Social Anxiety - How Mindfulness can Help

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.

Mindful Eating: Killing Cravings with Kindness

By Fidelma Farley

The other morning, I wasn’t feeling great, my stomach was unsettled and I felt a bit drained. I found that I was dying for a cup of strong coffee, even though I knew it would upset my stomach even further, and that it may then take days before I could eat normally. Yet even so, the urge for coffee grew and grew. I kept telling myself it was a bad idea, that it would ultimately make me feel worse, that I was being stupid, but it made no difference to the craving. I was on my way to buy the coffee, still arguing with myself, when I remembered what I already knew but had forgotten – the craving was a distraction from something, something that I didn’t want to be experiencing. What was it I wanted to avoid? The answer was obvious – I didn’t feel well, and I wanted to stop feeling unwell. A cup of coffee would give me a temporary jolt of energy, so that for a while I wouldn’t feel so drained. With that awareness, the choice was really clear – get a coffee, feel a bit better for 30 minutes or so and then much worse for a few days, or accept how I was feeling in that moment, knowing that I would probably be ok by the end of the day. That was the end of the arguments with myself and the end of the craving – when the choice was so clear, there was no way I would do that damage to myself for the sake a few minutes’ respite.

Often when there’s a craving for something that we know is not good for us, we try to overcome it by logic (eating that whole bar of chocolate will make you feel sick!), or willpower (don’t do it, put it down!), or self-criticism – (don’t be so stupid!). Sometimes those methods work, but very often they don’t. It’s because the craving is reaction to vulnerability, it’s a desire to escape something unpleasant and to replace it with a different, more pleasant, experience.  When we apply logic, or will power, or self-criticism to the craving, the part of us that’s feeling tired, or unwell, or sad or anxious, hasn’t been listened to. (Let me make it clear that I’m not talking about full-blown addiction here, which is a condition requiring professional help).

Although the craving is fuelled by the desire not to feel vulnerable, it also hides the vulnerability, so that all we’re aware of is an overwhelming urge to eat the biscuits, or buy the expensive shoes, or have another drink, or immerse ourselves in Facebook. Underneath, however, is something that wants our attention, and some kindness.

What am I avoiding?

I’ve come now to see cravings as signals that there’s something I’m experiencing that needs my attention. It prompts me to ask – ‘what am I avoiding? What is there in this moment that I don’t want, that I want to get away from?’ It’s not always easy, and there are times I forget, or I ignore the inner voice and obey the craving instead. But what a difference it makes to actually acknowledge your suffering with kindness, to allow yourself to be a human being that has bad days, that feels pain or fatigue occasionally, that is affected by interactions with others.

What do you really need?

As well as asking ‘‘what is going on with me in this moment that I don’t want?’, a further question helps - ‘what do I really need in this moment?’ It may be to talk to a friend, or to take a short break, or to get some fresh air, or have a bath. And sometimes it may be that a little of what you fancy is what you need. Maybe it would cheer you up to go shopping, or watch TV or eat ice cream. When we’re driven by the craving, it’s hard to stop because stopping will make the feelings we’re trying to avoid come to the fore again. So we keep going and going until we feel worse than when we started. But if you're aware that eating some ice cream, say, will make you feel a bit better for a short while, that it’s a way of responding to how you’re feeling, rather than a way of escaping how you’re feeling, then you’re more likely to be able to stop when you’ve had enough.

On another occasion, I sat down to watch TV one evening. Something about the way I turned on the TV made me aware that I was all set to binge watch, which would mean getting to bed really late and being exhausted the following day. I asked the question – ‘what is going on with me that I don’t want?’ and realised that I was feeling a bit blue, a bit melancholy. And what did I really need? To get to bed and get some sleep! I watched one episode of my favourite programme and then went to bed. So I cheered up a bit, and got the sleep I needed.

True kindness – listening to yourself

So next time you find yourself gripped by a craving that won’t listen to logic, or will power, or self-criticism, see if you can listen to what’s under the craving. Just asking yourself – ‘what is going on with me in this moment that I don’t want?’ – can be enough to dissolve the craving and see the tender spot beneath. Then asking yourself, ‘what do I really need in this moment?’ to tend to that vulnerability. We sometimes think that being kind to ourselves is indulging our cravings, but this is true kindness, responding to your own vulnerability with care and love.