Mental Health

How I Overcame Social Anxiety Fast (No Thanks To Reddit)

Ben Brewer
February 11, 2024
12 min read

A real solution to my social anxiety. Resolving old feelings that were subconsciously affecting my view of others. Deeper recovery and not just hiding the hurt inside better.

For ten years I suffered from progressively worsening fear, shame and discomfort around people. After spending five years on reddit's advice to push myself to talk to people and stop caring but seeing poor results, I was ultimately able to cure all my social anxiety by learning Vipassana meditation. Now I can socialize easily, it feels natural and good to express myself, at the basic level I am comfortable in my skin. All thanks to changes I made to my subconscious mind.

Because my recovery is unconventional, and because they say social anxiety can't be cured (only better managed), I know how it seems. Like bullshit because:

  1. Using meditation to change the subconscious sounds like pseudoscience.
  2. It contradicts conventional wisdom about social anxiety being a "thinking" issue.
  3. It sounds too good to be true.

When someone first suggested Vipassana to me, I dismissed it as a waste of time. To my surprise, a Vipassana course was well suited, treating under the surface and healing an injured emotional response (the root cause of my social anxiety). Ten days later which my social phobia was 70% gone.

The purpose of this post is to recommend others struggling with social anxiety look into this meditation practice that transformed how I feel around people. This is the post I wish I had read ten years ago.

What follows is the story of my struggle with social anxiety, and how I ultimately eliminated it and got back my life.

About Me

I am an introvert and highly sensitive person. I get energy from being alone, and I have a nervous system that is deeply affected by life. People especially. I pick up on subtle facial expressions and social cues. I'm highly stimulated in large crowds or as the center of attention.

While my “thin skin” made me naturally shy as a kid—there was nothing yet to suggest the catastrophe of my teenage years. Early on I wasn't completely in a shell. More quiet and reserved than other kids. But soon enough I came out and warmed up. Made friends and felt comfortable.

Social Anxiety Begins

Around age 13, that's when I noticed new feelings creep in. Inexplicably it began to feel harder around people—even my own family. It’s almost like my personality started to shrink. And as it shrunk, the walls started forming and I started feeling increasingly unsure.

At 16, it got worse when my parents required I become an adult and get my first job. It was hard, working as a busser cleaning tables, being around so many people. Like going into battle. Levels of tension and stress I'd never felt before. Lost from myself and looking for a way back.

Only a way back was never found. And by age 20 it showed. While all my peers were developing fine, I was becoming further deformed. And the worst part? I didn't know why. Everyone else seemed to socialize and get along easily. Not me. I was an alien. Existing in a world I didn't belong.

I tried to outrun it but I couldn't. In my last year of college, 23 years old, it all caught up to me. Ten years being like this and the cherry on top—failing a group presentation horrifically (blanking out) in front of my whole class and feeling humiliated worse than death. Finally I had no choice.

Confront these fears head on or I was fucked.

In the next section, I chronicle my five years working on it hard before hitting on a deeper solution.

Band-Aid Solutions

Gym

I lifted weights regularly at my local YMCA, on the premise that “confidence starts in the gym”. Although getting into shape raised self-esteem and helped me feel more secure in my appearance, unfortunately it didn’t go much deeper than skin. Long after transforming my skinny physique I still felt anxious. By working out I was able to mask some of my insecurity. Make it seem like I was this strong and imposing person. But mostly it was smoke and mirrors. Being around people still rattled me.

Waiting Tables

I called my old job bussing tables and asked if I could return, but this time as a server. As much as I resisted it I knew ultimately there was one way out. Through. That's what they all said on reddit. "The only way to overcome it is to take action. Talk to those people. Get out more. Meet others and socialize." So what better way than a customer service job that required it?

Facing the fear was like stepping into a fire. In the beginning it burned, badly. But through the repeated exposure I slowly got used to it. Through the flames I started to form callouses. And after a few months it wasn't as severe. I could stand in front of people without feeling blasted like a furnace. I could keep my shit together without melting down.

