Identifying situations and understanding your social anxiety

Understanding your social anxiety

In this guide we’ll be diving deeper into the first part of the loop part one of this guide explained – identifying situations.

Social anxiety challenge loop

We may think we know our social anxiety inside and out, having experienced its telltale signs countless times. The rapid heartbeat, the sweaty palms, the stammering words, the overwhelming urge to run away or hide – these are all familiar friends.

But unless we take the time to sit down with these experiences and really think about them, our understanding remains shallow. By digging deeper into the roots of our fears and identifying the safety behaviours that keep them alive, we gain the insights needed to break free from their hold.

Exercise: develop your social anxiety ‘map’

The first step to overcoming social anxiety is to understand what triggers it and how its grip takes hold for you. Everyone’s anxiety is unique to them. This exercise is designed to help you identify your unique imprint of anxiety. You can do this exercise alone or use the questions you’ll be asked at meetings to develop it.

Once you have a good understanding of your social anxiety, the rest of the process to overcoming it will fall into place. You can think of the output of this exercise as a ‘map’. It’ll help you discover the landscape of your anxiety, where you’d like to get to and the roads you’ll need to travel to get there.

Most importantly, you’ll understand your safety behaviours and therefore what you need to try differently to break the cycle of social anxiety.

1. Situations that start the cycle

The first step in overcoming social anxiety is to identify the specific social situations that trigger your anxiety. This can be a difficult process, as it may involve facing some of your fears. However, it is an important step, as it will help you to develop strategies for coping with these situations.

Think about the times when you have felt the most anxious in social situations. What were you doing? Who were you with? Where were you?

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Questions to ask yourself

  • Can you bring to mind a time when you felt anxious in a social situation?

  • What is it about this situation that matters to you?

  • What are the situations that you avoid or dread?

  • What are the situations that make you feel anxious or uncomfortable?

  • What are the situations that make you worry about being judged or evaluated by others?

  • What is at stake for you in this situation?

  • What are you hoping to achieve in this situation?

  • What are you trying to protect in this situation?

  • What are you afraid of losing in this situation?

2. Negative thoughts that arise when it starts

As someone living with social anxiety, we experience thoughts that arise automatically when presented with the situation. For example “I’m going to forget my words mid sentence” or “Everyone is going to think I’m stupid”. These kinds of thoughts are called negative automatic thoughts (NATs). They’re quick, involuntary thoughts that can be very distressing. They can also lead to anxiety and avoidance behaviours.

NATs play a key role in the cycle of social anxiety. When you’re in a social situation like the ones you’ve identified already, your brain automatically scans for potential threats. If your brain perceives a threat, it will trigger NATs. These NATs can then lead to anxiety and avoidance behaviours.

The next step to overcoming social anxiety is to identify your NATs. Once you know what your NATs are, you can start to challenge them and replace them with more realistic and helpful thoughts.

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Questions to ask yourself

  • What are the thoughts that go through your mind in these situations?

  • What are you afraid will happen?

  • What’s the scariest thing that could happen in this situation?

  • If the worst-case scenario came true, would it really be that bad?

  • What are you worried about happening? 

  • What do you think will happen if others judge you negatively in this situation?

3. What you feel as a result of those negative thoughts

Negative thoughts can lead to a range of negative emotions, including anxiety, fear, shame, embarrassment and anger. These emotions can be very intense and can make it difficult to function in social situations.

They can also lead to physical symptoms of anxiety, such as sweating, trembling, blushing, tripping over words or a pounding heart. These sensations can further increase your anxiety and make it even more difficult to function in social situations.

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Questions to ask yourself

  • How do these thoughts make you feel?

  • What are you paying attention to in this situation?

  • What does it feel like in your body when you have these thoughts?

  • Can you describe the physical sensations you experience?

  • Where do you feel these sensations in your body?

  • What emotions do you typically feel in this situation?

  • Are there any emotions that you are afraid to feel in this situation?

4. What you do to protect yourself

Safety behaviours are actions or thoughts that people use to reduce anxiety or avoid feared outcomes in social situations. They can be overt or covert, conscious or unconscious. Some examples of safety behaviours include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Talking quietly
  • Standing in the corner of a room
  • Planning what you are going to say ahead of time
  • Rehearsing social interactions
  • Asking someone else to speak for you
  • Avoiding social situations altogether

Safety behaviours can be helpful in the short term, as they can help to reduce anxiety and avoid negative outcomes. However, in the long term, safety behaviours can maintain social anxiety by preventing people from facing their fears and learning that they can cope with difficult social situations.

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Questions to ask yourself

  • What do you do to make sure that you don’t embarrass yourself in social situations?

  • What do you do to avoid drawing attention to yourself?

  • What do you do to make sure that people don’t think you’re weird or incompetent?

  • What do you do to make sure that you don’t say or do anything wrong?

  • What do you do to make sure that you don’t get rejected or criticised?

  • What do you do to make sure that you have a good time in social situations?

5. What perception of yourself these reinforce

At the root of the cycle is the image or perception you have yourself. This identity is reinforced by the thoughts and feelings you experience, and how you act when presented with your situation. For example, if you avoid a situation altogether, it might reinforce a perception of low confidence you have of yourself. Or you may be convinced that you have nothing interesting to contribute and people will get bored if you speak.

When a situation triggers negative automatic thoughts, we simultaneously focus the spotlight internally on ourselves and we believe that we’re coming across negatively. In the moment, this might occur as an image we have ourselves or a felt sense.

These beliefs are based on negative interpretations of past experiences, on unrealistic expectations and a series of distortions or cognitive biases. However, these beliefs can be very powerful and can have a significant impact.

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Questions to ask yourself

  • What are you most afraid of others thinking of you in this situation?

  • What are your expectations for yourself in this situation?

  • Do you feel you meet these expectations in this situation?

  • How do you think you come across to others in this situation?

  • How would someone describe how you look in this situation?

  • What image do you see of yourself in this situation?

  • How do you feel you are being perceived in this situation?


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With thanks to all the sources referenced and linked to for producing such helpful guidance and resources available to the public and in a way that we’ve been able to use them to create the WalkTheTalk guide. Most notably OxCADAT. Any errors and omissions are our own. Please note the information provided shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. We’re a peer support group sharing content and support that we hope will prove useful. If you feel you need it, always seek professional support from your GP/the NHS and/or therapist.