How Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy Can Help You Overcome Social Anxiety
We have all experienced feeling out of our comfort zone in social situations at some point in our lives, and some might argue that challenging yourself, within reason, isn’t always a bad thing and might actually enrich your existence. However, when this discomfort turns to phobia and controls your routine to the point where you try and avoid human interaction, it is easy to see how devastating it can be for individuals suffering from what is called social anxiety.
A common problem nowadays, millions of people all over the world are believed to suffer from this condition. Behavioral therapies have been proving helpful in understanding triggers and putting in place strategies to cope with it, as well as mindfulness therapy for social anxiety, which, although perhaps used less often than other cognitive therapies, has also shown that it is very effective in reducing stress.
What is Mindfulness?
It is based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, aimed at achieving greater focus and awareness by rooting oneself in the present moment, although it is usually taught without any religious connotations, and was developed as a set of psychological tools and exercises by Jon Kabat-Zin.
In 1979, Kabat-Zin launched the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program which was so successful to treat a range of illnesses that it soon spread around the medical world and gave birth to a variety of mindfulness based stress reduction techniques.
The core principle behind mindfulness is that by becoming aware of usual behavioral patterns which have developed “out of awareness” as it were, people can begin to respond in new ways and overcome their social anxiety.
Overview of Mindfulness Therapies
The two main cognitive therapies used in mindfulness are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavioral Theraphy (DBT).
Developed in 1986 by psychology professor Steven Hayes, ACT shares many values with Buddhism and grew in conjunction with the Relational Frame Theory, which focused on how humans learn language and how language, higher cognition and behavior are related.
ACT’s approach to psychological issues is radically different from traditional methods. With ACT, no behavior is assumed to be healthy and normal as it believed that any so-called “normal” psychological process has the potential to become harmful. Furthermore, ACT sees language as the root cause of human suffering, as it carries with it negative thoughts, deception, prejudice, obsession, and self-criticism.
Paradoxically, ACT’s first goal isn’t to treat social anxiety symptoms, which can be quite disconcerting if you have embarked on a course of treatment that uses this therapy. ACT argues that the more you concentrate on your social anxiety and its symptoms, the worse you will make them. To simplify things slightly, ACT encourages you to accept that life has up and downs, and expects that your symptoms will reduce on their own as a consequence of your acceptance of human condition as it were.
DBT also focuses, not on changing our reactions to distressing events, but rather on learning to tolerate pain with the right tools. It teaches to accept oneself and the situation that causes suffering, and equips people with the skills to cope with it and not become overwhelmed by it. While DBT was first developed to treat cases of borderline personality disorder, it has since been used with great success in treating mood disorders, stress and social anxiety.
How Are They Different from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
If you suffer from social anxiety, chances are that you will have heard of or tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, and that you will think that mindfulness therapies sound similar. It is true that both ACT’s and CBT’s goal is to develop awareness of your thoughts, and they are indeed often used together to treat stress and social anxiety, but what they consider as the source of your anxiety is different. CBT’s approach is that your negative thoughts are the cause of your social anxiety, whereas ACT believes that it is your internal struggle against those thoughts that has created it.
Social anxiety comes with very physical symptoms such as elevated heart rate, excessive sweating, dry mouth, dizziness due to hyperventilation, stomach aches, etc… With mindfulness based cognitive therapy, the individual is asked not to ignore those sensations, as would be the case with CBT, but to experience them fully and realize that they are temporary and arise from an erroneous perceived threat. Over time, it enables the person suffering from social anxiety disorder to acknowledge their feelings and let them pass, rather than being paralyzed by them.
Where to Start?
There are a lot of resources available to teach yourself mindfulness: books, apps, YouTube videos, etc. But retraining your brain to not get distracted by replaying the events of the day, for example, when you are trying to concentrate on the “here and now” can take some time and you will greatly benefit from being guided by a therapist who will focus on applying it to treating your social anxiety as part of a wider strategy, especially at first.
Although mindfulness is at its most beneficial as part of a comprehensive therapy program, practicing it on your own could be a good way to support what you have learnt and to deal with anxieties as they arise.
Mindfulness 10 Minutes a Day
While it is anchored in meditation, you don’t need to set aside hours each day to practice mindfulness. As a matter of fact, you can see results from practicing mindfulness 10 minutes a day.
First of all, you want to make sure that you won’t be interrupted so switch off your phones, your computer, etc…, anything that might distract you.
Become aware of your current state of mind and acknowledge it in a non-judgmental, neutral way, whether you are skeptical about mindfulness benefits, preoccupied by something else, or any other emotion you are caught up in. Then refocus on getting ready.
