Feeling out of place or anxious in a group of strangers or worrying about what other people think of you is more common than you may think. With conversations around mental health becoming more open and transparent, you may find that many have the same thoughts and feelings that you do when it comes to social anxiety.
According to the ADAA, social anxiety disorder affects 15 million adult Americans. That’s 6.8% of the U.S. population, annually. It affects both men and women equally and it usually begins in the preteen years. There are many practices that you can take up to help with social anxiety including therapy, mindfulness, and yes, even yoga.
So can yoga help my social anxiety? While yoga is not a cure-all for what you may be experiencing, it can certainly help. A yoga practice can teach you how to change your response to a challenging situation. It can also alleviate the physical stress that triggers anxiety, and help you to become conscious of the subconscious patterns that create your anxiety.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety isn’t just the jitters of meeting someone new or standing in front of a crowd of people you don’t know. It is intense anxiety or fear of being negatively evaluated, judged, or rejected in social scenarios. This can be at school, work, or in public. The anxiety can hinder your ability to function and can keep you from experiencing a life you enjoy.
Almost everyone has felt anxious at some point in social situations. But those with social anxiety are more likely to find it challenging to make and keep friends and interact during social situations.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
There can many causes of social anxiety. It can also stem from a combination of different things. Some causes include:
- Genetics: Anxiety disorders can be genetic. However, social anxiety itself hasn’t yet been pinned to a specific gene.
- Environment: You may be prone to social anxiety if you have experienced a traumatizing social embarrassment at an early age. If your caretakers modeled anxious, controlling, or protective behavior, you may also have social anxiety as an adult.
- An overactive brain: If you have a hypersensitive or overactive amygdala, your brain has a heightened fear response. This fear response fires up during social situations.
Your Nervous System and Yoga
Yoga helps to regulate the responses of the autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system consists of the parasympathetic system and the sympathetic system. The parasympathetic system turns “on” with rest, relaxation. The sympathetic system turns “on” with excitement – namely the fight-or-flight response to negative stressors.
Studies have proven that yoga in the form of breath, meditation, increases serotonin and dopamine, both the body’s natural antidepressants. It also activates your parasympathetic system instead of your sympathetic system.
Yoga has proven to decrease physiological arousal by:
- Lowering your heart rate
- Lowering your blood pressure
- Promoting better breath management
How Yoga Helps Your Social Anxiety
In addition to the physiological side of things, your yoga practice can help you to retrain your mind and your reactions. Physical asana practice, breathwork, or meditation trains you to become the conscious observer of your thoughts and emotions. These practices teach you to simply observe every moment you experience from a place of non-attachment and non-judgment.
Yoga can help you to:
Regulate Your Breathing
When you are stressed or anxious, one of the first things that you may feel is the inability to regulate your breathing. Yoga teaches you to stay calm under challenging circumstances and to stay steady with your breath. You can be in a challenging headstand and still have calm, slow, relaxed, and steady breathing. When you can find this breath in an anxious situation, you can help to dissolve your anxiety.
Recenter and Ground Yourself
The practice of physical yoga poses can be very grounding and centering for your physical body. When you feel this sense of grounding physically, it can translate mentally. You will feel more present and more centered walking off the mat and you can carry this feeling into your day.
Focus on the Present Moment
If your mind is constantly going to the past or to the future, yoga can train your mind to stay in the present moment. When you are in a yoga pose, you need to concentrate on the present moment, your breath, and your body in order to stay in the shape. This practice of remaining present is so powerful both on and off your mat.
Relax and Let Go
Have trouble letting go and simply allowing yourself to completely relax? Every yoga practice ends with Savasana, a pose where you let everything go. Every posture and moment in your practice leads up to this moment. You have prepared your mind and your body to completely relax. This feeling of complete relaxation can be restful not only for your body but for your mind as well.
Build Your Confidence
There is nothing like practicing a challenging pose that can boost your confidence. While the result is never the goal in yoga, it can feel so great to practice your first Chaturanga. Building inner confidence can be so healing and empowering and your yoga practice can help you do just that.
Become the Observer
Yoga teaches you to not attach to anything that you may be experiencing during practice. Instead, it teaches you to simply observe your mind, your breath, and your body. Next time you are in an anxious situation, you may be able to simply observe yourself, instead of getting caught up in your mind and in your thoughts. This is such a powerful practice, teaching you that you are not your thoughts and are simply the observer.
What Type of Yoga Will Help Me Overcome My Anxiety?
Any type of yoga will help you to achieve everything mentioned above. However, depending on your energy level and your needs, there are different styles of yoga that may be better suited for you. If the thought of sitting still for more than a few minutes makes you anxious, you can always try a more athletic style of yoga. Try a few different types of yoga before settling on the perfect practice.
Some practices include:
- Vinyasa Flow Yoga: This type of practice is perfect if your mind races and it’s challenging for you to sit still. In a Vinyasa practice, you are constantly moving with your breath. This type of yoga doesn’t leave too much space for anxious thoughts as it is very dynamic and challenging. , As you practice, you will become stronger, which will, in turn, breed inner confidence.
- Hot Yoga: Similar to Vinyasa yoga, Hot yoga is a challenging practice. Set in a heated room, you will be mentally and physically challenged to hold poses for longer periods of time. This type of practice builds mental toughness and clarity and can also be very confidence-boosting. It is likely that you will feel strong and accomplished coming out of your practice.
- Yin or Restorative Yoga: A restorative or a yin practice can help you to slow down and find your center. You will focus on your breath and your body in the present moment with longer, and more meditative holds. The poses can teach you to cultivate compassion toward yourself and others. There’s less room for anxiety in your mind when you are compassionate toward yourself and when you learn to slow down your mind.
- Hatha Yoga: If you are not a fan of the heat or a fast-moving practice, and a Restorative practice is too slow for you, try Hatha yoga. Similar to Hot yoga, you will practice longer holds and even some Pranayama, or breathwork, to slow down your body and your breath. This practice can be very meditative and relaxing.
Attending A Yoga Class Makes Me Feel Anxious
If heading to your local studio makes you feel anxious, know that you can absolutely practice in the privacy and comfort of your own home. There are a ton of online resources that can help you practice yoga in your living room or bedroom. From Youtube to online apps and private yoga teachers, there are so many ways that you can practice at home.
Once you find an online teacher or a class that you feel comfortable with, take it slow and be patient with yourself. Try not to be so hard on yourself or expect too much too soon, especially if you are new to the yoga practice. There is no ‘right’ way to feel, simply allow yourself to enjoy the journey of starting a new, healthy, and enriching practice.
Yoga is such a powerful practice. Not only are there physical and emotional benefits, but there are benefits to your mental health as well. Learning to remain present, calm, and grounded can help so much with social anxiety. It’s amazing how practicing yoga poses, mindfulness, and breathing on a mat can give you life-changing tools to manage anxious thoughts. Next, feel a sense of panic or anxiety flood over you, remember to tune back into your breath, your body, and the present moment.