Social anxiety is common in Western countries, making usual social situations unbearable. Studies show that mindfulness can alleviate it.
I'm sure that we can all identify at least one time where we felt very uncomfortable in a social situation. Maybe it was when we were hanging out with a group of people that we didn't really identify ourselves with? Or during our first day at new work/school and we didn't feel comfortable being completely ourselves among new people? I'm sure all of us have felt sweaty palms and/or our racing heartbeat before giving a presentation at some point.
It is totally normal to feel uncomfortable in certain social situations from time to time, especially if we find ourselves among new people or groups that we don't feel like we belong with. Or if we have to perform in front of others.
Some, however, experience much more discomfort in social situations than the usual nervousness, which may even intervene with every-day life. This is called social anxiety, which oftentimes makes regular social situations too much to handle.
Social anxiety disorder makes "normal" situations, such as looking someone in the eye, or making small talk, very uncomfortable. It is also found to be highly associated with low self-esteem (1). Since low self-esteem makes you think more negatively of yourself, it can also make you believe that others think negatively of you.
Nowadays, social anxiety is extremely common, having the highest prevalence in high income countries (2). In Europe, North America and Australia, social anxiety disorder prevalence is estimated to be somewhere between 5-10% (2,3).
Just like other anxiety disorders, social anxiety varies greatly in its severity among those who have it. It's important though to be aware that social anxiety is common and there's a high chance that someone you know has it.
The overwhelming fear in social anxiety is typically due to feeling as though you're constantly being judged by others and you may experience constant embarrassment. You may also be anxious about accidentally offending someone or fear being the centre of attention.
From the neuroscience perspective, the brain areas that are affected in social anxiety are, among others, the ones responsible for attention - prefrontal cortex (orange), dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (blue), posterior cingulate (green), precuneus inferior parietal lobe and the submarginal gyrus (purple) (4). The activity in those brain regions is diminished in adults with social anxiety.
Amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotional processing, also plays very important role in social anxiety (3). It tends to be overactive, which basically makes it harder control emotions.
While cases of social anxiety certainly require help of professionals, mindfulness can help to cope with mild forms of it, as well as general nervousness in social situations.
This was shown in a study performed on undergraduate students, which measured their levels of social anxiety and levels of mindfulness (4). The researchers also looked into the students' self-esteem.
Their results showed that higher levels of mindfulness indeed predicted lower levels of social anxiety. It also showed that higher self-esteem was associated with less social anxiety. This study therefore found the connection between more mindful individuals having higher self-esteem and lower social anxiety (4).
While the study only looked into Australian undergraduate students, limiting it to only one geographic area and a very homogenous group, it was concise with previous studies done, confirming the same effects (4).
Another study, looking into the effects of mindfulness on social anxiety on the brain, showed similar results. The brain regions responsible for attention, shown in the picture, increased in their activity after individuals with social anxiety underwent a form of mindfulness therapy (3). The amygdala, responsible for emotion processing, which is overactive in social anxiety, decreased its activity (3). This all together led to less social anxiety.
Mindfulness can therefore compliment your current treatment for social anxiety, or in case of very mild form, it can be tried to see if the social situations become easier.
The great part is that mindfulness can be done anywhere and anytime. You can start by drawing your attention to your breath several times a day and focusing purely on the inhale and exhale for a while.
Simultaneously, you can try to focus on how your body is feeling at the moment, or perform "body checks" several times a day where you scan your entire body with your mind and try to feel every sensation in each part of the body.
You can also bring your awareness to what you are currently doing by focusing exactly on what is happening in the moment.
For example, while on the way to work, you might think about how the meeting with your boss will go later. Instead, try to focus on what's happening around you. Try to observe everything, including what you see, hear, feel, smell and taste. Try to keep being aware of what's happening for as long as possible and bring back your awareness once it drifts off to the meeting with your boss again.
These simple tricks may alleviate your anxiety in the long term. However, it might also be more effective to incorporate meditation in your every day routine as it really trains you to be in the present moment.
While mindfulness is scientifically proven to help with social anxiety, it is always best to speak with a healthcare professional beforehand in order to find what works best for you. It may be the case that you need professional help and mindfulness can then act as a supplementary tool to feel better and more harmonious in your every-day life.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence on meditation and some techniques that I will post in this blog.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Baumeister, R.F. and Twenge, J.M. 2003. “The social self”. In Handbook of psychology: Vol. 5. Personality and social psychology, Edited by: Millon, T., Lerner, M.J. and Weiner, I.B. 327–352. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
2. Stein, D. J., Lim, C., Roest, A. M., de Jonge, P., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Al-Hamzawi, A.WHO World Mental Health Survey Collaborators (2017). The cross-national epidemiology of social anxiety disorder: Data from the World Mental Health Survey Initiative. BMC medicine, 15(1), 143. doi:10.1186/s12916-017-0889-2.
3. Goldin PR, Gross JJ. Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on Emotion Regulation in Social Anxiety Disorder. Emotion. 2010;10(1):83–91.
4. Michael K. Rasmussen & Aileen M. Pidgeon (2011) The direct and indirect benefits of dispositional mindfulness on self-esteem and social anxiety, Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 24:2, 227-233, DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2010.515681