Kevin Schjerning, a 48-year-old film and video editor, doesn’t simply dislike social gatherings; he finds them overwhelming. “I basically feel claustrophobic,” he says. “I have to get out of there.”
An estimated 22 million people in the U.S. have social anxiety disorder, an intense and disabling fear of being judged or humiliated in social situations. Living with this disorder can make day-to-day social interactions a painful challenge. Even the prospect of meeting a friend for lunch might be daunting.
The most common treatment for this problem has been cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teaches the socially anxious to challenge and question their own negative thinking. But a new generation of researchers is finding that mindfulness training can help people like Kevin overcome this debilitating condition.
“Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, without trying to get to some goal or escape anything,” explains Steve Flowers, the author of The Mindful Path through Shyness.
Growing in popularity and use, mindfulness is often learned through meditation practice, in which one observes an experience—starting with something simple, like breathing—without trying to change, control, or judge it. That mindful attitude, once mastered, can then be brought to any activity, whether making small talk at the post office or giving a major presentation at work.
But for those with social anxiety disorder, everyday life is anything but mindful. Daniel Giavedoni, 26, says his fears about how people might perceive him would cause him to delay replying to important emails for weeks at a time—and of course, the longer he waited, the more self-conscious and anxious he became.
“I’m worried what people are wondering,” he says. “It snowballs.”
Learning to work through fears, rather than avoid them, is one of the core skills of a group therapy program developed by Jan Fleming and Nancy Kocovski, the authors of The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Social Anxiety and Shyness. For example, says Kocovski, instead of ending a conversation as soon as they feel themselves breaking into a nervous sweat, group members learn to “notice the sweating, be more accepting of it, and finish the conversation.” A 2009 study conducted by the authors found the treatment reduced both social anxiety and depression. Other studies have found that mindfulness training activates areas of the brain that help to manage emotions.
The power of a mindfulness practice, however, may come in the realization that one can live a meaningful life even with social anxiety. Schjerning, who participated in Fleming and Kocovski’s group, says that he still feels nervous in social situations but now feels compassion—not judgment—for himself, and sees that “I can be more the person I want to be.”
Manage Shyness Mindfully
Try these five tips for coping with social anxiety:
- Accept your shyness instead of fighting it. You may get nervous in social situations, but that’s OK. Learn to appreciate this as a part of yourself.
- Focus on your whole experience. Instead of just scrutinizing your own behavior, pay attention to your surroundings, the conversation at hand, or whatever you’re doing.
- Recognize that you are not alone: over 22 million people in the U.S. live with this challenge.
- Cultivate self-compassion: experiencing social anxiety doesn’t lessen your worth or value as a person.
- Remember that this moment is just one moment: anxieties and fears, especially in social situations, will come and go. They won’t last forever.
Jason Drwal is a freelance writer, blogger, psychologist, and avid practitioner of mindfulness.