A Simple Way to Reduce Social Anxiety

A Simple Way to Reduce Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is like the ‘friend’ who shows up at the worst time – every time – gives you a squeezy, suffocating embrace and promises to stay by your side, warn you about everything, and keep you safe (read, ‘keep you all to itself’). Just in case you think this time might be different, the chatter sets in, ‘You know everyone is looking at you, right?’ ‘Have you thought about what they’re thinking of you?’ ‘What if you can’t find the words – or worse, what if say completely the wrong thing?’ ‘Is it just me or are you sweating – I’m pretty sure people can tell. And is your face glowing red?’ It’s relentless and it’s exhausting.

Social anxiety happens on the inside. On the outside, people with social anxiety are generally really well-liked by the people who know them. They’re sensitive, intelligent and socially very capable, often with a high amount of the qualities that make people pretty great to be around – emotional intelligence, sensitivity, creativity – and fun. People with social anxiety can be so much fun.

Social anxiety is common but one of the planet-sized lies it will tell is that you’re the only one – the only one people are watching, the only one who runs out of words and the only one who seizes up at the worst possible times. 

Ok. So tell me. What can make a difference?

Recent research has found something that can make a difference to the symptoms of anxiety. The role of the gut in mental health is now widely accepted in the scientific community. The healthier your gut (yes healthy gut bacteria, we’re talking about you), the healthier your mental health. The link between the gut and the brain has been well established by reams of research. 

A recent study found that people who tend to be socially anxious report less social anxiety if their diet contained fermented foods (which contain probiotics). As explained by researcher Matthew Hillmire:

‘It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety.’

The research is in its early days, but the findings are supported by an abundance of research that has come before it, which has found that foods that contain probiotics may have a protective effect against the symptoms of social anxiety.

There is no doubt that probiotics are kind of wonderful in the way they improve the health of the gut, which we now know also improves the health of the mind. Fermented foods are probiotic powerhouses that work by increasing the good bacteria in the gut, the home of our ‘second brain’.

As a side note, the research also found that exercise was related to reduced social anxiety. The relationship between exercise and reduced anxiety has been shown over and over and ov… you get the message. Exercise helps to neutralise the physiological symptoms of anxiety. When the brain senses threat, it powers up the body to deal with that threat by surging the body with neurochemicals (cortisol, adrenaline etc) to make the body strong, fast and powerful. When there is no need for fight or flight (because the threat is not real), the chemicals build up and can contribute to the physical feelings that are associated with anxiety. Exercise is the natural end to the fight or flight response. It burns up the neurochemicals and helps to restore the body to its neutral state.

But first, something to keep in mind …

The introduction of probiotics to has to happen slowly. Introducing massive amounts of probiotics can lead to a worsening of symptoms because when probiotics kill off pathogens, they release toxins. It is these toxins that are likely to be already contributing to symptoms (depression, anxiety, physical illnesses), but when the release of toxins is suddenly increased (by the increase of probiotics), the symptoms may also increase.

So, when you say fermented foods …

Okay, so now that the cautionary tale has been told and you know not to go nuts on fermented foods straight up, here are some popular fermented foods that are generally readily available:

Miso (a Japanese seasoning made from fermenting soybeans).

Yoghurt (look for the ones that say they contain live and active cultures.)

Kefir (a drinkable yogurt, slightly more tangy)

Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)

Kimchi (fermented cabbage – the Korean version)

Tempeh (made from soybeans – tofu’s nuttier, chewier, firmer, less processed cousin).

And finally …

The connection between a healthy gut and healthy mind has been clamouring at us to notice – and we have. Strengthening the gut will strengthen the mind and is a low-risk intervention to relieve social anxiety – bring on the exhale.

[irp posts=”1675″ name=”Our ‘Second Brain’ – And Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Mood”]

[irp posts=”590″ name=”Anxiety, Depression and the Surprising Role of Gut Bacteria”]

4 Comments

Michele

I wish mental health professions (and regular doctors who treat our “physical” illnesses) treated our bodes and minds as a whole and looked at how one part affects another, as you so well explained in the article above. We just get medicated without trying to find the culprit of our anxiety or whatever the problem might be. Frustrating the state of our medical system…medicate, medicate first rather than educate and then look at meds as a last resort.

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Waismann Method

That is very interesting. We treat patients who have become addicted to opiates, and more often than not they are self-medicating emotional issues. Anxiety is a huge part of it. Sometimes small thing that we oversee, can make a difference.

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Debi Powell

Your articles and this website save people thousands of dollars every week. 😉 Thank you for sharing your knowledge, at no cost to us. (don’t get me wrong, I’ll pay if you ever decide to charge to become a member of your website!). Thank you so much…. you will never know the impact you have made, just on my little family!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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