Meditation Helps People with Social Anxiety

Researchers at Stanford have some advice for those prone to social anxiety disorder: meditate.

In a study headed by psychology researcher Philippe Goldin, a research scientist and head of the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience group in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, participants with social anxiety disorder underwent a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.

After the two-month meditation training, participants were less anxious and thought of themselves more positively. People with social anxiety disorder tend to be overly critical of themselves and often believe others are assuming the worst about them. While many people beat themselves up once in a while, people with social anxiety get stuck on negative views of themselves. In the study, Goldin, along with postdoctoral scholar Wiveka Ramel and psychology Professor James Gross, found that nine sessions of mindfulness meditation training made people with social anxiety disorder feel less anxious and less depressed and improved their self-views.

Before and after meditating, participants went into an MRI scanner that observed their brain activity and were told to decide if various positive and negative adjectives presented on a screen appropriately described them. After meditation, participants were more likely to pick positive words like “admired” and “loved” and less likely to choose negative adjectives like “coward” and “afraid.” The finding suggests that mindfulness meditation might make it easier for people to shift between ways of viewing themselves, Goldin said. The meditation also caused an increase in brain activity in areas that involve visual attention.

People with social anxiety often try to avoid things by diverting their gaze from people and things that might be threatening. But this increase in visual attention “means that instead of running away they were staying with the stimulus,” Goldin says.