How Cognitive Distortions Maintain Social Anxiety

What are the odds? and How bad would it be? Two key questions to ask yourself

Posted Mar 11, 2013

Research conducted by psychologist Edna Foa, noted for her research on anxiety disorders, asked individuals with and without social anxiety about their expectations regarding various social events. She asked the subjects questions about the probability of something happening to them, such as making a social blunder. She also asked the subjects what they thought the consequences would be, should this event actually occur.

The results indicated that the socially anxious people overestimated both the probability and the severity of negative social events. They expected negative social events to be more likely to occur and the consequences of these events to be more severe. In other words, they were making negative predictions. Interestingly, these differences were found only when they were asked about social events, not other situations.

In addition, Foa’s research demonstrated that one of the best predictors of "treatment outcome" – the extent to which people improved with treatment – is whether they modify their estimates of the consequences of negative social events. People who learn that unpleasant social situations aren't end of the world, and that they can cope with such situations if they occur, make the most progress.

One of the reasons why people with social anxiety exaggerate the threat of “danger” is that they ignore information that contradicts their inaccurate expectations.

Here are some ways to gather information to challenge your expectations.

WHAT ARE THE ODDS? (Probability errors)

Ask other people. Pick people you feel comfortable approaching but who does not share your social fears. Describe the situation to them, and the consequences you fear (my hands shake, I blush, I forget my lines, and so on). Then ask them what they might think if they witnessed this consequence. Would they disapprove of someone who blushed, stuttered, or forgot their lines? If their views are more charitable than what you expected, ask them why they would not disapprove. Try to determine how they are interpreting the situation differently than you would.

Examine your own experiences. Think as objectively as you can about the real evidence you have for your expectations. Ask yourself, "How many times have I been in this situation? How many times was there irrefutable evidence that other people disapproved of me?"

Consider the validity of the disapproval. In other words, on what basis would someone disapprove of you? Would your symptoms and behavior really justify the negative reactions of others?

Look for the influence of unrealistic beliefs. Here are some common beliefs that many people with social anxiety have. See if you share any of these and notice how they might impact your thinking.

My worth depends upon what others think of me.

My worth depends upon my accomplishments.

Anxiety and fear equal weakness.

I must be perfect for others to accept me.

I must be perfect for me to accept myself.

I cannot function around others when I'm anxious.

I cannot tolerate criticism or rejection.

Everyone must like me or it’s horrible.

If I’m criticized for one specific thing, it’s a criticism of my overall worth.

If others really knew me, they’d know I was an “imposter.”

After having considered the above questions, has your estimate of the probability of disapproval changed?


HOW BAD WOULD IT BE? (Severity errors)

You can follow a similar procedure to reevaluate your expectations about the severity of the consequences of disapproval. Again, to help you reevaluate, consider the questions below.

Ask other people. This time, ask people how serious of a matter would they consider it to be if they actually did disapprove of something someone else did in the social situation? If someone else disapproved of them in a similar situation, how important would they consider that to be? Do they think they could handle it? If they disapproved of someone else in a given situation, with their opinion of the person remain fixed, or would it be subject to reevaluation?

Examine your own experiences. Can you recall a time when you actually experienced disapproval? How did you feel? Did you stay in the situation to find out whether you really could handle it? Or did you leave? If you did stay, how did you handle it? Did the disapproval last when you stayed? If you left, did the disapproval remain forever fixed?

Consider the validity of your assessment of severity. Is there a valid reason why someone would become very upset with you if your worst fears came true in a social situation? If so, is there a reason to expect you would not survive the experience? Do you think you would eventually see the unreasonableness of the other person's response? Does another person’s opinion of you actually change you, your worth, or your life in any meaningful way?

Look for the influence of unrealistic beliefs. Again, review the list of unrealistic beliefs above and see how they may play a role in your view of how bad something would actually be.

After having considered the above questions, has your estimate of the severity of disapproval changed?

Maintaining an attitude of compassionate curiosity when asking yourself these questions will go a long way toward helping you overcome your fears.

Dr. Markway is the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety and Phobia along with, C. Alec Pollard, Ph,D., Cheryl Carmin, Ph,D. and Teresa Flynn, Ph.D., named as one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help book by Professional Psychology: Research and Practice

Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to.

           -Ask, The Smiths

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