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.


Reflecting on the power of Self-Compassion

By Mary O'Callaghan

    You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection. Buddha   I spent 6 weeks in retreat before Christmas. One of the insights that really struck me is that when I experience problems or difficulties in relations to situations or people if  I am the problem then that is really good news  and potentially more liberating. It is liberating because I can more easily do something about myself rather than waste my energy trying to change a situation that seems inevitable or try to change another person – in short if we know how, we can always do something about ourselves. (How often have we observed that when we change our perspective or attitude towards a situation or a person it all seems different?)  What I noticed is that when I am feeling vulnerable my automatic tendency is to try to defend myself from both my own acknowledgement of it and as a consequence from exposing myself to the other person. Vulnerability takes us to that tender edge, an edge we have not yet fully listened to, dialogued with or understood.  Mindfulness reveals to us that our initial experience of vulnerability is felt in the body. The tightness in shoulders, heart region, solar plexus or the sensation of crawling skin, all of which signal danger and beg us to recoil. This vulnerability may also touch into historical wounds of fear, shame, guilt, anger etc from which the body would naturally want to recoil. This is an understandable response because what is being activated is our threat system of fight, flight or freeze. While the threat system’s strategies can be deeply uncomfortable, their purpose is to protect us from real or imagined dangers.  However, the protective function of the threat system comes at a cost. Because of its primitive instinctual nature, it acts automatically and without regard to the awareness or history of the person in whom it is aroused and can quickly catapult us into fear and anxiety. This in turn leads into cycles of anxious thoughts, impulsivity and fear. Trapped into such cycles rather than engaging with them mindfully and compassionately, we inevitably become alienated from ourselves. This alienation cuts us off from awareness of our body, stunts our vitality and inhibits the flow and pulse of life.  A sense of alienation is at the root of so much of our unnecessary but regrettably habitual pain. All too often the sense of alienation can turn into an attack on our physical being as powerfully illustrated in this piece  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pqknd1ohhT4  or psychologically we speak to ourselves in a way we would never speak to another person. The vulnerable and life-giving parts of ourselves are exiled out of our consciousness and we feel disconnected from our body, left only with repetitive and circular thinking caught in a narrow bubble of awareness.  Vulnerability held in the tender arms of compassion is the doorway to freedom and courage. A good friend who has been embracing a self-compassion practice for some time shared with me an experience she had in respect to a difficulty she was having with a friend recently. After grappling for a few days with hurt associated with an event in the friendship and oscillating between anger towards herself and recrimination towards her friend she opened the conversation with the acknowledgement that ‘she was really scared’. In embracing her fear and then acknowledging and sharing it with her friend she immediately noticed how her own body relaxed (as also did her friend’s!). The conversation then took a different turn. She experienced an openness and courage that felt new to her. The conversation was more robust and they both left feeling more understood and understanding, and she felt that the friendship not only survived but deepened.  My friend also shared that she always felt that courage was the absence of fear. What she was learning ‘in her bones’ from her self-compassion practice was that courage was not the absence of fear rather the full embracing of it. She could now let go of her habit calling herself a coward for not speaking what was in her heart!  Self-compassion offers us the resources to let all parts of us speak. It is a resounding YES to the life that lives within and around us. Training in self-compassion allows us to gradually create a safe place inside. We give ourselves the space to get to know ourselves, the bandwidth of what we can tolerate widens, the previously indigestible nuggets of our guilt, shame, fear, anger, frustration etc. are digested. Our difficult parts become a zone of interest rather than being something to be rejected or repressed. The ordinariness of our common humanity gets revealed as we let go of the tyranny of perfectionism.  I have noticed that people often confuse ordinariness with mediocracy. In fact, to acknowledge our ordinariness is to enable us walk lightly through life. We realise that there is nothing to prove either to the tyranny of our own perfectionistic demands or the expectations of the imagined other. We can finally rest, savour, muse and act. Life feels alive.  Mindfulness and self-compassion are not merely tools for handling the inevitable difficult emotions, challenges and pain in our life. They are time-honoured pathways to celebrating life, to open to the flow of whole-hearted engagement even with difficult situations and of enjoying the support that a compassionate heart offers us. It is such a relief to really be here for ourselves and to witness how everything flows from that lifeforce.  Let me conclude with the 1st verse of a poem I enjoyed reading written by a self-compassion course participant by the name of Anna Villalobos, which I think sums up beautifully the spirit of being there for oneself with an attitude of self-compassion  ‘Just for Me’.  What if a poem were just for me  What if I were audience enough because I am  Because this person here is alive is flesh,  Is conscious, has feelings, counts.  What if this person mattered not just for what  She can do in the world  But because she is part of the world  And has a soft and tender heart?  What if that heart mattered,  If kindness to this one mattered?  What if she were not distinct from all others,  But instead connected to others in her sense of being distinct, of being alone,  Of being uniquely isolated, the one piece removed from the picture  And all the while vulnerable under, deep under, the layers of sedimentary defence.    


