The philosopher Epictetus liked to point out that situations do not upset people. What upsets people is their thoughts or judgments about situations.
Think about it. Going to the mall and walking around other people is not the primary cause of social anxiety. Social anxiety is the result of focusing on what you believe the other people must be thinking about you.
When we fixate on what other people are thinking about us, we have a difficult time enjoying the moment.
Why do many of us worry so much about what other people are thinking? One answer is the reality of automatic negative thoughts.
What Are Automatic Negative Thoughts & How Can They Influence Social Anxiety?
Automatic negative thoughts are spontaneous irrational thoughts that emerge from the subconscious brain. We do not choose to have these thoughts. Most of the time these thoughts are irrational (not true) and lead to a negative view of ourselves.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches us that our thoughts have an impact on our feelings and behaviors. When we let our automatic negative thoughts get the best of us, we’ll likely feel bad about ourselves. We will also try to avoid certain situations and may engage in unhelpful behaviors.
Social anxiety is a result of automatic thoughts that go unchallenged. For example:
A young adult may have fears bout starting college. He may worry that others will be judging his appearance or intelligence. He may fret that peers will dislike his clothes or make fun of his personality.
When these automatic negative thoughts are left unchallenged, social anxiety can emerge and start to strengthen. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one way, that is supported by research and shown to be effective, in helping people to help overcome social anxiety.
Addressing Social Anxiety by Challenging Automatic Negative Thoughts
While we may not be able to control automatic negative thoughts from popping in from our subconscious, we can learn steps to provide us the optimal amount of emotional energy and focus to identify and challenge them.
Practicing identifying and challenging them can be a key in overcoming social anxiety for teens, young adults, and adults alike.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches us that we have the ability to choose whether we believe the thoughts. We may not be able to control whether we have the thoughts, but we can choose what we focus on and what we do with them.
Social Anxiety & Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: 3 Steps in Learning to Overcome Social Anxiety
Step 1: Accepting Social Anxiety
Wait, what? What do you mean accepting social anxiety?!
It is understandable that this step may feel a little counterintuitive. Social anxiety is exhausting. It's like carrying around a heavy weight, 24/7. When left unchecked, social anxiety can lead to other struggles. Anxiety can increase and generalize to other situations. Depression can also result for young adults.
So why would acceptance be a step for young adults to overcome social anxiety? Renowned Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung found that with some emotional struggles: "That which we resist will not only persist, but also grow in size". Social anxiety is one of those emotional struggles that Carl Jung was referencing.
Shifting Focus & Attention Away From the Pole
Let me give an example:
Driving in snow is a skill unto itself. It's much different than, well, not driving in snow. The roads are slushy, slick, and there are certain key skills that are taught in driver's education classes for those who want licenses in snowy states.
Go too fast on slushy, icy roads, you will likely find your car starting to slide off the road. If you live in a snowy area, this is not an "if" but "when" type of situation. This is why drivers are taught how to get out of sliding off the road safely in drivers education classes.
Let's say the driver is sliding off the road towards a telephone pole. Reflexively, we naturally focus on the pole as that's the thing we want to avoid. We know hitting the pole will not only damage the car but likely us as well!
Yet, drivers are taught to focus instead on where they want the car to go, not on the thing they are trying to avoid -- in this case, the telephone pole.
Focusing on the telephone pole will usually cause the driver to panic and over correct in an effort to not hit the pole. In over correcting, the driver loses more control of the car while it's sliding off the road.
Focusing instead on where you want the car to end up shifts the focus and attention that will help the driver to avoid the pole. The driver still knows the pole is there. It doesn't take away the fear and panic in the moment. But it does free up emotional energy and focus to help navigate the situation and avoid hitting the pole.
While accepting social anxiety, you know it's still there. It doesn't take the symptoms away completely. But it does tend to lessen the intensity. It also helps you to free up emotional energy and focus that you can use to learn to navigate your way out of social anxiety.
