Social Anxiety Spiral of Feelings and Behaviours

This is a cycle of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that people who have social anxiety experience and can all feed in to one another in an increasingly intense ‘spiral’. When you are in a social situation that you dread, anxious thoughts may lead to anxious feelings. You may start worrying that your anxiety is visible to to others and try to hide it. Fighting the anxiety just makes the anxiety worse.

The components of social anxiety spirals may include:

Anxious about being anxious
Anxiety can be a horrible feeling and its very easy to get tied up in a cycle of fearful thoughts like “oh no its happening again” – leading to more self focus and a cycle of increasingly intense thoughts and feelings. Its absolutely possible to develop good habits to diminish and alleviate anxiety and a good starting point is to read articles that are common to a range of anxiety and panic conditions. Of course, in social situations it can be all the harder to action these techniques, but knowing them, and finding which ones work for you will be a big help.
Please see our page on Grounding techniques to calm yourself

Fight or Flight response
The intensity of social anxiety feelings arise from the “fight or flight” respnse – where our brains misinterpret and exaggerate social stress via the same mechanisms as physical threat – See the links and articles within our page on “Fight or Flight response

Fighting the anxiety
Anxiety symptoms are unpleasant – but fighting the anxiety can just make the anxiety worse.
Please see our page on Grounding techniques to calm yourself

Safety Behaviours
Someone with social anxiety might use safety behaviours to prevent them from facing and experiencing anxiety-provoking situations in full. For example, someone might always use their mobile phone in social situations or be quiet, unassertive, avoid eye contact, leave early or even play the fool. Safety behaviours are usually designed to distract attention from oneself or minimise anxiety feeelings but we can end up relying on them and not being our true self.

Also see our pages on Avoidance and safety-behaviours.

Thinking and worrying
Unhelpful thinking can help perpetuate social anxiety. Individuals with social anxiety can suffer from thought distortion, where the probability and severity of a bad situation is overestimated. Individuals may worry so much that the feel too drained to even attend. If they get there – unhelpful thoughts can use up all their “mental bandwith” so there is little time to really engage with event at hand. After event rumination can also be common – reliving the bad bits and forgetting the good.

Focusing inwards and paying attention to the wrong things
Someone with social anxiety might have a mental image of how they appear to others which is inaccurate or distorted. They may think that “nobody likes me” and watch others for signs of negative feedback or disapproval. All this inward focus stops us fully engaging with the situation or people we are with.


People with social anxiety may avoid certain situations as an instinctive reaction to the fear they feel. This can give immediate relief, reducing anxiety in the short term. However, it does little to reduce anxiety in the long term and can cause someone with social anxiety to limit the actions they take and the experiences they have in their life.

Also see our pages on Avoidance and safety-behaviours.

Other Life factors
Modern life is complicated and all the stresses and strains can leave little “space” to focus on getting better. Practical life considerations such as housing, job, relationship, loneliness, money worries, mental and physical health or affect our ability to focus on the things that will help our social anxiety.

But – don’t overlook the basics! It is also a good idea to make sure that your lifestyle supports the changes you want to make, as physical and mental health are linked. Exercising, using relaxation techniques, eating healthily and avoiding too much caffeine and alcohol will help to keep your baseline level of anxiety lower. This in turn will make your efforts to overcome social anxiety using CBT easier.

Actions that can help with the social anxiety spiral

Understand your social anxiety
The starting point is understanding your social anxiety. Researching social anxiety websites, or reading a self help book can help you understand the factors that may be maintaining your social anxiety.

Consider NHS or Private CBT Therapy
See out page on What the NHS offers or finding a private therapist.

How to make progress
See our pages on Making Progress

Learn About CBT
Details of the CBT techniques used to overcome socially anxious thoughts and inward focus can be found on our What is CBT?.

And finally:

Don’t compare yourself to others
It’s easy to look at other people and think they have it all together, but the reality is that we all have our own struggles and insecurities. Comparing yourself to others will only make you feel worse about yourself, so try to focus on your own positive qualities instead.

References – Panic is a trick – Anxious about being anxious – The social anxiety spiral – What is an anxiety spiral
See this leaflet to find out more about the Vicious Cycle of Anxiety.

Article written with the kind help of volunteer Claire.