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Yoga, Meditation, Festivals… and Social Anxiety

Hello my friends

Summertime festival season is in full swing here in the UK, and it has always been one of my favourite times of year. That means crowds of people, and I guess, for an introvert who suffered terribly from social anxiety, that might seem like a contradiction.

Aren’t festivals full of people and inevitable difficult interactions? Precisely what someone with social anxiety would want to avoid like the plague? Well, yes and no.

Ever since the late 90’s I’ve always felt the pull to listen to dance music and I enjoyed the ‘rave’ scene. I love electronic music - drum & bass, house and garage mostly - and used to go to London to dance to this kind of music.

It would seem a paradox - I was highly socially anxious and most definitely an introvert (meaning I need my own space in order to recharge my batteries), but you would expect nightclubs and raves to be a place only for the most outgoing, confident and extroverted people to enjoy.

Although I would lubricate the experience with alcohol - especially the journey to the venue and the queueing to get in, which I found stressful at times - the experience itself I craved as I found dancing with a large group of people, to the same beat, to be an almost spiritual experience.

Spiritual ceremony and ritual have been a part of human culture throughout history, with drums and group dancing being key to finding connection and meaning within social groups and societies.

I found connection and oneness at those events and, once I was dancing and in the moment, some moments of peace from anxiety and intrusive thoughts. It was as if I found an island in the storm to transcend my daily social anxiety; to find joy and happiness around other people - rather than a sense of being watched and judged.

Nowadays, over twenty years on, my nightclubbing days are long gone, I only really get to experience this kind of dancing experience once or twice a year at festivals. But that’s fine, I’ve since found yoga and meditation to help with my anxiety and whirlpools of negative thoughts. I don’t feel the need to lose myself in music each week, in order to find peace.

I’ve just got back from a weekend at Camp Bestival: a more family oriented festival in Dorset, where I can take my children and meet friends with their kids. A group of twelve of us went and met up to dance in a field.

And, although I’m physically exhausted from spending a weekend almost constantly on my feet and sleeping on a camp bed in a tent, I feel cleansed in some way; four days in a field, bare feet on the grass, surrounded by countryside and clean air and the buzzy, friendly atmosphere of thirty thousand people all needing that same release from work, being surrounded by concrete and exhaust pollution. People dancing together and finding a sense of freedom from their stressful daily lives.

And it was during this kind of state one day over the weekend that I had a kind of insight of sorts. It wasn’t a thought as such, but a sense. A sense of being watched or seen in some way, but without any kind of negative thought attached.

Suddenly aware of how I was dancing.

Aware of how I might be looking.

Aware I was wearing a big curly 70’s wig.

And although this sense did not drive any anxiety, like it used to back in my twenties and thirties, it turns out this sense of inward reflection was still there. It was like a mirror being suddenly flashed up in front of me and then removed as quickly as it came.

As soon as these flashes of awareness arrived, I immediately realised I was no longer in the present: listening to the music, feeling the music in my body and enjoying the connection of the artist on the stage and the crowd around me. And as soon as I’d realised that, I was straight back into my body and the present. My years of yoga and meditation practice have allowed me to remain so much more in the present moment. Staying present with what I’m doing - dancing - rather than spiralling into negative self talk and anxiety.

But still, it made me think. Although my anxiety and negative intrusive thoughts are no longer present or controlling my life, this sense of looking inwards that initially drove my negative thoughts is still there, lurking in the background. It surprised me to realise that, actually, those undercurrents of thoughts are still present in the back of my mind years later.

I felt like I had made some kind of revelation, there in a field in Dorset as I was dancing away, surrounded by thousands of people doing the same. I realised there is always more healing to be done, always more insight and understanding to be had.

Previously, I had seen only the intrusive thoughts as they arose - the negative self-talk and the catastrophizing that we all - but especially someone with social anxiety - can experience daily. My daily meditation and mindfulness practice has helped me to notice these thoughts and eventually, after much practice, allows me to let them go.

“People are looking at me and judging me”

“I must be walking funny as people are watching me”

“I shouldn’t talk because I’ll go red and look stupid”

Being aware of these thoughts as they arise, and eventually having the option to let them go, rather than continually dwelling on them or going down that rabbit hole of more and more negative thought, is very healing. Being able to finally ‘see’ the negative thought, realise it’s just a thought, and then have the power to simply let it go.

But here I feel I have seen something ‘old’ coming up. Something older than these negative thoughts. An immediate sense of being watched or seen, before the thoughts of being judged even arrives in the mind.

This sense of being watched must be something from my childhood; it could possibly even be something that planted the seeds of the social anxiety I eventually experienced throughout my life. And with anything old and hard wired in the mind, the only way to heal from it is to be aware when these things arise and to flood it with compassion and understanding.

Compassion and understanding for my younger self, the child within, who became more and more self conscious until thoughts and anxiety started to take over and created the life of avoidance I knew until I was in my mid-thirties.

So, this weekend I came away with more than I had hoped for. I came away recharged spiritually, my heart opened and rejuvenated after dancing in a field with my friends, family and many thousand other like-minded people. But also a reminder that personal growth and development is an ongoing process, no-one is ever truly ‘fixed’. Although I’m free from daily social anxiety, I realised and saw those very old processes in my mind, the ones that arrive before the negative thoughts which ultimately lead me down the rabbit hole of anxiety.

During my times of reflection and stillness, during my meditation and breathing practices, I’m going to try to be more aware of these automatic processes in my mind, and each and every time I’ll send love and compassion to that child within to find deeper healing.

If you suffer from social anxiety and would like to know the process I used to escape, specifically using yoga and meditation, then you can follow the same method I used here in my book: Beyond Social Anxiety - The 3 Pillar Method To Freedom.

Until next time

James x

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