Social anxiety happens when we become ‘self conscious’ in social situations.
So what does being ‘self conscious’ mean? Contrary to what the word ‘self conscious’ seems to imply, it has nothing to do with having a high level of consciousness. In-fact, it is the opposite.
When you are self conscious, your awareness/attention is lost in a negative thought pattern. And because your awareness is ‘lost’, it cannot be considered a conscious state. A conscious state is when you are aware of your awareness (or aware of your attention).
The thought pattern in this case can be considered negative because it has painful memories associated with it. It could be a memory of hurt, shame, pain, criticism or ridicule.
When I was a kid, I got ridiculed at a birthday party for not bringing along a gift. There was a kid who even joked around that I should take off my clothes and give it as a gift. And as a sensitive kid, I felt hurt. Yup, kids can come across as cruel because they speak their mind. They purely operate out of a sub-conscious program and if their parents/environment have programmed them badly, they automatically display bad behavior.
Anycase, coming back to the point, growing up, I experienced ridicule in a few other birthday parties as well. And because of such constant reinforcement, a sub-conscious thought pattern was formed in my mind. This thought pattern now associated birthday parties with the feeling of hurt and on a broader level, attending any function where there is a larger gathering as something that needs to be avoided as it could lead to feelings of hurt.
So even as an adult, the very mention of the word ‘birthday parties’ would activate these thought patterns in me and I felt some amount of anxiety taking over. I absolutely dreaded birthday parties or any other parties for that matter.
Every thought pattern has an associated emotion
It is to be noted here that a deeply etched thought pattern like this one always has an associated bodily emotion because thought is to the mind, as emotion is to the body.
So whenever a thought pattern gets activated, an associated emotion is felt in the body. In case of a negative thought pattern, the emotion is negative like that of fear, hate and anger.
Another point to note is that the ‘thought-emotion’ connection is cyclic in nature. In other words, thoughts generate emotions and the presence of emotions generates more thoughts. This intensifies the anxiety to the point where we start to experience difficult physical reactions like sweating, inability to think, stammering etc.
Eventually, this could even lead to panic attacks in some cases.
So that is what anxiety is in a nutshell: A negative thought pattern gets formed based on past conditioning/memory which has an associated bodily emotion. During an anxiety attack, this thought pattern gets activated and your attention gets lost in this pattern strengthening it. An associated emotion is felt in the body which further fuels the thought pattern and in-turn gets fueled by the thought pattern resulting in a cyclic phenomenon which eventually results in unwanted physiological responses like sweating, stammering, inability to think etc.
Okay, so what is the solution to this?
The solution is awareness. The more awareness you have, the better will be your ability to tackle such unconscious/unaware reactions.
During an anxiety attack, you are unaware of your attention and hence it gets lost in the negative thought pattern making you self conscious. Once you bring awareness to your attention, you can sense where your attention is focused and then refocus your attention on empowering thoughts instead of thoughts that give rise to negative sensations.
If you have gone through the above articles, it will be easier for you to understand the following pointers.
So here is an exercise you can do to slowly start gaining freedom from extreme anxiety.
1. Become aware of the thought pattern and the associated emotion
As mentioned earlier, every thought in the mind creates an associated emotional response in the body. The point is to become aware of both the thought pattern and the associated emotion it generates.
Here is an exercise you can do to achieve this:
Sit or lie down, close your eyes and take a few seconds to become aware of your attention. In other words, find out where your attention is, on what thoughts is it focused on? Once you are aware of your attention, bring your thoughts to your body. Run your attention through your body and relax areas that feel tensed up. Now shift your attention to your breath as you breathe in deeply.
After a few seconds, bring to your mind a past social situation that gave rise to anxiety in you. As you think of this social situation, the associated thought pattern and emotions will start to take over.
At this point stay aware of the thoughts running your mind. Do not get lost in the thoughts, do not interpret or further engage the thought. Now see if there is an emotion present in the body. Become aware of this emotional energy.
2. Consciously feel the emotion
The next step is to consciously divert your attention from thinking to feeling.
Consciously feel the emotions that this thought generates. Become aware as to how the emotion feels like and where it is located. In most cases, it would be located in the center of your chest, around your neck or in and around your gut. See if there are any sensations associated with this emotion.
Be conscious of the pace of your heartbeat and other physical changes this emotion creates in your body.
The idea is to give your complete attention to ‘feeling’ the emotion and at the same time staying aware of your attention. Do to get lost in the emotion. If you get lost in the emotion, the emotion will give rise to stronger thought patters of hate and anger which in turn will intensify the emotion.
So stay aware of your attention and use your complete attention to feel the emotion.
If the emotion goes away, recreate the thought in your mind and see if the emotion returns.
If you do not feel any emotion, it just means that the emotional energy associated with this thought pattern has dispersed. You have released the emotion from your body. Once the associated emotion is released, the thought pattern begins to break down. Its influence over you starts to reduce.
Note: There is a difference between consciously feeling an emotion and simply feeling the effect of an emotion. Feeling the effect is what we generally do. For example, feeling angry is an effect that the emotion generates. The idea is to not feel the effect but to feel the energy of the emotion itself. Do not label the energy, don’t try to suppress it or express its effect but simply feel it fully and consciously.
3. Rinse and repeat
You can do this exercise to release all kinds of fears that is the result of past conditioning. The more fears you release this way, the stronger your mind will become.
If you have a fear of darkness or of ghosts, try doing this exercise with thoughts associated with ghosts. You might have seen a horror movie as a kid (or were told horror stories) and the memories would have created a thought pattern and an associated emotion of fear.
So think of the horror scene that caused intense fear in you, and consciously divert your attention from your thoughts to your body and feel the associated emotion of this fear.
To strengthen this practice, or to get maximum out of this practice, you need to grow your awareness and thereby learn to think consciously and feel consciously.
The next time you are in a social situation, you will start to feel the changes. The emotional reaction will be a lot lower than before and you will be better in control. Again, become aware of the emotions in your body. Feel them completely so they begin to dissipate and do not fuel your thoughts.
When you go back home, repeat the above exercise by reliving the social experience by thinking about it and then feeling the associated emotions consciously.