Overcome Negative Thinking When You Have Social Anxiety Disorder

An image of an anxious woman with her hands on her face.
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Negative thoughts play a major role in causing and worsening social anxiety disorder (SAD). Such thoughts can contribute to feelings of panic in social and performance situations because they start a cycle of catastrophic thinking.

These thoughts are often self-defeating and irrational. They tend to magnify a person's feelings that they will not be accepted by others or that they will embarrass themselves in social situations. Treatments for social anxiety often focus on helping people learn to identify these negative thoughts, challenge their accuracy, and replace them with more helpful ones.

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Examples of Negative Thinking

There are a number of negative thinking patterns that can play a role in maintaining anxiety. These patterns are known as cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are irrational or exaggerated thought patterns that can lead to the onset of problems including anxiety and depression.

Such thinking patterns help to reinforce negative emotions and make it more likely that people will have negative views of themselves and the world. Examples of cognitive distortions that contribute to social anxiety disorder include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: This involves seeing things in terms of two extremes. Things are either all good or all bad, there is no in-between. One example of this type of thinking would be telling yourself, "I only got a B+ on that assignment—I might as well have gotten an F."
  • Magnification: This involves placing too much emphasis on mistakes. People with SAD tend to magnify their fears and fearful behaviors while minimizing their own coping abilities. For example, a person might think, "I'm sure the bank teller saw my hands shaking; they must think there is something wrong with me."
  • Mind reading: This involves making assumptions about what other people are thinking. People with SAD often project their own fears onto how they think they are being evaluated by others. One example of this would be telling yourself, "I just know this person doesn't like me; they think what I am saying is boring."
  • Overgeneralization: This involves applying one negative experience to all future experiences. It assumes a pattern of behavior based on a single incident and can lead to significant limitations in a person's life. For example, you might think, "I panicked the last time I gave a speech; I know it's going to happen again."

How to Combat Negative Thinking

In order to overcome your symptoms, it is helpful to learn how to deal with your negative thoughts. One way to do this is through a process known as cognitive restructuring, which is used during cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

There are four essential steps involved in cognitive restructuring:

  1. Identify and become aware of your negative thoughts.
  2. Determine the accuracy of your negative thoughts.
  3. Actively dispute your negative thoughts.
  4. Replace your negative thoughts with more helpful ones.

Below is a brief description of how you would go about putting each of these steps into practice in order to modify your negative thought patterns.

Identify Negative Thoughts

At first, it might be hard to identify your negative thoughts. Sometimes they happen so quickly and automatically that you barely even notice them on a conscious level. This is why they are referred to as automatic negative thoughts. These thoughts happen quickly and automatically in response to the events around us.

While these negative interpretations can influence our moods and emotions, it is possible to pay attention and change them with practice. In order to really start paying attention, keep a notepad with you during the day and jot quick notes down about thoughts that you had in a situation that caused you to panic.

Over time, it will become easier to notice and pick up on the automatic negative thoughts that you have through the day.

Evaluate the Accuracy of Your Thoughts

Once you have a clearer picture of the type of automatic negative thoughts that are influencing your anxiety, it is important to evaluate the accuracy of these thought patterns.

At a time when you are not anxious and you are in a relaxed situation, take the time to ask yourself, "Exactly how accurate are my thoughts?" For example:

  • Are you being too hard on yourself and not giving yourself credit for your successes and strengths?
  • If the bank teller did notice your hands shaking, would they really think badly of you?
  • Is it possible that the negative experience you had in the past was a one-time thing and that you are more likely to do well the next time you try?
  • Is it possible that the person you were talking to was tired instead of bored? Are you making major assumptions about what they are thinking based on little evidence?

It can be hard to battle with your thoughts and see that they are not always accurate because of how the situation feels to you. If you are having real difficulty with this exercise, imagine that the roles were reversed.

If someone you knew was nervous giving a speech, would you think badly of them or that something was wrong with them? Most likely, you would feel sympathetic.

Try giving yourself the same level of acceptance that you give to others. Treating yourself with kindness and compassion is a good way to start seeing things more realistically.

Dispute Negative Thoughts

In addition to identifying the negative thoughts that are contributing to your anxiety, it is also essential to actively dispute those destructive thoughts. Some of the questions you can ask to help challenge your negative thinking include:

  • Am I interpreting the situation accurately?
  • Am I making assumptions based on past experiences?
  • Am I minimizing my strengths and skills for coping with the situation?
  • Am I reacting based on my emotions at the moment or based on facts?
  • What can I do to take control of what is happening?
  • What evidence is there to support or dispute my thoughts?

Recognizing your own thinking habits can be helpful for disputing your thoughts. For example, if you know that you are prone to overgeneralization, you can find ways to dispute your thinking when you find yourself thinking that future events will turn out badly based on your negative interpretation of a past event.

Replace Negative Thoughts

The last step is to gradually replace your negative thoughts with more helpful and positive ways of reacting to your anxious feelings. At first, this process will feel difficult and unnatural. It is something that you will need to practice daily for it to become a new automatic habit.

Some examples of more positive and helpful thoughts might be:

  • I may not have gotten a perfect score on that assignment, but I still did pretty well and learned a lot.
  • Just because I had trouble the last time I gave a speech doesn't mean it will happen again.
  • This person I am talking to must just be tired.
  • The teller probably didn't notice or care if my hands shake, since they have too much else on their mind.

Although it is a process that takes a lot of effort, learning how to replace your automatic negative thoughts with more positive and helpful ones will help to reduce feelings of hopelessness and increase your self-esteem. You should start to gradually notice that positive thoughts become easier and the negative ones require more effort.

Over time, the frequency of your negative thoughts will decline and so should your symptoms of social anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

Cognitive restructuring is an active, ongoing process that takes time to learn and put into practice. Keeping a journal to record the thoughts you have each day can be a great way to learn how to recognize different cognitive distortions that might be making your anxiety worse. By identifying these thoughts, you can begin the process of challenging and replacing them with more realistic, helpful thoughts.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Caouette JD, Guyer AE. Cognitive distortions mediate depression and affective response to social acceptance and rejectionJ Affect Disord. 2016;190:792-799. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.11.015

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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."