Originally by: Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D.
People who are chronically anxious have a strong tendency to (a) overestimate probabilities concerning the occurrence of negative outcomes, (b) overestimate the severity of these outcomes should they occur, and (c) underestimate their perceived ability to handle these predicted negative events.
Thinking in this manner results in becoming hypervigilant to threat (negative evaluations from others), as well as being overly self-conscience regarding the possibility of suffering extreme humiliation during, and following, nearly any type of social encounter with others.
Those with Social Anxiety begin their worry process even BEFORE the social interaction takes place. If you are among the 11 million people suffering from this condition, and want to better manage it, you will first need to become more aware of the self-statements you make before, during and after the social interactions you encounter.
Seen below are examples of the most common thought patterns (statements related to probability overestimates) held by those with a diagnosis of Social Anxiety.
Take a look at these examples, and check off the statements which sound similar to your typical manner of thinking, when needing to engage in a social interaction.
BEFORE THE INTERACTION
“I just know I’m going to look foolish and anxious.”
“I need to develop a plan regarding how to best hide my anxiety.”
“If possible, I have to come up with a way to avoid attending that social function.”
DURING THE INTERACTION
“I’m starting to feel anxious. That means I’m looking really stupid right now.”
“Remember to super focus on everything I say and do.”
“Assume that people are noticing every mistake I make.”
FOLLOWING THE INTERACTION
“Spend a lot of time reviewing every mistake I made, and how awkward I looked.”
“Assume that people are still talking about how inept I looked.”
“Sharply criticize myself for not giving a perfect performance.”
Cognitive errors refer to a consistent manner of thinking, which involves a variety of ways a person misinterprets the interactions they have with others.
When examining the self-statements discussed earlier, the most common cognitive errors associated with this thought process include, “mind reading/forecasting” and “black & white thinking.”
Both of these share the common error of making assumptions that involve overestimating probabilities associated with catastrophic outcomes.
In the case of Social Anxiety, mind reading centers on the threat of negative social evaluations; assuming that others view the person as inept, incompetent, clumsy, unworthy, etc.
Forecasting what others are thinking results in drawing conclusions related to catastrophic outcomes, such as never being accepted by others, living a life of isolation, etc.
Anxiety has a way of tricking us into believing irrational thought patterns. It’s similar to telling a lie; the more often the lie is repeated, the more real the story appears. It doesn’t take long before we actually believe what we said is true.
CHANGING ANXIOUS THINKING
Changing maladaptive thinking patterns is difficult, however it begins with a 3-step process: (1) identifying the specific cognitive errors you typically make, (2) understanding your negative core beliefs as they relate to social-interpersonal situations, and (3) becoming aware of your pattern of behaving, once these core beliefs have surfaced.
This strategy can best be accomplished with the help of a mental health professional who specializes in this form of therapy.
Once these 3 steps have been accomplished, one of the most effective techniques for helping to change anxious thinking is referred to as conducting “behavioral experiments” — challenging anxious beliefs by employing a series of behavioral “tests” to see if a particular belief is, in fact, valid.
For example, in order to test the belief that, “It would be terrible to have my hand shake while using a laser pointer during a presentation; everyone would think I don’t know what I’m talking about,” the test would involve DELIBERATELY shaking the pointer during a presentation, and even dropping it, followed by observing if one’s catastrophic predictions actually did occur.
Was the result laughter and ridicule from the audience? Or, did they seem preoccupied by other thoughts unrelated to your presentation?
Another example might include testing the belief, “I would never be able to cope with making a mistake in a public setting.”
In this case, go to a grocery store, intentionally leaving your wallet in the car. Enter a check-out line which has several people in it. Once you approach the cashier, announce that you will need to get your wallet that you forgot in your car (park your car very close to the store entrance).
When you return to the cashier, as she is still scanning your items, apologize for the inconvenience, and pay close attention to the fact that no one cared about your mistake.