a temptation to push it away or somehow try to stop that flow of thought. But if we remember what meditation is all about, it is not trying to stop thoughts or about changing the mind, it is about witnessing the mind in an entirely new way. So we do not have to do anything with the anxiety. The anxiety is not bad. The anxiety is what it is — they’re just thoughts. So if we allow them to come and go and not get too caught up in them, it feels quite free.

Anxiety is a natural phenomenon. It’s part of being human. It's a really important emotion, we need it in our mind. We couldn’t live without anxiety. In parts of our lives, in certain aspects, we need that. But it’s not getting too caught up in it and creating that storyline around it.”

Try Headspace for free now and join more than 66 million people who have downloaded the app. There are hundreds of guided meditations to help us better understand our thoughts and minds, help with overcoming social anxiety, and to live healthier, happier, and more fulfilling lives.

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