Changing your thoughts and expectations seems like the logical thing to do when attempting to overcome your social anxiety. The question is, how do you do that?
1 – Identify your anxious thoughts and predictions. You can’t change these thoughts if you haven’t identified them, so you must really be clear about the types of anxious thoughts you are having. See types of anxious thinking.
2 – Use the following strategies for changing your anxious thoughts:
Examine the Evidence
We often assume what others are thinking about us even though we have very little to no evidence to back it up. We think we know what others are thinking, but we are often completely wrong and we frequently misinterpret other people’s reactions.
Just because you believe something, doesn’t mean it is a fact. It is simply a guess. Instead of assuming your belief to be 100% true, see it as a guess. You probably have a tendency to look for the negative judgments about yourself, so keep that in mind. Look for the positive sides as well so that you have more of a balanced, holistic vantage point.
By examining the evidence and looking at all the angles, you will open your mind up to the other possibilities that are out there. You will take the blinders off and realize that there are other options as to why something happened.
To get into the mind-set of examining the evidence, ask yourself the following questions:
- What’s the likelihood of my prediction coming true?
- What past experiences can back this up?
- Are there any facts to back up my prediction?
- Have I experienced these anxious thoughts in the past and if so, did they come true?
- Would someone else interpret the situation differently?
- Is it possible that there could be another outcome?
The 5 step process is as follows: identify your anxious thoughts, create alternate beliefs, examine the evidence that supports your anxious beliefs, examine the evidence supporting your alternate beliefs, and lastly, choose the more realistic belief.
Let’s walk through an example.
Identify your anxious thoughts:
- People will think I’m weak and incompetent if I start blushing during a meeting.
Create alternate beliefs:
- People won’t even notice I’m blushing.
- People who notice I’m blushing won’t think much of it or won’t really care.
- People who notice I’m blushing will think I’m a little nervous.
Examine the evidence that supports your anxious beliefs:
- People comment that I blush easily and frequently
- I believe that my blushing is extreme
- Examine the evidence supporting your alternate beliefs:
- I have seen other people blush and I don’t think that they are incompetent because of it
- When I see someone else blush, I feel compassion for them
- People don’t seem to treat me differently based on whether or not I blush
- I know the people in the meeting quite well and I don’t think that blushing is going to have a big impact on their overall impression of me.
Choose the more realistic belief:
- Based on all the evidence, I believe that even though I might blush, it won’t make people think I am incompetent or weak.
Challenging Catastrophic Thinking
The next biggest way to change your anxious thinking is by challenging your catastrophic thinking patterns.
Catastrophizing, is when you believe that if a negative event happened, it would be absolutely terrible. For example, if I lost my place during my speech, it would be an absolute disaster. Or, if I blushed in front of people in a meeting, it would be terrible and I wouldn’t be able to manage.
By challenging catastrophic thinking, you can shift your thoughts from how terrible an outcome would be to what you could do to manage the situation if it did occur. Often times, the fear of the potential outcome is worse than the thing happening itself. Ask yourself, if this terrible thing did happen, what could I do to manage it or cope with it? What could I do to fix the situation? Would it really be as bad as I think?
When we say to ourselves, “if (insert terrible thing here) happens, I will be ok”, a weight is lifted. We feel relieved because we have identified how we will deal with a difficult situation if it arises and so a bit of that unknown and that uncertainty is gone.
If this thing that you fear happens, would it really matter in a couple days or weeks time? Would it matter in the big scheme of things? Let me ask you this, do you remember that really embarrassing thing that happened to you last year? No? That’s right, and neither does anyone else!
If it was really traumatizing and you do remember it, I bet you that no one else does. If someone does remember and they are the type that teases you about it, I suggest you tell them to knock it off (be assertive) or distance yourself from that person – you don’t need that type of person in your life.
I have embarrassed myself plenty of times over the years and I was able to cope with it. Those instances actually made me stronger. When I embarrass myself these days, it doesn’t even phase me. I move on immediately. I realize that the event is fleeting and will soon be forgotten.
Most of the time, the feared outcome won’t even happen, and if it does, you will be able to cope. You will overcome it. Keep this in mind the next time you’re thinking that an outcome would be the end of the world.
You have to remember that the discomfort will pass. Learn to minimize the immediate negative consequences of something bad happening by asking the questions above. See the decatastrophizing form for more.
See Yourself As Others Do
Those of us with social anxiety have very high standards for ourselves. We are much harder on ourselves than we are of other people. So, try to flip your default view – see your problems through someone else’s perspective.
The best way to get into this mode of thinking is to imagine that one of your friends approached you and told you that they experience the same thoughts as you when they are in a feared social situation. How would you see them? You would probably have a lot of compassion for them. You wouldn’t be so critical of them. So, why are you so critical to yourself?
What would your advice be to them? It is very difficult to give an unbiased recommendation when you are the subject. But, when your friend is the subject, you probably have all kinds of great advice.
This exercise allows you to take a step back from your own mind and look at it objectively. By imagining that a friend or family member is experiencing the same anxiety issues as you, you can more easily challenge those thoughts. You can more easily see the faults and flaws in that mind-set.