Mindfulness needs a focus, but what it is is up to you, as long as it is in the “here and now”. You could choose to concentrate on your breathing and how air flows in through your nose, into your lungs and how they expand and contract with each breath. Or you could choose to focus on a smell, making a conscious effort to be aware of it at every moment, or choose a favorite food and concentrate on the taste in your mouth; or looking at a picture or your garden and noticing every single detail in it.
During those 10 minutes, your mind is very likely to wander many times, and it is absolutely normal. The point of this exercise is to become aware of these internal distractions as soon as they occur and to regain your focus each time. While the application to social anxiety may not seem apparent, doing this exercise yourself will set the foundations and reinforce the effect of your mindfulness therapy, by reprogramming your mind to actively focus on immediate surroundings and sensations and deliberately push away future challenges that may or may not arise but make you anxious all the same.
Mindfulness Techniques for Social Anxiety in Action
Mindfulness is particularly effective for those suffering from social anxiety, as social anxiety is a fear of what might happen in the future and mindfulness retrains your brain to think of what is happening right at this moment.
Let’s say, for example, that you have a job interview. Job interviews combine about all the worst elements for people suffering from social anxiety, all wrapped up in a terrifying package: you will have to deal, not only with strangers, but with a situation which, by definition, is about evaluating and judging you. In this context, the fact that your livelihood depends on being successful almost seems like a detail!
Before the interview, some of the thoughts that may be going through your mind could include things such as “People are bound to notice that I am nervous. They are going to think that I am strange and they wouldn’t want to have me on their team. How about if I forget what to say?”
Then during the interview, your anxiety will be accompanied by physical symptoms: hands shaking, shortness of breath, unsteady voice. They will reinforce your anxiety by making you feel that people cannot fail to notice and must think the most dreadful things about you.
These feelings, left unchecked, may spiral out of control and distract you greatly, making you unable to give your best and building more negative associations with this type of situation. They are caused by what is called “narrow focus” or “hyperfocus”, that is that you think people notice your anxiety and its signs more than they actually do. If they notice anything, it is more likely to be your own discomfort to your anxiety.
The aim of a mindfulness based cognitive therapy is to teach you to be aware of your thoughts and feelings, but as an outside observer, not a participant, and let them flow away. This will allow you to have a more objective perception of how visible your anxiety may or may not be to whoever you are in contact with, and let go.
So, in the case of a job interview for example, instead of thinking “I am so nervous, I will never manage to get through this job interview or get that job.”, mindfulness would redirect your thinking to “I am feeling nervous because of this job interview. But I know that they are temporary feelings and that they will soon go away.”
By refocusing the mind away from perceived future threats, the latter will gradually lose their importance and your anxiety in the build-up to facing the situation that stresses you will decrease. While it will be of the most importance to you, the good news is that it isn’t the only benefit you will draw from mindfulness meditation techniques.
Scientific research published in the American journal Health Psychology in July 2013 reveals that mindfulness based stress reduction techniques not only make you feel better, they are actually accompanied by a reduction in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the subjects monitored, which will help control your “fight-or-flight” instinctive response when thinking about a situation that makes you anxious.
Mindfulness also helps us to get to know our real self which is never a bad thing! People suffering from social anxiety are often marred by an exaggerated perception of their shortcomings which leads them to believe that they are inadequate and that everybody must be noticing. Practicing mindfulness based cognitive therapy will help them to reestablish a more realistic self-image.
By extension, it also makes you more aware of other people’s dynamics and will help you to achieve more rewarding human interactions, building positive associations with social situations, in a virtuous circle which will, over time, help you manage and even overcome your social anxiety.
To the risk of uttering a self-evident truth, being less anxious will also improve the quality of your sleep, and as mundane as it may sound, there is no denying that we are all better able to deal with challenges when we are rested.
While they may seem counter-intuitive, with their emphasis on acknowledging discomfort and anxiety in order to conquer them, mindfulness techniques for social anxiety are now widely recognized for their effectiveness although they may not be as familiar to the general public as cognitive behavioral therapy. They may take a while to master and this is why they are better practiced in the context of a bespoke therapy strategy with the help of a qualified professional, but they are well worth committing to. If you have some additional time, I recommend you take the time to go to this useful list of resources on the mindfulness experience website here: www.mindfulexperience.org
I sincerely hope you have found this information useful and that you can use mindfulness meditation to help you start to feel like you are gaining some control again.
All the best, Kyle
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