How is Mindfulness Used to Cope with Social Anxiety Disorder?

An Overview of the Practice of Mindfulness for SAD

Use mindfulness to reduce your social anxiety.
Mindfulness is a path to reduce social anxiety. Getty/ All Canada Photos / Oleksiy Maksymenko

Mindfulness can be a helpful practice for social anxiety disorder. One of the ways that people who suffer with social anxiety disorder (SAD) become overwhelmed by anxious thoughts is by worrying about what might happen. The other way is by worrying about what is happening.

Choosing Mindfulness

Stop for a second and notice what you are thinking about. Are you focused on your own thoughts and feelings, paying attention to something in your environment, or worrying about the future? 

For example, perhaps you have an upcoming speech to give. Some of the thoughts that go through your head in the days or weeks leading up to the speech might include, "What if everyone notices I am nervous" or "What if I go blank or forget what to say."

During the speech, you might notice your hands shaking or feel like you can't catch your breath. Thoughts that might go along with these feelings include, "My hands are shaking so much everyone must notice" or "I will never be able to finish. I can't even breathe properly."

These thoughts and feelings start to spiral out of control because of the narrow focus you have on your anxious symptoms. In order to combat this so-called "hyperfocus," some therapists have introduced a component to therapy called "mindfulness."

Mindfulness as Treatment

Mindfulness is often used as a complement to cognitive behavioral therapy in a treatment called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The goal of mindfulness is to learn how to detach yourself from your thoughts and feelings and view them as an outside observer.

Narrow to Broad

A very simplified approach to mindfulness would involve first recognizing what it is like to have a narrow focus. If you are wrapped up in your own thoughts, feelings and sensations, chances are your focus is narrow. In order to really magnify your narrowed focus, pay attention to your breath.

  • Once you have narrowed your focus, it's time to switch to a broader type of awareness.
  • Imagine your thoughts and feelings as a stream of consciousness flowing past you.
  • Watch the stream (and your thoughts and feelings) move past with a level of detached involvement.
  • See them as an outsider would, rather than from your own perspective.

For example, instead of thinking, "I am so anxious. I will never get through this speech," mindfulness would have you notice your anxiety with the thought, "Sometimes I have anxious feelings, but they are temporary. I know they will soon pass."

Brain Changes

Being mindful means letting anxious thoughts pass you by rather than becoming stuck. Over time you may even rewire the brain processes involved so that the experience of being mindful becomes more automatic. Mindfulness activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which in turn helps to control the emotional brain structures that begin the cycle of panic and anxiety.

Mindfulness and ACT

Mindfulness has many things in common with acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). ACT is a set of therapeutic techniques that has roots in Buddhist philosophy. Mindfulness also has underpinnings in meditation, a practice that has been in use for thousands of years.

A Word From Verywell

Although mindfulness is best practiced as part of a comprehensive therapy program, you can also engage in this technique on your own to learn how to become more in control of your thoughts and emotions. Instead of reacting to your stream of consciousness, you can re-train your brain to take a more active and intentional role. For those with social anxiety disorder, this can be a valuable self-help exercise that may have a lasting effect on your level of anxiety in social and performance situations.

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