But lifesaving as that was, reaching this place of functionality? It still never fully went away. The fear. Even after serving tables two years, interacting with thousands of customers, I still dreaded talking to people. I looked more normal on the outside. But just underneath the surface I struggled with a lot of nervous energy.

Positive Thinking

I focused on retraining my brain to be more positive and less pessimistic. Affirmations, books, better sleep, healthier eating. Mindfulness and challenging my negative thinking. Imagining in my head people are friendly. Working on my self-image so I presented as less timid. Self-love and not being so critical when I made mistakes. Realizing most people don't care and aren't thinking about me.

Mindset improved. My brain not as bad to be. But even after consistently keeping good habits and working carefully to change my thinking? My body still gave me the same reactions. Around people I still sensed danger. Viscerally I didn't feel safe. And as much as I tried to rationalize and think differently and tell myself there was nothing to worry, just relax? My hind brain still constantly feared disaster.

Moving Out

I moved out after graduating college. I got my own place across town and went into it with high expectations. I had believed this was the missing link. That once I left the nest, life would open up to me. My social anxiety, would no longer put up such obstacles. At last, I would catch up on all the milestones I'd missed out on. Friends. Romantic relationship. Etc.

One year later—I still felt reluctant to leave my comfort zone. Though my social anxiety no longer kept me from doing daily tasks... it still triggered me in simple things like going to the store or taking a walk in the park. And in harder things like approaching girls? Even if she was warm I couldn't work up the courage. The fear always stopped me cold.

Leaving Tucson

I packed up and moved cities, left behind my old life in Tucson. At this point desperation was setting in because it had been two years since starting and I was now 25, yet I still felt emotionally like a child, clinging to his safety behaviors, too scared to move forward in life. The time to make it happen was now, before the rest of my youth slipped away and it was too late.

I made a stab at it. I really tried over the course of the next year to power past it. My first months in Austin I joined a soccer meetup. I went to 6th Street where all the bars were. I played pickup basketball at the gym. I drove to local coffee shops and put myself where girls would be.

"Showing up is 80% of it," they said. "Arrive and eventually you'll succeed."

For someone more ordinary maybe...

Me?

Showing up only reinforced my ineptitude. It only made me feel like more of a loser because it provided clear evidence I wasn't cut out for it. The life that came so easy to everyone else—bantering with others and taking chances with the opposite sex—was completely beyond me. I was much too fragile for criticism or rejection or people not liking me.

Backpacking

I backpacked in Europe with no timeline for returning. All these missed chances and it had pushed me to the tipping point. All these times I'd stood mute on the sidelines with cute girls and it had finally caused me to crack. I couldn't take it anymore. This last shot I'd had at my crush and when I didn't take the chance? The regret gutted me.

Put me into full on crisis, panic mode:

  • Coming up on my 27th birthday.
  • Never been in a relationship.
  • Still battling anxiety.

Time was running out.

It was all riding on this. Everything depended on me getting past it. Laying to rest these demons that had long haunted my life. Because if they did any more damage? If they caused me to miss out on one more opportunity like the last? A girl my absolute perfect type? I don't think I could take it. I'd have to pull the trigger and blow my brains.

And that was my mindset going into it. As I faced the dread and pure terror at the prospect of cold approaching girls and trying to spark something in the streets of Belgrade, the first city in my travels, I constantly reminded myself what was at stake. This fear or my life.

What was more important?

Six months and five countries later and I had my answer. Strained mentally and emotionally to the point of breaking. Pushed with every fiber in my being to get past it. Used every mental reframe and motivational technique. Even hired professional help—spent ten days with dating coaches who took me by the hand and tried to show me exactly how to do it.

But it was no use.

There was no saving me from myself.

Giving Up

At this point, I reached a place in life where I continued to have anxiety in the background everyday, and I couldn't make any progress with girls no matter how hard I tried. It was crushing. I could see now the futility. My goal of a fulfilling life with friends and somebody to build a future together with would never happen. I was too broken to be fixed. These fears would always have the better of me.