 

You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection. Buddha

I spent 6 weeks in retreat before Christmas. One of the insights that really struck me is that when I experience problems or difficulties in relations to situations or people if I am the problem then that is really good news and potentially more liberating. It is liberating because I can more easily do something about myself rather than waste my energy trying to change a situation that seems inevitable or try to change another person – in short if we know how, we can always do something about ourselves. (How often have we observed that when we change our perspective or attitude towards a situation or a person it all seems different?)

What I noticed is that when I am feeling vulnerable my automatic tendency is to try to defend myself from both my own acknowledgement of it and as a consequence from exposing myself to the other person. Vulnerability takes us to that tender edge, an edge we have not yet fully listened to, dialogued with or understood.

Mindfulness reveals to us that our initial experience of vulnerability is felt in the body. The tightness in shoulders, heart region, solar plexus or the sensation of crawling skin, all of which signal danger and beg us to recoil. This vulnerability may also touch into historical wounds of fear, shame, guilt, anger etc from which the body would naturally want to recoil. This is an understandable response because what is being activated is our threat system of fight, flight or freeze. While the threat system’s strategies can be deeply uncomfortable, their purpose is to protect us from real or imagined dangers.

However, the protective function of the threat system comes at a cost. Because of its primitive instinctual nature, it acts automatically and without regard to the awareness or history of the person in whom it is aroused and can quickly catapult us into fear and anxiety. This in turn leads into cycles of anxious thoughts, impulsivity and fear. Trapped into such cycles rather than engaging with them mindfully and compassionately, we inevitably become alienated from ourselves. This alienation cuts us off from awareness of our body, stunts our vitality and inhibits the flow and pulse of life.

A sense of alienation is at the root of so much of our unnecessary but regrettably habitual pain. All too often the sense of alienation can turn into an attack on our physical being as powerfully illustrated in this piece https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pqknd1ohhT4 or psychologically we speak to ourselves in a way we would never speak to another person. The vulnerable and life-giving parts of ourselves are exiled out of our consciousness and we feel disconnected from our body, left only with repetitive and circular thinking caught in a narrow bubble of awareness.

Vulnerability held in the tender arms of compassion is the doorway to freedom and courage. A good friend who has been embracing a self-compassion practice for some time shared with me an experience she had in respect to a difficulty she was having with a friend recently. After grappling for a few days with hurt associated with an event in the friendship and oscillating between anger towards herself and recrimination towards her friend she opened the conversation with the acknowledgement that ‘she was really scared’. In embracing her fear and then acknowledging and sharing it with her friend she immediately noticed how her own body relaxed (as also did her friend’s!). The conversation then took a different turn. She experienced an openness and courage that felt new to her. The conversation was more robust and they both left feeling more understood and understanding, and she felt that the friendship not only survived but deepened.

My friend also shared that she always felt that courage was the absence of fear. What she was learning ‘in her bones’ from her self-compassion practice was that courage was not the absence of fear rather the full embracing of it. She could now let go of her habit calling herself a coward for not speaking what was in her heart!

Self-compassion offers us the resources to let all parts of us speak. It is a resounding YES to the life that lives within and around us. Training in self-compassion allows us to gradually create a safe place inside. We give ourselves the space to get to know ourselves, the bandwidth of what we can tolerate widens, the previously indigestible nuggets of our guilt, shame, fear, anger, frustration etc. are digested. Our difficult parts become a zone of interest rather than being something to be rejected or repressed. The ordinariness of our common humanity gets revealed as we let go of the tyranny of perfectionism.

I have noticed that people often confuse ordinariness with mediocracy. In fact, to acknowledge our ordinariness is to enable us walk lightly through life. We realise that there is nothing to prove either to the tyranny of our own perfectionistic demands or the expectations of the imagined other. We can finally rest, savour, muse and act. Life feels alive.

Mindfulness and self-compassion are not merely tools for handling the inevitable difficult emotions, challenges and pain in our life. They are time-honoured pathways to celebrating life, to open to the flow of whole-hearted engagement even with difficult situations and of enjoying the support that a compassionate heart offers us. It is such a relief to really be here for ourselves and to witness how everything flows from that lifeforce.

Let me conclude with the 1st verse of a poem I enjoyed reading written by a self-compassion course participant by the name of Anna Villalobos, which I think sums up beautifully the spirit of being there for oneself with an attitude of self-compassion

‘Just for Me’.

What if a poem were just for me

What if I were audience enough because I am

Because this person here is alive is flesh,

Is conscious, has feelings, counts.

What if this person mattered not just for what

She can do in the world

But because she is part of the world

And has a soft and tender heart?

What if that heart mattered,

If kindness to this one mattered?

What if she were not distinct from all others,

But instead connected to others in her sense of being distinct, of being alone,

Of being uniquely isolated, the one piece removed from the picture

And all the while vulnerable under, deep under, the layers of sedimentary defence.