“Thoughts don’t matter, but your response to them does.” – Adrian Wells
Have you ever found yourself wondering: What if they notice my anxiety? What do I do if they reject me?
These types of questions typically pop up in the minds of people who are socially anxious – especially right before they enter into a social situation. It is generally thought that these negative thoughts and biases in thinking are the root cause of psychological disorder. However, when one stops and think about this logically, we realize that most people, including those of us who don’t meet the criteria for any psychological disorder, are not unacquainted with negative thoughts of this kind.
So, what is the driving feature that makes people more prone to be negatively affected by these types of thoughts than others?
It has been argued that what regulates people’s emotional experiences and their ability to control them is not what they think, but how they think. The term associated with this is metacognition which refers to beliefs about thinking.
Let us examine this in more detail.
Traditional cognitive behavioral therapy argues that thoughts and beliefs about potential danger lead to anxiety. While thoughts about danger are indeed associated with feelings of anxiety, it seems that these thoughts do not cause anxiety disorders. Instead, our ideas and beliefs about thinking itself lead to maladaptive thinking styles, which in turn are the cause of prolonged psychological suffering. A socially anxious person, for instance, experiences social anxiety because he or she believes it is helpful (and not harmful) to be hypervigilant to signs of danger in social situations.
Maladaptive thinking styles refer to a way of thinking called the cognitive attentional syndrome (CAS). It involves excessive amounts of worrying about future events and/or ruminating about past experiences, scanning the environment for potential threats, and unsuccessful attempts to control one’s thoughts. The CAS is the reason why some individuals get trapped into certain emotions such as anxiety, while others can move on relatively quickly when facing them. The CAS is grounded in the belief that engagement in these styles of thinking are beneficial.
So, socially anxious people’s beliefs about thinking, their metacognitions, motivate them to engage in these thinking styles. They trust they will lower their anxiety by engaging in them. But in fact – it’s just the opposite. This way of thinking is what causes them to experience more intense anxiety and to become trapped in the emotion.
Thus, additionally to targeting irrational beliefs, which even mentally healthy people seem to experience regularly, psychotherapy is moving towards a focus on the specific way individuals respond to these ideas. People can regain a good level of control over their emotions if they learn to accept intrusive, automatic thoughts. They can learn to stop worrying as a response to negative thoughts by understanding that their style of thinking is counterproductive.
So, the next time you are experiencing intrusive thoughts, what are you going to do? Are you going to give in to them, trying to control your anxiety, or will you question the benefit of doing so and refrain from it? Ask yourself: are these thoughts helpful, or am I just pouring gasoline on a fire?
About the author:
Martin Stork is a trained physical therapist and is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Psychology with emphasis in clinical psychology. He is particularly interested in the science and treatment interventions of social anxiety disorder and has organized and led several local support groups for people suffering from social anxiety in Washington, DC and Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the founder of the website www.conquersocialanxiety.com and the Conquer Social Anxiety Youtube Channel.
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