By Fidelma Farley
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 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. Being rejected and banished by the tribe meant almost certain death. These primal fears of judgement and rejection are within us all, but are activated more easily for those of us with social anxiety.
Social anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways, including:
• Being consistently late for social occasions, as the feelings of anxiety cause a delay in 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. I used to stay on at parties or in the pub for a long time after I wanted to go home, because I was avoiding having people’s attention on me, even for the short time it would take to say goodbye. Or, again, 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 think of me, of how I look, of what I say’). During the event itself, the feelings of anxiety can make 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’. The rumination can continue for days on end, making it difficult to sleep. Then tiredness exacerbates the anxiety and rumination, and so the cycle continues.
So how can mindfulness help?
Over the years, my mindfulness practice has transformed how I relate to others. I tend to think much more about the other person, being interested in them, and much less about myself, about how I appear, or what I say or do. So how did that change come about?
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 on people’s lives. 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 – When in doubt, breathe out. Breathing out slowly and consciously soothes the nervous system, and allows you to be in the moment, giving your mind a break from the thoughts about the past and future. Doing this for three breaths regularly throughout the day will help break that cycle of rumination over time, and start the release tension in the body.