Remember Your Strengths
Some of us have a tendency to focus on our small flaws. You are so much more than your tiny flaws.
When people look at you and judge you, they are looking at the whole person concept. They are considering your intelligence, personality, appearance, mood, creativity, competence, work and health habits, athletic abilities, health and social status, and so on. They are not solely focused on the little faults that you are obsessed with. They are looking at the whole picture. You need to learn to do the same – shift your perspective.
Maybe you are lacking in some areas, but in other areas you are probably above average. Focus on the big picture instead of fault finding and assuming that everyone is looking at your tiny faults. More than likely, people couldn’t care less about those tiny flaws you’re obsessed with.
Think about your strengths in order to help balance the scales.
What are some of your strengths?
Examine The Costs And Benefits Of Your Thoughts
Most of the time, your anxious thoughts are exaggerated or simply not true. Occasionally though, some of your anxious thoughts are true. When this is the case, you must ask yourself, is this thought benefiting me or hurting me?
If beneficial, use that knowledge to improve on what you can control. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself. In order to make a good impression, have a good job interview, or give a great speech, it may be necessary to improve your social skills.
However, if the anxious thought is unhelpful, if it’s holding you back in life, it’s time to acknowledge that and let it go. A little bit of anxiety can be a good thing, but when it becomes obsessive, it’s time to put a stop to it. When it gets too excessive it can have the opposite effect on other people and backfire.
To what extent does social anxiety play a role in your life? Does it make you perform better or does it make you freeze up and feel like you can’t speak, move, or do anything?
Does dwelling on your anxious thoughts help you or hurt you? What are the benefits and what are the costs? Does it push you to become better or does it stop you from going anywhere?
Rational Coping Statements
When you are in an anxiety provoking situation, you may not be able to think clearly and logically. I remember being in anxiety provoking situations like meetings and feeling like my head was spinning. My heart would race, I would shake, and I couldn’t concentrate because my fear levels were through the roof!
If this is the case for you, then some of the above strategies for challenging your anxious thoughts may not work for you right away. You may need to get a better handle on things before moving ahead. This can be done by using rational coping statements.
Rational coping statements are easy to use in the heat of an anxiety attack. They can help to stop your anxious thinking from spiraling out of control. So, the next time you feel your anxiety welling up, say to yourself:
- It’s ok to shake/sweat/blush in front of others
- I’m going to be all right. My feelings are not always rational.
- Anxiety is not dangerous, it’s just incomfortable.
- My anxiety is bad, but I’m not bad.
- Anxiety is a part of life; it is not bigger than life.
- This too will pass
- It’s not the end of the world if I become anxious.
- It’s ok to be anxious in front of other people.
- This is uncomfortable, but I can handle it if I take slow and deep breaths.
- I have survived this before. This will pass.
- By facing my fears I can overcome them.
Don’t just say them, try to believe them as well. Internalize them. You probably won’t be able to remember these statements in the heat of the moment, so write one or two down on a note card (that you can relate to) and carry it with you. Make sure it is one that is believable for you.
If it first, the rational coping statements seem silly or you just can’t believe them, don’t worry! Over time, as you repeat them, they will become more believable. If it simply doesn’t work for you, you can try the exposure based exercises here.
You can use any of the above strategies before, during, or after an anxiety provoking situation.
Behavioral Experiments That Challenge Anxious Thinking
How can we test whether or not beliefs are true? Through experiments! We have thoughts about how we would feel if something happened to us, but are they accurate? Is it fact or just an assumption? Experiments allow us to challenge our beliefs and can help us test the validity of our predictions and assumptions. Through repeated experiments, you will be able to disprove many of the beliefs and assumptions that contribute to your anxiety and fear. For example,
Anxiety provoking thought:
If my hand shook while writing, it would be awful.
Start writing and make your hand shake on purpose. Is it so terrible?
Anxiety provoking thought:
I’ll get rejected if I ask a girl out.
Ask a girl out and see what happens. Challege those beliefs. What’s the worst that could happen?
Anxiety provoking thought:
If people thought I was dumb, it would be terrible.
Purposefully say something incorrect to someone or in a group and see what happens. Is it so bad?
Anxiety provoking thought:
I can’t stand being the center of attention.
Purposefully draw attention to yourself. Be loud at the store, cough or sneeze in public, drop something on the ground, or arrive late to a class.
When you first begin designing experiments to challenge your beliefs, make sure you choose experiments that have little risk (temporary embarrassment for example). You don’t want to set up an experiment that sets you back too far.
Once you get more comfortable conducting experiences, you can up the risk a little bit. People with social anxiety are deathly afraid of taking risks, but the more social risks you take, the more comfortable you get in social situations. You have to put yourself out there and take some risks in order to establish and improve relationships, get a better job, and so on.
Think of some of your anxious thoughts and then design a behavioral experiment to test it. I touch on that more in confronting your fears through exposure. Before we get into confronting your fears through exposure, let’s look at using a thought record.