Mindfulness-Based Therapy for Social Anxiety: What to Expect

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Experiencing nervousness in some social settings is an entirely normal human experience. However, some individuals experience more anxiety than others across nearly all social interactions. 

This condition, called social anxiety disorder, is a common mental disorder. It is marked by severe anxiety, self-consciousness, or embarrassment even with routine daily social interactions.

Social anxiety disorder often disrupts the lives of those who suffer from the condition. The stress, anxiety, and depression that may exist, affect relationships, daily routines, work, school, or other activities. Social anxiety symptoms include:

  • Fear of situations where others may judge you
  • Worrying about embarrassing or humiliating oneself
  • Intense fear of interacting or talking with strangers
  • Fear that others may notice your anxiousness or signs of anxiousness, such as blushing, sweating, trembling, or a shaky voice
  • Avoiding routine activities out of fear of embarrassment or becoming the center of attention
  • Anxiety in anticipation of social events
  • Intense fear or anxiety in social situations
  • Analysis of social interactions and identification of perceived flaws in one’s behavior
  • Expectations of the worst possible consequences from negative social interactions

While this condition may seem extreme, approximately 7.6% of the global population, or one in thirteen people, experience social phobia. In addition, it is the world’s third most common mental health disorder.

The Effects of Mindfulness

 

Mindfulness is a process that leads to a mental state of nonjudgmental awareness of the present experience. This includes one’s sensations, thoughts, bodily states, consciousness, and environment. It encourages openness, curiosity, and acceptance. 

Mindfulness is much different than our everyday daily experiences. Our minds wander during many daily activities as we go through daily activities ‘running on autopilot’. Up to 47% of our daily waking hours are spent in a state of mind-wandering. 

When we focus on internal experiences in the present, this attention is filled with self-critical and worrisome thoughts or emotions.  

Mindfulness may be challenging, but it keeps one’s mind focused on the present moment, which is associated with higher psychological well-being. Mindfulness, as a skill, requires expenditure in cognitive resources but results in higher cognitive flexibility, insight, and self-regulation abilities. 

Mindfulness is a skill. As such, it requires regular practice. As one’s ability to achieve a mindful state becomes stronger, one becomes more resilient to life’s everyday challenges, which results in less suffering. 

Mindfulness practices demonstrate therapeutic effects on emotional well-being. For this reason, mindfulness-based therapy can have an impact when treating social anxiety disorder.  

Treating Social Anxiety with Mindfulness-Based Therapy

 

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) have been shown to reduce social anxiety disorder symptoms. 

One type of this therapy is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or MBCT. Certain meditation practices can help ease social anxiety and boost confidence in this approach. 

Mindfulness meditation helps individuals distinguish between what their thoughts are telling them and the facts in a current situation. It changes thinking patterns by training individuals to recognize damaging thoughts as only thoughts. 

The overall strategies of CBT are to develop strategies that allow individuals with social anxiety disorder to face their fears using techniques that calm the mind and body. They can then passively observe thoughts, allowing them to come and go without judgment. 

As a tool in CBT treatment, mindfulness meditation can be very valuable as a treatment for social anxiety disorder. 

During meditation, individuals can shift their focus from negative thoughts by focusing on breathing and one’s body. It can help one achieve stress reduction before, during, and after social interactions. 

Mindfulness-based therapies not only calms those with social anxiety; they can alter various structures in the brain when they are regularly practiced. 

The benefits of mindfulness-based interventions are not just theoretical. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials demonstrates that these interventions are more effective than no treatment and equally effective to specific active treatment. 

In these trials, the effects of mindfulness-based therapy included alleviation of depressive symptoms and improved mindfulness and acceptance. They also resulted in improved quality of life and self-compassion. 

Additional outcomes associated with mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy include:

  • Lowered risk of relapse for depression
  • Alleviation of current depressive symptoms
  • Alleviated stress levels
  • Alleviation of several medical outcomes, such as chronic pain and psychological or emotional distress. 

Mindfulness-based therapy(s) also often change specific aspects of psychopathology, such as cognitive biases, affective dysregulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. 

MBSR and MBCT are the two predominant mindfulness-based interventions used to treat social anxiety disorder. MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1980s and was initially used to treat chronic pain. However, it has been applied to many other medical and psychiatric patient populations since that time. 

MBSR is an 8-week treatment program designed to reduce stress through mindfulness meditation. In addition, there are weekly meditation classes where individuals can learn to mindfully attend to body sensations. 

When compliant, patients often find a reduction in anxiety symptoms. It is a safe and effective treatment for reducing emotional dysregulation and social anxiety disorder. 

MBCT was developed to prevent relapse of major depression. It combines elements of mindfulness training and cognitive therapy. It can aid individuals with recognizing the deterioration of mood without judging or reacting to the change. It can also teach them to disengage from repetitive negative thinking that can contribute to depression. 

MBCT is effective in reducing rates of relapse among those with major depression. In addition, it can reduce depressive symptoms post-treatment. 

Ultimately, both types of mindfulness-based therapies can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms across those with many types of medical or psychiatric conditions. 

Mindfulness-based interventions reduce symptoms more than psychoeducation, supportive psychotherapy, relaxation training, and imagery or suppression techniques. And the benefits extended for a prolonged post-treatment period, ranging from three weeks to three years. 

These studies indicate that mindfulness-based therapy can be very effective at treating social anxiety disorders. Patients who comply with mindfulness treatment interventions can experience a marked decrease in the severity of their symptoms. And this benefit can make it easier to engage in many everyday activities.

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