Mindfulness for Social Phobia
These days, unfortunately, the term “mindfulness” has fully acquired buzzword status. It has achieved great commercial value and is currently being used to sell a lot of things – therapy, books, calendars, videos, apps, retreats and countless types of meditation. If you’ve been reading my blogs over the last few years, you’ve seen it there as well. In this piece, however, I want to offer you a concrete method of using mindfulness to help you feel more comfortable and confident in your social relationships.
How can mindfulness help Social Phobia?
Mindfulness can be simply defined as “nonjudging awareness of what is going on in the present moment.” Let’s break that up. “Nonjudging” means we are not manifesting an opinion about what is going on; we are merely conscious of it, bringing our complete awareness to it. So, to be mindful is to be in touch with what’s happening right now, adding nothing that would constitute our own spin on that awareness. You could be mindful of the tension in your neck, the thoughts you’re having about someone who hurt you, your rapid, shallow breathing, the fear that registers in your heart, or even the luxurious shade being offered to you by the tree you’re passing. Or it can be any one of the millions of other phenomena you experience from moment to moment every day.
Many of us live our lives consumed with dissecting the past and fearing the future. The huge advantage of being mindful is that it brings us into the present moment, which is where everything always happens. It is important to understand and remember this: Anything we can control will be in the present moment. Our anxiety-provoking fears of the future are not there in the present moment; they are only thoughts in our head that disappear when we move to another thought. The guilt or criticism we feel about what we did in the past is also merely our thinking and alludes to a place gone and beyond our grasp forever. Much of what makes us uneasy comes to us as thoughts about what we have done – or what was done to us – and what unpleasant events are coming to us in the future. We spend much of our time wanting to change the past, frustrated that we can’t. Just as much time is wasted on unreal thoughts about a time that does not even exist yet.
Removing judgment to reduce social phobia
When we purposefully remove judgment from our minds and confine ourselves to what’s happening now, most of what makes life difficult and unpleasant for us goes away. As soon as past and future return with new thoughts, the problems quickly return. So, becoming mindful is about training ourselves to keep returning to the present moment. Every time you remember to be present, you have become better at doing so.
But as I said above, I’m specifically concerned here with the benefits of bringing mindfulness to matters of personal difficulty. Let’s say you’re trying to relax and you find that your mind is racing with anxious thoughts about an upcoming conversation you anticipate having with your friend. You’ve tried to stop this cognitive busyness but haven’t been able to get anywhere. You want to relax, but these anxious thoughts are in your way.
How does the state of mindfulness affect social phobia?
When you realize that you are stuck, take a few long, deep breaths and try to slow yourself down. Notice the connection between the thoughts about the future meeting and the uncomfortable feelings in your body. What is it about these thoughts that makes you feel anxious? For the purpose of our present discussion, let’s say you answer that question by realizing that you are afraid your friend will become angry with you and say hurtful things to you. Pause and bring full awareness to that fear, doing your best to keep all future based projections out of your head. Don’t hide it, change it, excuse it, justify it or in any way alter it; just hold it in awareness.
In other words, just let yourself feel it. Where is it in your body? Take a little time to become aware of it as a physical sensation.
Social phobia and dealing with anger
You’re afraid of your friend’s anger. It has hurt you before and you are fearful that it will happen again when you and she speak. In fact, you also realize that you will likely hesitate to bring your full assertiveness to the conversation because of your fear of her response. Be fully aware of that too. So, to quote what’s supposedly in your head in this imagined situation, “I’m afraid of her anger and it keeps me from being completely open and honest with her.” Now, instead of a tumult of wild thoughts about tomorrow’s conversation, which would keep you tense, nervous and possibly avoidant, you are hopefully quietly sitting with the awareness of what’s beneath the frenetic thinking. You’re not judging it; you have quieted yourself down and you’re only aware of it and accepting it. Hold it in your mind for a few moments.
The next step is to find a perspective outside your actual experiencing of the fear and witness yourself being afraid. You want to move outside the part of you that is having this fear and bring compassion to it. It is as if you are watching someone deal with something unpleasant, offering that person your heartfelt support.
Essentially, you are developing self-love.
While it is beyond the reaches of this article to discuss all aspects, symptoms and causes of social phobia, or to completely address the anxiety that comes in anticipation of and in the remembering of social encounters, there are some very critical points here that may help you. Anxiety over specific types of events and particular phobias connected to types of human experience are always tied to what comes before the dreaded event – the habit of dread itself- and that which occurs afterward – the thoughts we have about what happened. The more work you do in becoming mindful, that is, in being in the present moment in a nonjudgmental state of mind, the more you realize that the triggers for anxiety and full-blown phobia are almost invariably connected with thoughts we generate that HAVE NO BASIS IN REALITY. When we can move consciousness from the false thinking to slowing down and bringing compassion to what’s happening in the present moment, much of the power of what we’re afraid of is reduced.
You’re not trying to change how you feel; you are witnessing it, bringing a warm, self-nurturing acceptance to it. This particular situation, therefore, can move you from an initially unconscious anxiety over confrontation to a deep acceptance of your fear of being the target of anger, bringing you to greater self-acceptance. With this mindfulness of what’s going on and the compassion you bring to it, you will hopefully be able to deal with your friend more directly and maybe even talk about the effects that her anger has on you. It will be easier now to do so, since you have worked on accepting the way you respond to her. You don’t feel weak, guilty or wrong about it; you recognize that this is part of how you, the human being, respond to this type of intense emotion. With the self-compassion comes an acceptance, which then allows you to bring it to her.
While I presented this as a one-incident scenario, in reality, it will likely take repeated practice. But the more you do what I have described, the less controlled by those fear-based emotions you will be. And it would be helpful for you to use your imagination and transpose the above scenario into other ones that hold you back in your life. Please do not take this as a panacea; but use it and you will be rewarded by your diligence.
A companion video for this article concerning Social Phobia and Anxiety related treatments.
Article by Dr. James Kraut
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