Overgeneralization and Social Anxiety

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If you have social anxiety disorder, you may combat issues with negative thinking. Many people with social anxiety struggle with overgeneralization, a cognitive distortion that can worsen anxiety, depression, and fear. Learn more about overgeneralization and how to manage it in order to minimize your anxiety. 

What Is Overgeneralization?

Overgeneralization is a common issue that frequently affects those who have mental illnesses like depression or anxiety disorders. It is a course of thinking where you apply one experience and generalize to all experiences, including those in the future. For example, if you once gave a poor speech, you may think to yourself, "I always screw up speeches. I never can speak publicly without messing up." 

If you experience overgeneralization, you may view any negative experience that happens as a part of an inevitable pattern of mistakes. With social anxiety, this can impact your life greatly and inhibit your daily routine. Overgeneralization can worsen your thoughts, making you feel that everyone dislikes you and that you can't do anything right. 

A self-limiting overgeneralization is when you keep yourself from meeting your own potential. These are common thoughts like "I'm not good enough" or "I could never do that." They can keep you from taking risks or next steps, harming your career and social life. 

But while overgeneralization can be a terrible symptom, it can be managed and anxiety lessened by reframing your perceptions.

Reframing Overgeneralizations

Reframing is a process where you identify negative or unhelpful thoughts and replace them with positive and empowering ones. It's a way of changing the way you view something. Reframing can be a powerful tool in managing overgeneralizations and social anxiety. 

Reframing is a fairly simple process that can be practiced to help decrease your symptoms:

  • Identify Your Thinking Patterns: Recognize when you find yourself negatively thinking about yourself or not doing activities because you think you will fail. Be more mindful of your thoughts, even writing them down in a journal. Once you record your negativity, you can recognize patterns of thoughts. 
  • Challenge Yourself: Look at the thoughts you have written down and ask yourself, "Is this true?" Would someone else view those thoughts the same way? Challenge each thought. You may find no one noticed you were nervous during a presentation or you were clumsy that one time. Recognize your achievements, when you excelled and had fun with friends. 
  • Replace Your Thoughts: When you are thinking negative thoughts, use self-talk to think more positively. For the example of public speaking, instead of thinking "I'm a terrible speaker and always screw up," replace it with "I'm more prepared and ready to give a great speech." The reframing to positivity can counter your social anxiety and help you get through the presentation. Look at experiences that cause you anxiety as a challenge rather than a threat. 

Overgeneralizations can be a debilitating symptom of social anxiety, limiting how you can interact with others and keeping you from achieving all that you want. However, with positive reframing, you can manage your symptoms and help alleviate your social anxiety. 

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Additional Reading
  • Lissek, S., Kaczkurkin, A., Rabin, S. et al. "Anxiety Disorders and Overgeneralization of Classically Conditioned Fear." Biological Psychiatry, 909-915, 2014.