Do you recognize any of the following types of negative thoughts?
Mind Reading: "I just know this person doesn't like me; she thinks what I am saying is boring."
Overgeneralization: "I panicked the last time I gave a speech; I know it's going to happen again."
Magnification: "I'm sure the bank teller saw my hands shaking; she must think there is something wrong with me."
There are many other potential negative thoughts that people with social anxiety disorder (SAD) might have. Irrational thoughts contribute to feelings of panic in social and performance situations because they start a cycle of catastrophic thinking. In order to overcome your symptoms, it is helpful to learn how to deal with your negative thoughts. One way to do this is through a process known as cognitive restructuring, which is used during cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
There are three essential steps involved in cognitive restructuring.
Step 1: Identify and become aware of your negative thoughts.
Step 2: Determine the accuracy of your negative thoughts.
Step 3: Replace your negative thoughts with more helpful ones.
Below is a brief description of how you would go about putting each of these steps into practice in order to modify your negative thought patterns.
Step 1: Identify Negative Thoughts
At first, it might be hard to identify your negative thoughts. Sometimes they happen so quickly and automatically that you barely even notice them on a conscious level. In order to really start paying attention, keep a notepad with you during the day and jot quick notes down about thoughts that you had in a situation that caused you to panic. Over time, it will become easier to notice and pick up on the automatic thoughts that you have through the day.
Step 2: How Accurate Are Your Thoughts?
At a time when you are not anxious and you are in a relaxed situation, take the time to ask yourself, "Exactly how accurate are my thoughts?" For example, is it possible that the person you were talking to was tired instead of bored? If the bank teller did notice your hands shaking, would she really think badly of you?
It can be hard to battle with your thoughts and see that they are not always accurate because of how the situation feels to you. If you are having real difficulty with this exercise, imagine that the roles were reversed. If someone you knew was nervous giving a speech, would you think badly of her or that something was wrong with her? Most likely, you would feel sympathetic. Try giving yourself the same level of acceptance that you give to others.
Step 3: Replace Negative Thoughts
The last step is to gradually replace your negative thoughts with more helpful and positive ways of reacting to your anxious feelings. At first, this process will feel difficult and unnatural. It is something that you will need to practice daily for it to become a new automatic habit.
Some examples of more positive and helpful thoughts than the above ones might be, "This person I am talking to must just be tired;" "Just because I had trouble the last time I gave a speech doesn't mean it will happen again;" and "The teller probably didn't notice or care if my hands shake, she has too much else on her mind."
Although it is a process that takes a lot of effort, learning how to replace your automatic negative thoughts with more positive and helpful ones will help to reduce feelings of hopelessness and increase your self-esteem. You should start to gradually notice that the positive thoughts become easier and the negative ones require more effort. Over time, the frequency of your negative thoughts will decline and so should your symptoms of social anxiety.
Ellis A. (2001). Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.