December 3, 2014

Coping with Social Anxiety through Meditation—Does it Really Help?

anxiety fear

While standing in a queue of a local cafe to buy lunch one day, a friend stated that she had to leave because she couldn’t decide what to have for lunch.

Nothing too dramatic on the surface—everyone is entitled to leave a queue if they so desire, and the potatoes did have an air of hardened clay about them; but what was unusual was the look of sheer panic on her face.

Initially I thought that something must be wrong, maybe an unexpected ex-boyfriend had come into view. Perhaps she had developed a sudden and profound allergy to tepid lasagna or that my knock-off Hugo Bass aftershave really wasn’t worth the financial thriftiness.

After giving her some time to recover, I learned that the real reason was that she felt under pressure to choose an appropriate sandwich.

Now I like to think of myself as an understanding chap, but I have to admit that at first I couldn’t quite understand what the problem was. Here was a confident, out-going extravert who was explaining to me with wide-eyed fear that she was driven to leave because she was afraid that the people in the queue (and the staff) would negatively judge her if she chose the wrong sandwich.

It sounds amusing when I write it down, but if you could’ve seen the look on her face, it was quite apparent that it was anything but funny.

She admitted that her sudden departure was caused by a social anxiety disorder that she has lived with for years. A condition that I was to learn affected sufferers by increasing their anxiety in social situations, accompanied by an increased fear that they are being negatively judged by others.

It can lead to feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, humiliation and depression.

One of the coping mechanisms is to avoid the social situations that can bring on these emotions, negatively impacting how people live their lives and reducing their participation in things they may actually enjoy.

We have all no doubt experienced feelings like this before. Public speaking, a wedding speech or work presentations are some of the common causes for anxiety and fear. Our palms get clammy, we sweat, our hearts beat faster and we dread the moment we have to stand up and open our babbling mouths (this could just be me), unsure what unusual ramblings will come out.

All eyes fixed firmly upon us leaves us vulnerable to feelings of ridicule and embarrassment. Scary stuff, but actually quite normal. We can still go about our daily lives and enjoy our time on earth even with these intermittent and challenging moments. Life would no doubt be quite dull without them.

Now imagine that the same level of anxiety when selecting a sandwich. Life on a daily basis would become extremely challenging.

The perceived judgment of others is at odds with how the outside world actually views us.

I’m sure, to the staff at the café, it doesn’t really matter if we choose prawns or cheese in our sandwich. What does matter is my friend’s experience of the event and if there’s anything that can be done to help.

The most common form of therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy that teaches the sufferer to challenge their way of thinking. The theory is that if you can change your way of thinking, your behavior and subsequent reaction to stressful stimuli will also be altered. However some believe the 11-week course typically prescribed isn’t long enough to make any lasting changes.

One alternative therapy that’s been growing in popularity is using the use of meditation for anxiety related disorders and the positive effect it can have on our stress response system.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety.

“People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power. They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit. Meditation teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that—a thought, and not a part of my core self.’”

The actual physical changes in our brain are also encouraging. Numerous MRI studies have shown that when we meditate it affects, or rather calms the amygdala, the area of our brain associated with the flight or fight response. With practice, meditation reduces the hyper-arousal in our brain associated with fear and in turn, reduces the perceived threat of choosing the appropriate sandwich.

I’ve explained all of this to my friend and hope she tries it. I’ve seen first hand the externally subtle, but profound internal changes meditation can bring to people. The only problem with trying something new is that it can understandably be a challenge for someone with a social anxiety disorder. But that’s why I think meditation may be the way to go.

There’s no right or wrong answer, no test, no judgment—just a few minutes every day to re-set what our nervous system was designed for.

My friend hasn’t always felt like this, and I hope with a bit of support from people who are eager and willing to help (we all need help from time to time), that her nervous system and life can get back to what nature intended.


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Author: Nick Huxsted

Apprentice Editor: Kim Haas / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo:  Amy Wilbanks via Flickr

Read 2 Comments and Reply

Read 2 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Nick Huxsted