Around 12.1% of adults experience social anxiety disorder (SAD) at some point in their lives. This disorder is characterised by a lasting, strong fear of social situations or those in which one is called upon to ‘perform’ in public. People with social anxiety may fear that people will judge or criticise them because of behaviours they may display in public.
Sometimes, one’s fear is limited to specific situations (for instance, speaking before a crowd, eating in public, or attending a party with people one doesn’t know very well). A person may fear that they will blush, choke while they are eating, or blurt out something silly. Social anxiety can seriously interfere with a person’s ability to study, work, or create and sustain meaningful relationships. The two main therapies for SAD are cognitive-behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy (which relies on mindfulness and acceptance). Among the many natural approaches to reducing the symptoms of SAD are controlled breathing and mindfulness.
Breath work for SAD
A person with SAD who has a social occasion to attend may experience extreme distress before or during the event. Their symptoms can manifest themselves in a panic attack, which results from breathing in too much oxygen and setting off a range of physiological processes that can result in pain, breathlessness, and a racing heart rate. Persons with SAD can quell the fight or flight response by learning controlled breathing techniques. Two effective and popular techniques are belly breathing and alternate nostril breathing.
Belly breathing is an exercise that anyone can perform when they are in a high-stress situation. This technique involves breathing in through the nose and expanding one’s belly during the inhale phase. As one exhales, one should feel the belly return to its normal size.
The process of exhalation should take several seconds (aim to exhale for a few seconds more than you took during inhalation. After a few breaths, people with SAD and other types of anxiety may notice an immediate response from their bodies. For instance, their heart rate may be slower, and they may feel an immediate sense of control over their stress response.
Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing ensures you do not take in too much oxygen. To perform this technique, cover the right nostril and breathe in through the left. Cover the left nostril and breathe out through the right. Next, inhale through the right nostril, covering the left one. Breathe out through the left nostril. Repeat this cycle for around five minutes.
This breathing technique can help improve cardiovascular function, improve respiratory endurance, and lower your heart rate. During a panic attack, it can help you calm down significantly.
Mindfulness meditation and acceptance
In order to battle the destructive thoughts that characterise SAD, therapists often encourage patients to either reframe negative thoughts into positive ones or encourage them to take a mindful, accepting approach to their thoughts and emotions. Research has shown that mindful acceptance can be more effective than reframing because it requires less cognitive effort during a difficult moment. Mindfulness meditation involves allowing negative thoughts (such as fear or rejection, criticism, or embarrassment) to exist in one’s mind. Instead of repressing these emotions, people are encouraged to see them as ‘waves’ that one sometimes needs to surf over. These painful thoughts and emotions do not define a person, nor are they permanent.
Social anxiety disorder affects millions of people across the globe. Research has shown that both controlled breathing (including belly breathing and alternate nostril breathing) can help calm a person with SAD. So, too, can mindful acceptance of the barrage of thoughts that can run through their mind when they are contemplating facing a difficult social situation. While these approaches are often carried out with the help of a therapist, people with SAD and those with high-stress lifestyles can also benefit from trying them at home.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.