social-anxiety disorder

Relax needless fear around others

Young woman with long straight hair and bangs smoking a cigarette and giving the finger.

We all know this fear. You’re walking down a street, someone you don’t know comes toward you, and there’s a second or more of wariness, scanning, apprehension, and tension or bracing in the body: a barely conscious assessment of possible threat.

Or you step into a meeting with people you know and still there could be a watchfulness, a restraint, a certain carefulness in how you speak that comes more from subtle anxiety than reasonable prudence.

Perhaps someone disagrees with you in this meeting – and you feel uneasy, off balance, unprotected; maybe later you worry what others thought about how you responded to the disagreement: Was I too irritated and pushy? Do they think I’m defensive? What should I do next time?

When you get home, let’s say your teenage son is quiet and prickly as usual. You want to tell him that the chilly distance between you feels awful, and you want to open your heart to him . . . but it feels awkward, you’re afraid of making things worse, and when you spoke from the heart while growing up it did not go well and the fears reaching back into your childhood shadow and strengthen your fears today, so you say nothing, again.

And these are just the milder anxieties. Consider stronger ones, such as common fears about others getting angry, public speaking, being vulnerable, talking with authority figures, what others might think about your body, or being around people who aren’t like you.

Sometimes these fears are justified. People at home or work might actually want to hurt you. On a larger scale, think about Europe as it lurched into World War II, a time when many people treated others terribly, and when underestimating this threat had devastating consequences; there are many similar examples.

But often our fears around other people are not justified. They could care less about what we did – we are usually just a bit player in their own personal drama, anyway – or if they do care, it’s a passing feeling. Even if the other person does react, most likely you could handle it fine.

Further, if there truly is something to deal with – a conflict, issue, broken agreement, betrayal – it is possible to be clear-eyed, strong, straightforward, confident, and secure without being anxious about it (see the chapter on kindness and assertiveness in Buddha’s Brain. Anxiety is something added to our response to situations; sometimes it’s helpful, but usually it clouds thinking, adds needless suffering, and fuels conflicts with others.

So there are two kinds of mistakes we can make: having too little or too much anxiety around others. We should do our best to avoid making either kind. But which mistake is more common?

It’s the second one: needless anxiety stirred into the sauce of life, making it bitter.

Be mindful of anxiety around others, especially subtle unease, concern, tension, nervousness, or worry. Tune into your body, that little jump in heartrate or funny feeling in the pit of your stomach. Watch the thoughts passing through, the quiet murmuring in the back of the mind that overestimates threats and underestimates resources, that predicts problems which are actually unlikely.

Be aware of the costs to you of unnecessary – not useful, not valuable – anxiety. Besides feeling bad, it makes a person play smaller with others, hold back his or her truth, and hunker down – or go to war, in ways small or large. Then really decide in your heart if you want to be free of this worthless fear.

With someone who you know cares about you, try saying to yourself (adapt my suggestions to your needs): I know you’re not going to attack me. Find your way to having the statement ring true, and then see how you feel. Do it again with this statement to yourself: Even if you did attack me, I would still be OK in the core of my being. Let the truth of this and related good feelings sink into you. Here’s another one: I can take care of myself around you. Let this, too, sink in.

And: If you hurt me, I’ll still be OK in my core. And: I wish you well. If you have any difficulty with this practice, try other people who love you. The essence here is to feel your way into a place in which you recognize others and situations as they truly are, you take care of your own needs, and no needless anxiety is added.

Then try this practice with one or more friends . . . and then with a neutral person, such as a stranger on the street . . . and then even with someone who is difficult for you. If there is truly something to be anxious about, so be it. Otherwise, keep opening to the experience of being realistic about others and strong on your own behalf – without feeling any pointless fear.

Also try this approach when interacting with others. Can you talk with a family member, a friend, a neutral person, and a difficult person without one bit of unnecessary worry, alarm, sense of threat, or uneasiness? As you deepen your sense of being appropriately fearless with others, keep letting this experience sink in so you become increasingly grounded in this way or being.

Enjoy the sense of freedom this practice brings, the greater ease with others, the confidence. Notice how you can be more relaxed, patient, open, and caring with other people when you are not afraid.

What a comfort, and what a relief.

