The Cognitive Theory of Social Anxiety

One of the main theories about social anxiety asserts that social anxiety is related to overestimating the negative aspects of social interactions, and underestimating the positive aspects. Individuals with social anxiety tend to overestimate the threat of social interactions, the likelihood of negative outcomes, and the consequences of negative outcomes. Individuals with social anxiety also tend to underestimate their ability to handle social interactions. One popular treatment for social anxiety targets these patterns of thinking, and also encourages individuals with social anxiety to practice engaging in social interactions.

One theory about social anxiety is that patterns of thoughts and beliefs play an important role in social anxiety, and targeting these thoughts and beliefs can be a helpful way to treat it. These patterns of thinking tend to lead them to avoid social interactions.

Beliefs and expectations
According to the cognitive theory, individuals with social anxiety tend to:

  • –  Overestimate the level of threat in social situations. (For example, “This person is going to be judging me.”)
  • –  Underestimate their ability to handle social situations. (For example, “I’m going to say something stupid.”)
  • –  Expect negative outcomes from interactions in social environments. (For example, “He is going to think I’m stupid.”)
  • –  Overestimate the consequences of these negative outcomes. (For example, “He’s probably going to tell everyone at the office how stupid I am, and then I’ll probably be fired.”)Because of these beliefs and expectations, social interactions are often avoided. Focus of attention during social interactionsWhen individuals with social anxiety are in social interactions, they tend to focus more on how they are being perceived by other people (for example, “My handshake was too weak. She’s going to think I have no confidence….”), rather than on the interaction itself.

-This focus on one’s own performance can be very distracting, and can get in the way of having a positive interaction with someone else.

-This attention can also lead one to only pay attention to the negative aspects of how they are interacting with others.

-Because of this focus, individuals with social anxiety tend to remember past interactions as worse than they really were.

This pattern can lead to more avoidance of social interactions.

Strategies that get in the way of effective interactions
In social settings, individuals with social anxiety often use strategies to avoid negative outcomes. These strategies are used to prevent bad outcomes, but often get in the way of having a good outcome. For example, in order to avoid saying something stupid in a large group, someone with social anxiety might not speak at all. As a result, one would succeed in not saying anything perceived by others as stupid, but would also miss an opportunity to have a positive interaction.

Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Social Anxiety
One of the most popular and well-research treatments for social anxiety is cognitive- behavioral therapy (CBT). Although there are a number of variations to this treatment, two of the most common elements of this treatment include the following:

– CBT helps individuals to evaluate and modify their own negative beliefs and expectations about social interactions.

– Because avoiding social interactions is a strong feature of social anxiety, a CBT therapist supports individuals to engage in social interactions that tend to be avoided.

Research has shown that this type of therapy can be helpful in treating social anxiety. However, there are many different types of treatment, and one approach may fit some individuals better than others.

Read the full article here:

Huppert, J.D., Roth, D.A., & Foa, E.B. (2003). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of social phobia: New advances. Current Psychiatry Reports, 5, 289-296.


What are your thoughts?

What have you noticed about your own thoughts when you are in social interactions? Do these thoughts play a role in you avoiding certain social situations? What might happen if you were able to change those patterns of thinking?

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