Negative Automatic Thoughts and Social Anxiety

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Negative automatic thoughts are the conscious or subconscious thoughts that occur in response to everyday events. These thoughts are irrational, self-defeating, and may fuel social anxiety disorder (SAD).

Role of Negative Thoughts

Social anxiety has been shown to be related to increased negative thinking. Within cognitive behavioral therapy, it is believed that what you think can influence what you feel and do.

For instance, if you experience negative automatic thoughts like "I'm stupid" or "They'll make fun of me" when about to give a presentation, anxiety, and fear occurs. The negative thoughts can be overwhelming and dominate how you think and act.

In our day to day routine, the most deeply held beliefs are not spoken. Your opinions of yourself as a person or as a friend aren't always expressed.

If you have social anxiety, you may have incredibly strong negative feelings about yourself. In order to make a change, you need to recognize these intrinsic beliefs and understand that they are holding you back.

Identifying Negative Thoughts

When undergoing therapy for social anxiety, your therapist may suggest focusing on overcoming negative automatic thoughts. To identify them, one recommended process is to write down some thoughts you have about yourself on a piece of paper.

It is essential to write down these thoughts as they occur.

You may be surprised about some of the negative thoughts that come into your mind, but keep writing and take the time to focus on yourself. These are the beliefs that guide how you think and act.

This is the first step in overcoming negative automatic thoughts. Your therapist will work with you to review these beliefs and how to replace them. You may be guided through disputation, a process where you question your deeply held beliefs and thoughts.

For example, let's say one of the things you wrote down about yourself is, "I am unloved." This thought impacts all you do, worsening your anxiety and filling you with loneliness. Your therapist will walk you through the process of challenging these irrational beliefs.

You would be asked about your loved ones, your parents or family, your significant other, and your friends. Their feelings for you may directly contradict what you have identified as a belief about yourself. This discordance shows that you are actually loved and valued and that your inner thoughts are false and irrational.

Eliminating Negative Thoughts

The process of recognizing and disputing negative automatic thoughts is an essential step forward in managing social anxiety. While your therapist will work with you thoroughly to challenge several deeply-held beliefs, this is a learned skill that you can practice on your own in daily life.

With practice, you can recognize the thoughts when they occur, realize that they are irrational, and adjust your thoughts to match reality.

As you continue to work on this yourself, you may find yourself growing more confident and less anxious. While you may still be nervous or afraid of certain situations, it may not be as debilitating or overwhelming, allowing you to live a richer life.

Managing Negative Thoughts

Self-help strategies for managing negative thinking include:

  • Keeping a journal in which you track negative thoughts
  • Practicing mindfulness to maintain awareness of your thinking
  • Using positive affirmations to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares an effective way to help you curb negative thinking.

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A Word From Verywell

If you are living with severe social anxiety that has not been diagnosed or for which you have not received treatment such as medication or therapy, make an appointment with your doctor or mental health professional. It is important to seek help to overcome the negative automatic thoughts that may be holding you back and continuing to maintain the anxiety that you feel in social situations.

5 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.
  1. Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness. National Institute of Mental Health.

  2. Anxiety: Stop Negative Thoughts. Michigan Medicine. University of Michigan.

  3. Iancu I, Bodner E, Joubran S, Lupinsky Y, Barenboim D. Negative and Positive Automatic thoughts in Social Anxiety Disorder. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 2015;52(2):129-35.

  4. Beyond Worry: How Psychologists Help With Anxiety Disorders. American Psychological Association.

  5. Tsitsas GD, Paschali AA. A Cognitive-Behavior Therapy Applied to a Social Anxiety Disorder and a Specific Phobia, Case Study. Health Psychol Res. 2014;2(3):1603. doi:10.4081/hpr.2014.1603

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."