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Buddha Lessons (Newsweek)

Claudia Kalb, Newsweek International: A technique called ‘mindfulness’ teaches how to step back from pain and the worries of life.

At the age of 39, Janet Clarke discovered that she had a benign spinal tumor, which caused her unremitting back pain. Painkillers helped, but it wasn’t until she took a meditation course in Lytham that Clarke discovered a powerful weapon inside her own body: her mind. Using a practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Clarke learned to acknowledge the aching, rather than fight it. “It was about getting in touch with your body, rather than your head,” she says. “Mindfulness gives you something painkillers can’t—an attitude for living your life.”

With its roots in ancient Buddhist traditions, mindfulness is now gaining ground as an antidote for everything from type-A stress to depression. At the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts, where MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, 15,000 people have taken an eight-week course in the practice; hundreds more have signed up at medical clinics across the United States. Now scientists are using brain imaging and blood tests to study the biological effects of meditation. The research is capturing interest at the highest levels: the Dalai Lama is so intrigued he has joined forces with the Mind & Life Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which supports research on meditation and the mind. Next month, scientists will meet with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, for a major conference on the neuroplasticity of the brain. “People used to think that this was a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo,” says psychologist Ruth Baer, of the University of Kentucky. “Now they’re saying, ‘Hey, we should start paying attention’.”

Paying attention is the very essence of mindfulness. In 45-minute meditations, participants learn to observe the whirring thoughts of the mind and the physical sensations in the body. The guiding principle is to be present moment to moment, to be aware of what’s happening, but without critique or judgment. It is not easy. Our “monkey mind,” as Buddhists call the internal chaos, keeps us swinging from past regrets to future worries, leaving little time for the here and now. First attempts may provoke frustration (“I’ll never be able to do this”), impatience (“When will this be over?”) and even banal mental sparks (“What am I going to make for dinner?”). The goal, however, is not to reach nirvana, but to observe the cacophony in a compassionate way, to accept it as transient, “like bubbles forming in a pot of water or weather patterns in the sky,” says Kabat-Zinn.

The keystone of mindfulness is daily meditation, but the practice is intended to become a way of life. At Stanford University, Philippe Goldin encourages patients battling social-anxiety disorder to take “meaningful pauses” throughout the day as a way to monitor and take charge of their fears and self-doubts. Inner control can be a potent tool in the fight against all sorts of chronic conditions. In a pilot study of 18 obese women, Jean Kristeller, director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality at Indiana State University, found that mindfulness meditation, augmented with special eating meditations (slowly savoring the flavor of a piece of cheese, say), helped reduce binges from an average of four per week to one and a half.

Mindfulness takes you out of the same old patterns. You’re no longer battling your mind in the boxer’s ring—you’re watching, with interest, from the stands. The detachment doesn’t lead to passivity, but to new ways of thinking. This is especially helpful in depression, which plagues sufferers with relentless ruminations. University of Toronto psychiatry professor Zindel Segal, along with British colleagues John Teasdale at Oxford and Mark Williams at Cambridge, combines mindfulness with conventional cognitive behavioral therapy, teaching patients to observe sadness or unhappiness without judgment. In a study of patients who had recovered from a depressive episode, Segal and colleagues found that 66 percent of those who learned mindfulness remained stable (no relapse) over a year, compared with 34 percent in a control group.

The biological impact of mindfulness is the next frontier in scientific research. In a study published several years ago, Kabat-Zinn found that when patients with psoriasis listened to meditation tapes during ultraviolet-light therapy, they healed about four times faster than a control group. More recently, Kabat-Zinn and neuroscientist Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, found that after eight weeks of MBSR, a group of biotech employees showed a greater increase in activity in the left prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain associated with a happier state of mind—than colleagues who received no meditation training. Those with the greatest left-brain activation also mounted the most vigorous antibody assault against a flu vaccine.

There’s more in the pipeline. Stanford’s Goldin is taking brain images to see if mindfulness affects emotional trigger points, like the amygdala, which processes fear. And at the University of Maryland, Dr. Brian Berman is tracking inflammation levels in rheumatoid arthritis patients who study mindfulness. One of them, Dalia Isicoff, says the payoff is already clear: “I’m at peace,” she says. Mind and body, together.

With Clint Witchalls in London

Original article no longer available…

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