For the estimated 19.2 million Americans who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD, finding themselves in certain social situations can be almost debilitating. For those of us who have no experience with it, these people might seem unfriendly, withdrawn or introverted. However, the reality is that sufferers want to make friends, be involved in groups and interact socially. It is the anxiety of being judged or evaluated by others that causes the fear that holds them back.
Social Anxiety Disorder is the third most common mental disorder in the United States today. There is no single known cause, but research suggests that biological, psychological and environmental factors may play a role in its development. Because it is impossible (as of yet) to pinpoint an exact trigger for the disorder, it is also very difficult to treat. There are two common treatments for SAD, medication such as antidepressants and cognitive-behavior therapy, which usually includes a systematic desensitization where the person is introduced to uncomfortable situations and their thoughts are guided in a more rational direction.
This leads us to the next logical question: Is there something that sufferers can do on their own to help relieve some of the anxiety and discomfort that comes with SAD? Well, according to several studies, including two held at Stanford and Manchester Universities, the answer might be as simple as breathing.
Meditation, it’s a word that envelops a wide variety of practices that include techniques designed to promote relaxation, or develop compassion, love or patience, to build energy or sustain single-pointed concentration (among a few). Regardless of the destination, the journey of meditation itself can clear the mind and ease many different health issues. And every journey in meditation begins and ends with the breath.
One form of meditation that is being researched as a coping aid to Social Anxiety Disorder is known as mindfulness, or mindful meditation. What is it? It is the simple, yet often overlooked, act of focusing on the present moment as opposed to the past or the future. Originating in Zen Buddhism, mindfulness allows a person to accept thoughts and feelings as temporary sensations that can be responded to based on their present situation rather than past experiences.
A study headed by researcher of psychology Philippe Goldin, of Stanford University, found that after nine sessions of mindful meditation, participants with Social Anxiety Disorder felt less anxious, less depressed and had improved self-views. Before and after meditating participants underwent MRI scanning to observe brain activity regarding various positive and negative adjectives. After meditation, participants were more likely to pick positive words over negative ones. “Mindfulness meditation helped reduce people’s habit of grasping at negative attributes,” says Goldin.
Similarly, researchers at Manchester University found that those who practiced mindful meditation had less negative reactions to pain and the fear of pain. Anticipatory anxiety plays a large role in SAD, which led Chris Brown and colleagues to see if similar results could be obtained in patients with the condition. They were; changes in brain activity suggested that potential for the reduction of the symptoms of social anxiety.
In addition to all this, it is already known that meditation has a direct impact on the body’s nervous system. Breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and other physiological mechanisms respond favorably to this type of stimulus. Thus, given the negative effect that SAD can have on these functions, it is easy to deduce that meditation can and should be able to relieve symptoms for suffers even if evidence of treating the actual cause may still be in the infant stages.
There is only one way to know for sure. Set aside 10 minutes and put it to the test. Sit or lie in a comfortable position and begin by breathing. Be mindful of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Just breathe. As you breathe, allow yourself to become mindful of how you feel, what you smell, what your body is doing, everything that is present with you in that moment, acknowledge it. Picture your thoughts as passing cars, allowing them to come and go as they wish. They are not fact and they are not required to affect you, you need only acknowledge them and allow them to pass. This is the act of separating thought from reality. Anytime you begin to feel worry or fear or active concentration on a subject, just simply return to your breath.
There are many detailed publications regarding the practice of mindful meditation. The information is out there, but it is up to you to utilize it. Go ahead; create the You you’ve always wanted to be!
Jessica Martin-Stratton is a Reiki Master, Certified Hypnotherapist and Spiritual Life Coach, specializing in whole healing from the inside, out. Experienced in stone, crystal and aroma therapies, she has spent the last few years developing a holistic program dedicated to reintroducing us to our authentic selves and restoring balance between mind, body and spirit. She is currently enrolled in the Holistic Healthcare degree program at Southwest Institute of Healing Art in Tempe, AZ. Jessica currently lives in Surprise, AZ, with her husband, three beautiful kids and three not-so-beautiful dogs. She dreams of opening a whole-istic retreat after graduation to provide a save and encouraging environment for clients to actively achieve their goals. For more information email Jessica at: firstname.lastname@example.org.