How I underwent a deep change in my social anxiety. Ten days to see the difference. My life transformed from the bottom-up thanks to a simple technique.
For ten years I suffered from panic, shame and discomfort around people. After spending four years on conventional methods like exposure therapy and CBT but seeing poor results, I was ultimately able to substantially improve (and go on to cure) my social anxiety by going on a Vipassana retreat. Now I can comfortably be seen, confidently act in social situations, connect authentically and be myself with others. All thanks to changes I made to my subconscious mind.
Because my recovery from social anxiety is strange, and because I didn't see this change coming in my life, I know how it seems. Like bullshit because:
When someone first suggested Vipassana to me, I dismissed it as a waste of time. To my surprise, the meditation technique, when I applied it carefully, changed more in ten days than the four years I'd been working on myself. A change in my nervous system not just my thinking mind.
The purpose of this post is to encourage others suffering with social anxiety to consider going on the Vipassana retreat that had a profound positive impact on my life. This is the post I wish I'd read starting out.
What follows is the story of my struggle with social anxiety, and how I ultimately got to the root cause and healed it.
I am an introvert and a 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 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.
Around age 13, that's when I noticed new feelings start to 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.
The message should’ve sunk in but it hadn't. Only in my last year of college, 23 years old, did it hit me. Socially inept, sheltered, still living at home, life in shambles. If nothing changed? I was fucked. Time would only make it worse and there'd be no stopping it.
In the next section, I chronicle my four years working on it hard before hitting on the meditation technique that cured me.
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.
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 everyone online said. "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.
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. Thinking positive thoughts such as "everyone likes me". 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.
Thoughts more stable. Mind less cynical and self-destructive. But even after this steady diet of good habits and trying hard to rewire my brain? 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.
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 more complex things like approaching girls? Even if she was warm I couldn't work up the courage. The fear always stopped me cold.
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...
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.
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 quiet 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 ripped my heart in half.
Made me realize just how dire things had become...
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 grand and ten days infield with dating coaches who tried to help me build a strong foundation.
But it was no use.
There was no saving me from myself.
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 someone to build a future together with would never materialize. 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.
Ten days of intensive meditation and I was talking to people with almost no sense of anxiety. The feeling I could breathe, like something deep had uncoiled inside me and I could just be. Not fully cured (yet) - that'd take time and work still - but with this one retreat I'd dramatically improved. Transformed my life not just at the surface but where it mattered.
Vipassana is a meditation practice popularized by the late S.N. Goenka. His goal in bringing Vipassana to others was "a universal solution" - a technique free of religious influencing anyone can use to effect change at the depth of mind.
In talks by Goenka he explained the cause of suffering is because unwanted things happen in life and you create tension inside. Unwanted things happen, and keep happening, and your entire mental/physical structure becomes tense. You tie yourself into knots which leads to an unbalanced mind, symptoms and suffering. You can "undo" this tension by observing your physical sensations nonreactively, thus retraining your brain/nervous system at the deepest level. Vipassana retreats provide a space for this "deep inner work" of mind/body. I took advantage and my social anxiety greatly decreased.
I realize this is out there. Indeed, I was doubtful meditating could help but sure enough, it reduced my fear around others substantially.
If you find it hard to see how "tension" could be making you an anxious person, a simpler way is to look at it like PTSD. People and social situations are the trigger. PTSD is the cause. Somewhere in the past you got hurt, and now you feel anxious in situations that remind you of that earlier time. It's not conscious. It's a subconscious fear you can't place your finger on other than you feel afraid. Your mind assumes it's these people in front of you - they are making you feel this way - they are judging you. But really it has nothing to do with them. The fear is coming from inside - from your trauma response and how you've been conditioned to react to these types of situations.
At least, this was the case for me.
I learned my social anxiety was almost entirely a trauma response. Things in life that had happened to me that were still running in the background of my mind, being triggered and brought to life. This is what my anxiety was mostly about. It was a protection against feeling a similar way again - criticized and judged and made to feel small. It was my physical body becoming tense in anticipation of something bad happening again, falling into the same panic and helplessness as before.
A trauma response that, through the technique of Vipassana and observing my bodily sensations, I was able to gradually diffuse and resolve, restore my body and nervous system to the present time, regain equilibrium and balance in my mind, feel more like my "full self" again - a self that wasn't traumatized and impaired by old emotional wounds.
I'm just a person who got serious about fixing his problems, not a doctor. Maybe your condition is different than mine, and you need professional treatment.
That said, you may want to consider a Vipassana course before going to the lengths I did to overcome social anxiety only to find the whole time you've been treating symptoms and not the underlying cause - a mess you could've avoided if you'd only gotten to the heart of the issue sooner.
I tried Vipassana with an open mind and experienced profound results in the #1 problem of my life. If you struggle with chronic social anxiety, you may want to consider a Vipassana course. It's difficult. But in my experience extremely worthwhile if you struggle with recurrent issues.