Automatic Negative Thoughts and Beliefs

Disclaimer :
The content in this resource is provided for general information only. It is not intended to, and should not be, treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional.

Please note “Challenging thoughts and beliefs” may occur within elements of some, but not all, self help books or CBT – see What is CBT?. It should be noted that modern NHS CBT tends not to challenge thoughts and beliefs in a direct way. However a good therapist will often work through the different elements in ways that work best for you.

Social anxiety is often maintained by automatic negative thoughts and beliefs. For example:

• automatic negative thoughts about yourself, your performance or how you appear to others
• strongly held beliefs about your inadequacy in social situations
• negative biases towards thoughts dwelling on past failings, discounting any positives and magnifying the social abilities of others

When faced with social situations that trigger their anxiety, individuals with SAD tend to shift their attention away from the situation they are in and towards themselves. They may have thoughts such as:
• I am useless at this • people don’t like me • I look foolish • I am boring • everyone is watching • everyone’s gone quiet and it’s my fault • I must be entertaining, otherwise people will not like me • they can see how anxious I look • I will lose control and everyone will see

With all these negative thoughts and beliefs, it’s hard to feel good about yourself. The negative thoughts are often part of anxiety spiral of behaviours that keep our social anxiety going.

Challenging Negative Thinking

This involves looking at the thoughts associated with social anxiety and examining them to see if they are really ‘rational’, or if there are other, more helpful ways of looking at things. You may be able to identify the thoughts that upset you, or you may need to spend some time trying to recall what goes through your mind when you feel anxious. If that is the case, think back to a situation that you recently found difficult, and identify what came into your mind when you began to feel nervous or embarrassed. Which thoughts was it that triggered your anxious feelings?

Modifying the way you think may start with thought records, where you write down the thoughts that are upsetting and then trying to come up with alternatives that make you feel better. These thoughts should be rational and realistic, so that you are able to believe them, rather than unrealistically positive.

For example, if you were at a party, talking to another guest, and the conversation dries up, you might be thinking something along the lines of ‘I’m so useless’ or ‘I never have anything to say’ or ‘they must think I’m so boring.’ You might consider the following alternative thoughts: ‘Many conversations don’t necessarily go anywhere; the other person is also not saying very much’ and ‘I don’t know what they are thinking – they could also be worrying the gap in conversation is their fault!’ You will also record things such as how much better (or not) the alternative thoughts make you feel, and how you might approach things differently in the future if you are struggling to make conversation.

An example can be found here: thought-record-sheet-example.pdf

Trying to be more balanced in thinking can help disarm unhelpful thoughts and lead to healthier behaviours. For example, instead of thinking “Something might go wrong, and it will be an awful disaster” it might be more helpful to think “something might go wrong, but I’m sure it won’t be horrible, and I will survive”, or “something might go wrong, or it might not; I’m sure I will be alright”. The idea is not to convince yourself that everything will go perfectly, but to create a kinder and more balanced thought process which leads to being able to face more situations.

Re-examining your thoughts can also include identifying whether you tend to automatically fall into particular patterns of biased thinking, such as:
Mind-reading assuming you know what others are thinking about you: ‘they must think I’m so anxious/quiet/ridiculous/boring’
Fortune telling predicting the future: e.g. you will never be able to feel comfortable in conversation, or you will never be able to make a telephone call to someone you don’t know
Discounting the positive ignoring all the positive feedback you received for something and focusing on the one negative comment
Projecting in the context of social anxiety, believing that because you believe something negative about yourself, other people think that about you as well
Overgeneralization thinking that if one situation had a negative outcome, all other similar situations will also have negative outcomes
Catastrophizing where you believe that if anything goes wrong it will be a disaster.
Emotional reasoning mistaking your feelings for facts: if you feel inadequate, assuming that you must be inadequate.

Over time, many people believe that the repeated practice of new ways of thinking can change neural pathways in your brain, meaning that you automatically think more positively!

Challenging beliefs

CBT also examines beliefs. Our thoughts and behaviours stem from our beliefs, which are a set of underlying assumptions about ourselves and other people. Beliefs that perpetuate social anxiety might include things such as ‘other people never like me’, or ‘other people are mostly hostile and critical’. They are probably based on negative experiences you have had in the past, or you may not know why you came to hold them. But beliefs can also be outdated and unhelpful, even if at one time they seemed useful (such as keeping quiet to avoid being bullied). But in the long run they can prevent you from making progress with social anxiety.

As with negative thoughts, the process starts with trying to identify the difficult negative beliefs you hold that may stop you from making progress. Then try to re-examine them: are things really as absolute as you think? Are you forgetting that no one is perfect? Or jumping to conclusions because of your experiences when you were younger? Unhelpful beliefs can be challenged in a similar way to unhelpful thoughts. You can start to look for new information: very often we only notice things that confirm our beliefs (this is known as confirmation bias). You may notice the person that frowned at you and ignore the one who smiled.

Building up new and more positive beliefs should help you to feel more confident in yourself. As with previous techniques, you need to work out which new beliefs are going to work best for you. It’s important that the beliefs are realistic and you can actually believe them.

Some pages with more information on automatic negative thoughts can be found here: – Types of negative thinking – Unhelpful-thinking-styles Module-2—Overcoming-Negative-Thinking.pdf