I was close to ending this wasted potential of a life when I remembered something my dating coach had mentioned: A ten day silent Vipassana meditation retreat and how I might want to try it. When he recommended it I was dismissive, but now there was nothing else for it.

The Cure: Vipassana Meditation

After completing ten days of intensive meditation I was feeling 70% more physically comfortable around people. Two follow up courses and continued work (over around two years), it has solved basically all my social anxiety. I'm still human, can still experience fear. But that's rare, the exception. The rule is I can relax, feel easygoing, function without any stress around people. The best part about this recovery is ten days and already seeing substantial improvement.

Overcoming social anxiety FAST.

Vipassana, an Indian meditation practice, popularized by the late S.N. Goenka, is a technique for directing attention into the body. Sensations that is. Because putting focus on bodily sensations, they change, and so do you.

In talks by Goenka he explained how an emotion like fear starts in the unconscious mind where by the time it reaches the conscious it has gained so much strength it overpowers you. Vipassana puts attention where emotions begin. By noticing the origin, you can catch them before they get bigger. Breath and sensations which are the key. That's because emotions are not separate from physical changes. Breathing which loses its normal rhythm, and unpleasant sensations which appear on the body. So by observing the physical you can work at the root of highly charged emotions, facing them in such a way they weaken, resolve. Vipassana retreats provide the method for this. I applied the method and my social anxiety substantially reduced over the ten days.

I realize this runs contradictory to most mental health advice (try to think your way out of it). I learned a different lesson: I had to feel my way out of it.

It wasn't in my head. It wasn't in my incorrect thinking. It wasn't something irrational my brain was doing, no. I was socially anxious and perceiving danger because of how past experiences with people—starting from childhood and onward—had wounded me, conditioned me to be afraid, caused me to accumulate "emotional damage". All of which I held within my physical body. The stuff that was driving my fearful perception of people and making me feel anxious around them.

I know this because on a Vipassana retreat as I started to work through certain patterns of residual tension and emotion in my physical body, it caused a profound change in my thinking and how I viewed others, from a place of feeling more fundamentally safe in myself, safe around them.

Reading books on the bodymind connection by renowned psychotherapist Peter Levine and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, it only further adds to the case that it's the body that holds the key to the mind. That's because the body is basically the mind, the subconscious mind. The body is what holds the past, the things that happened to you, the imprint of positive and negative experiences. That's why it's paramount that treatment be directed at the body, releasing the hold of old influences that are still subconsciously at work inside.

Vipassana, in my experience, being one such prescription and way to do it. Because it directs attention inside, to the physical, to feelings, to sensations which makeup trauma. Trauma which is essentially trapped emotional energy. Which begins to move as you bring attention and feeling back to unfelt and highly tense areas where the trauma is held. Restoring flow and a sense of movement and time again. The "frozen past" resolving.

A perception rooted in the present time and not out of old pain.

Anyway, this post is running long. My purpose isn't to convince you to believe all I'm saying. (I know this is a completely foreign concept to most people.) Only to open to the possibility your social anxiety could be the result of something deeper than just "incorrect thinking". Not diagnosing you. Not saying that's true. Only that you may want to look into it yourself.

Verify if it's true or not for you.

A Vipassana retreat, getting into your body, being a good place to find that out.

Disclaimer

Vipassana retreats are difficult. I wouldn't go into one lightly. It takes someone serious, someone predisposed to "doing it alone", someone determined to see it through no matter what.

Long hours of meditation that will test you in a way you haven't been tested before. Basically an initiation, a rites of passage, a new learning of body and mind.

Just to temper your expectations that this is a "free ride" to overcome social anxiety.

Conclusion

I took a Vipassana course and experienced the unexpected change of a lifetime in my social anxiety. If you struggle with social anxiety and you're the type for it, you may want to consider Vipassana as a possible option.