Step 2: Identifying Automatic Negative Thoughts
The second step in helping to overcome social anxiety is identifying automatic negative thoughts. If you struggle with social anxiety, you may want to keep a journal or record of the thoughts.
Learning to recognize the automatic negative thoughts and writing them down can objectify them. As you learn to recognize them and write them down, this gives you more control of what you want to do with them. It also is a necessary step that leads us to step 3.
Step Three: Challenging Automatic Negative Thoughts
The third step is to challenge the automatic negative thoughts. In the language of CBT, this involves disputing the negative thoughts.
Disputation involves analyzing whether the thoughts are true and accurate. If you are able to determine that the thoughts are not true, you can then change them to match what is true. For example:
A young adult starting college may find themselves experiencing social anxiety. The young adult worries that people will judge his style and think that he is stupid. He writes these thoughts down in a journal and keeps a record of when they come up. After identifying the thoughts he can now dispute them one by one.
For the young adult, he analyzes the first fear and realizes that college is a place with many different styles. Everyone is different. There may be some people who don‘t like his clothes. But there is likely a group who will find him fashionable.
The other fear that the young adult has relates to his intelligence. The more the young adult analyzes the negative thoughts, the more he may see that many, if not most people, likely struggle with this fear.
Analyzing this thought further, the young adult may find it unlikely that anyone will think about their intelligence. It’s more likely the case that everyone is going to be a bit worried about their own academic performance. They really may not have time or room to worry about other peoples performance.
Accepting social anxiety, for the time being, frees you up to more effectively learn how to overcome social anxiety. To overcome social anxiety, a young adult first has to identify the troubling thoughts. Then, once you identify the thoughts, you are able to analyze or dispute them to see if they are true.
Disputing automatic negative thoughts and choosing to replace them with more accurate thoughts that match the truth of the situation, will help you feel more confident and less anxious. While you still may feel nervous, you will find that over time, your social anxiety will be less intense and you can overcome it.
Social Anxiety & Therapy for Young Adults
Social anxiety is a struggle that often requires additional support. Seeing a therapist who specializes in counseling for young adults can be a game changer.
A young adult therapist can help the young adult learn the skills and tools necessary in overcoming social anxiety. A young adult counselor can also help trouble shoot any bumps in the road that a young adult may experience along the way.
Social anxiety can be so challenging for anybody and particularly a young adult starting out their adult life. Social anxiety acts as a barrier or a ceiling on a young adults ability to succeed. A young adult may have the natural intelligence, talent, and skill to succeed at the levels they want to yet social anxiety may block them from accessing their gifts.
Removing the barrier or ceiling of social anxiety allowing the young adult to access their gifts and talents is one of the most freeing feelings a person can experience. Let our therapists who specialize in counseling young adults help. You don't have to live with social anxiety -- there is a way out.
Start Counseling for Young Adults at Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Katy, Tx & Houston
At the Katy, Tx location of Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we specialize in providing therapy for young adults. Social anxiety is becoming more common among young adults. Let our experienced young adult counselors help.
If you are ready to start your journey in overcoming social anxiety, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:
Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling
Speak with one of our therapists who specialize in young adult therapy
Start your journey to live a life free 0f the grip of social anxiety
Other Therapy Services Provided by Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Katy, Tx & Houston
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we want to help your young adult be as successful as they possibly can be. Overcoming social anxiety can help them accomplish this.
In addition to young adult counseling, we provide other therapeutic and counseling services for young adults, teens, and families such as:
Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Neurofeedback for Depression
Counseling for Depression
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Therapy for Self-harm
Therapy for Self-esteem and Self-worth
Anger Management Treatment
About the Author
Quique Autrey is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). He is a seasoned young adult therapist who has helped many young adults overcome their struggles.
He also is a family systems therapist. He views each individual through that lens and provides therapy for the family system which includes: teen therapy, young adult counseling, family counseling, marriage counseling & couples therapy.
Quique also has a passion for helping teens, young adults, and adults who may be on the Autism Spectrum. He has a talent for connecting with and helping people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
If you're ready to start your healing journey, you can call us at 346-202-4662 or email us at: