What Are Negative Automatic Thoughts?

The Root of Social Anxiety Is in Thoughts

distressed woman
Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images

Negative automatic thoughts are the subconscious thoughts that occur in response to stimuli that are irrational, self-defeating and fuel social anxiety disorder (SAD).  

The Role of Negative Automatic Thoughts

Social anxiety is rooted in thoughts. Within cognitive behavioral therapy, it is believed that what you think becomes 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, but 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 Automatic 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 true beliefs that guide how you think and act.

This is the first step in overcoming negative automatic thoughts. Recognizing and overcoming negative automatic thoughts is key to overcoming social anxiety with positive 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, enhancing your anxiety and filling you with loneliness. Your therapist will walk you through the process of challenging these irrational beliefs. You will be asked about your loved ones, your parents or family, your significant other and your friends. Their feelings for you directly contradict what you have identified as a belief about yourself. The presence of your loved ones shows that you are actually loved and valued and that your inner thoughts are false and irrational. 

Conquering Social Anxiety Through Eliminating Negative Automatic 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 in your own 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.


Kim, E. The Effect of Decreased Safety Behaviors on Anxiety and Negative Thoughts in Social Phobias". Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 69-86, 2007.