The World Within You

by Rohit Maudgal

You find yourself alone in a crowded lecture hall. The class is new, the faces are new, but the feeling inside you is all too familiar. You watch as your peers trickle into seats next to their friends for the first class of the new semester—organic chemistry. You hear the mixed sentiments of excited and apprehensive voices resonate through the room.

“Why do so many people fail this class? It can’t be as hard as bio, right?”

 “I slept through gen chem and I still got an A. I think I’ll do the same here.”

But for you, the focus is more introspective. The voice in your head cries—I don’t know anyone in this class! Is someone going to sit next to me? What if I look stupid? What if I sound stupid? How’s my posture? Why are my hands shaking? I feel so awkward!

You try to console yourself by taking deep breaths, attempting to quell the voice within. But of course, it comes back raging louder than ever before. You start to feel empty, as if no one loves you in this world. You try to think happy thoughts. I know I’m smart. I got through bio and gen chem! I can accomplish so much, but I can’t even say a simple ‘Hi’ to someone I don’t know! Why is this? I’m an adult, why can’t I act like one? I feel so lost, so confused. I can’t focus. Being social isn’t a hard thing for other people, so why is it for me? As seemingly everyone around you is enjoying the last taste of summer before the professor begins, you are sitting there, looking relatively at ease to others, yet within you roars a great wave of emotional discourse against which you are all but helpless.  

This is the mind of someone suffering from social anxiety. You may appear calm, yet you begin to show signs of autonomic overdrive every time you encounter a social situation. Your heart starts to pound, breathing hastens, palms sweat, stomach sinks and mouth dries. Your mind starts spinning in circles, concocting every possible scenario where you could make a fool out of yourself. It is this fear and this neurocognitive dilemma that sucks the mental energy out of focusing on the things that matter most.

Looking at social anxiety from a neurocognitive perspective, it is difficult to discern the specific circuitry that explains why people, especially college students, become so fearful of social encounters. Of course, one can look at the “high road” leading from the thalamus to the prefrontal cortex, where executive thoughts can influence the way the amygdala, a major source of fear, effects the rest of the body. But why can’t overcoming social anxiety be as easy as telling someone to stop overthinking? What makes you become so self-absorbed in criticizing simple etiquette that you have known since childhood?

First, it is important to identify the problem. What you perceive as reality versus reality itself can be two very different things. Even as a lowly college student, you know how to compute simple mathematics, fill the gas in your car and empathize for your family members. This is reality, filled with accomplishments that you take for granted almost every day of your life. So then, why do you tend to focus on the negatives? For someone with social anxiety, it is this conflict between the mind and self that entails a level of emotional frustration within. According to Michael Singer’s “The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself,” “when the voice narrates the outside world to you, those thoughts are now side-by-side, in parity, with all your other thoughts. All these thoughts intermix and actually influence your experience of the world around you. What you end up experiencing is really a personal presentation of the world according to you, rather than the stark, unfiltered experience of what is really out there.” It seems then that this mental manipulation immerses your mind in a world where you believe reality to be exactly how you perceive it, and you are constantly struggling with yourself to resolve a war of internal emotional conflict.

So how do you cope with social anxiety? The science of spiritual cognition points towards altering the way you perceive the world. Rather than becoming so immersed in the experiences, thoughts and emotions that you face, you must take a step back and appreciate these entities as mere observations. Do not try to wrestle with your thoughts—that will just lead to more frustration and even more immersion. Instead, take an outward perspective on the world around you. Appreciate what you have, and do not underestimate your potential within. As a human being, your mind has as much capability to do you harm as it does good. It is when you realize that you can impact both yourself and others around you that your true self can be unleashed to do extraordinary things. As Singer suggests, “the more you are willing to just let the world be something you’re aware of, the more it will let you be who you are.”

Think of it this way. There are over seven billion people on this planet. One awkward encounter is going to have all but a miniscule effect on the people around you, much less the world itself. So why should you let it affect you? As a young adult, it is understandable to find yourself in constant emotional turmoil. College is a time of self-discovery in terms of academic interests, social preferences and inner realizations. Part of being oneself and maturing is looking deeper into the seat of consciousness and loving yourself for who you are. Regardless of what you think, the world continues to turn and other people continue to revolve with it. So, why not you?

It is human nature to fear new encounters. Evolutionarily, it helped our ancestors escape from potential threats. But in today’s world, the most dangerous entity may just be our own mind. Such a magnificent three-pound lump of tissue with incredible potential must be respected. But at the same time, we cannot let the workings of our mind puppet the way our lives are run.

Like the body, the mind comes and goes. As a true overseer, one must be mentally strong not in the sense that they must overcome their mind, but rather they should not get so caught up in it. Recognizing the simple happenings in life—the birds chirping, the buses whizzing by or the smell of fresh air. These are the entities that you can appreciate just as much once you decide to let go of your struggles and observe everything as a process. Break free from the cage of your mental barrier and begin to live your life the way you want.