Helpful thinking for Social Anxiety Disorder

People with social anxiety disorder tend to have negative thoughts about themselves and fearful predictions about what could happen in social situations.

Common examples include:

  • “No one will like me!” 
  • “I’m going to say something stupid.” 
  • “I’ll do something foolish and other people will laugh!” 
  • “I won’t know what to say.” 
  • “I’m not as smart/attractive as other people.” 
  • “No one will talk to me.” 
  • “I’ll get anxious and others will notice.” 
  • “Others will think I’m boring.” 
  • “I’ll make a mistake and others will think I’m stupid.” 

Furthermore, people with social anxiety disorder may also hold some unrealistic beliefs, such as:

  • I need to be perfect to be liked
  • I should never make mistakes
  • It is important for everyone to like me
  • It's not okay to be anxious

If you think that social situations are threatening or dangerous, and hold some of the beliefs outlined above, then you are more likely to feel anxious. However, it is important to realize that your thoughts are guesses about what will happen, not actual facts.  People with social anxiety disorder tend to over-estimate the degree of danger in social situations. Therefore, developing more realistic ways of thinking is an important step in managing your anxiety.  But before you can start changing the way you think, you need to be able to identify the kinds of thoughts you have in social situations.

Identifying and Evaluating My Thoughts

  • First, ask yourself what you are afraid could happen in social situations; you might be afraid of something that you might do (e.g. “I’ll embarrass myself by saying something stupid,” “I’ll have nothing to say,” “I’ll blush,” etc.) or something that other people might think (e.g. “Others won’t like me,” ; “Others will notice I’m anxious and think I’m weird,” etc.). To become more aware of your specific fears, try and identify your thoughts (and write them down) whenever you feel anxious or feel an urge to avoid or escape a situation. If it’s difficult to write down your thoughts while you’re in the situation (e.g. while giving a presentation at a meeting), then try and write them down just before you enter the situation, or immediately after you leave. Repeat this exercise for a week or so.
  • The next step involves learning to evaluate your negative thoughts. Remember, your thoughts are guesses about what will happen, not actual facts.  It can be helpful to ask yourself whether your thoughts are based on facts and whether they are helpful. If they aren’t, try and identify more accurate and helpful thoughts.
  • Here are some questions to help you examine your thoughts:
  • Am I 100% sure that _____________ will happen? 
  • How many times has ______________ actually happened? 
  • What is the evidence that supports my thought? What is the evidence that             does not support my thought? 
  • Is _______________ really SO important that my whole future depends     on it? 
  • Does _________________’s opinion reflect everyone else’s? 
  • Am I responsible for the entire conversation? 
  • What is the worst that could happen? 
  • What can I do to cope/handle this situation? 
  • Do I have to please everyone – is that even possible? 
  • What is another way of looking at this situation? 
  • What would I say to my best friend if he/she was having this thought? 

What am I afraid could happen if I go to the party?  I’ll say something stupid.
Am I 100% certain that I’ll say something stupid at the party? No, not 100% certain.
How many times have I said something stupid at a party? A few times but not every time.
What is the evidence that supports my thoughts? Once I made a joke and no one laughed. Another time, I made a comment about a movie that didn’t make sense. And another time, I asked an obvious question and someone started laughing.
What is the evidence that does not support my thoughts? I have gone to parties in the past and did not say anything stupid.  I have had a few good conversations at parties. The last time I went to a party, someone said I was funny.
Is not saying something stupid so important my whole future depends on it? Well, it would be embarrassing, but no, my whole future does not depend on it.
What is the worst that could happen? I do say something stupid and people laugh.
What could I do to cope? I guess I could try and crack a joke about it or I could excuse myself and go get some fresh air.
Is there another way of looking at this situation?  Everyone says stupid things once in a while.
What would I say to a friend who had this thought? It’s not the end of the world. We all say silly things and most of the time people don’t remember exactly what you said.

By evaluating your negative thinking, you may realize that some of the things you fear are very unlikely to actually happen, or that if something does happen, it’s not as bad as you may think and you can cope.  Practice evaluating your anxious thoughts by first writing them down and then trying to identify more realistic ways of thinking (by using the questions presented in this section, as well as those presented in the Helpful Thinking worksheet).

For more information on identifying and evaluating other types of scary thoughts, see Helpful Thinking.

Thoughts: Behavioural Experiments

In addition to evaluating and changing unhelpful, overly anxious thoughts, it also can be helpful to examine the truthfulness of those thoughts or beliefs by changing the way we behave. When done thoughtfully and gradually, experimenting with the way we behave can offer some new and important information. For example, how bad would it be if others saw you blush/shake, or how terrible would it be if you said something foolish? We often assume that it would be horrible if these things happened, and that we would be unable to cope.  However, remember that these are just guesses and we need to test out our thoughts in order to know whether or not these are the truth.

To create your own experiment, first identify how one of your thoughts or beliefs influences your behaviour. For example, do you think that shaking would ruin a social interaction so you work hard to keep your body still, or that making a mistake will cause others to yell at you so you never take risks? Once you have identified the behaviour, the next step is to make a plan to change it. For example, purposely trying to shake and see how others react, or making a small mistake at work in front of your coworkers. To maximize the benefit of the experiment, write out your prediction, being as specific as possible. For example, “Jane will yell in a loud voice that I’m stupid, and walk away causing others to stare at me.” Be careful not to assume that others are reacting negatively – look at the facts. What did they do or say? Was it as bad as you thought? Are there other explanations for what happens?

Examples of experiments include:

  • Ask a “silly” question (e.g. ask for directions to a street you are already on)
  • Let your hand shake while holding a glass of water
  • Spill a drink
  • Drop something or knock something over
  • Wear your shirt inside out
  • Send an e-mail with spelling mistakes
  • Mispronounce a word
  • Pretend to lose your train of thought and stop mid-sentence
  • Pretend to trip
  • Wait for the cashier to close the till and then ask for change

Once you have tried some of these experiments, relevant to your specific anxious thoughts and behaviours, write out your conclusion on a note card. Use this card to remind yourself what these experiments have allowed you to discover. Continue to engage in these experiments once in a while to remind yourself, for example,

  • Everyone makes mistakes now and then
  • Its okay if I look anxious, people will not think badly of me
  • Nobody is perfect
  • I don’t need everyone to like me. I don’t like everyone myself!