Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

A cognitive behavioral understanding of social anxiety disorder

By Brad Imhoff August 8, 2022

Don’t let anxiety drive the car,” I learned to tell myself.

I was standing in the hallway of the hotel’s conference center where our state counseling association was hosting its annual conference. I had co-presented with my professors at the conference a handful of times before, but I viewed them as experts who could handle anything that came up during our presentation. There was comfort in that. 

Now here I was as a doctoral student about to present a 60-minute session as lead presenter for the first time. The anxiety I had tried fending off for the past several hours (and, let’s be honest, past several days) rushed over me like a tidal wave as I looked at my watch and saw the presentation was scheduled to start in 15 minutes.

My stomach was in knots, my hands were ice cold (yet sweaty), and my thought process went something like this: “They all know so much more than I do; what am I doing here? They’ll see I’m a fraud and don’t belong. What if I run out of things to talk about? What if they ask questions and I have no answers? Great, now I’m sweating. They’re going to see I’m sweating and know I’m nervous. The sweat is fogging up my glasses and now I can barely read my notes. Do I have enough notes? What if I run out of material and have nothing to say after 20 minutes? How embarrassing. They’re going to judge me. Why am I doing this?”

Anxiety was absolutely driving the car.

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Social anxiety disorder

As its name implies, social anxiety disorder can be understood as an intense fear of, and overwhelming distress in, social situations. Situations that involve scrutiny, being observed, and real or perceived evaluation create extreme discomfort and dread for individuals with social anxiety. Common examples that trigger social anxiety for these individuals include speaking or performing in front of others, interacting with unfamiliar people, dating, being interviewed, initiating conversation and being at the center of attention. The underlying concerns are largely centered on judgment, negative evaluation and the potential for embarrassment. There is a persistent worry about appearing inadequate, humiliating oneself or being evaluated as awkward, boring, weird or any number of other negative descriptors.

As if the discomfort associated with social situations were not enough, social anxiety disorder also involves a fear of exhibiting anxiety symptoms. There is anxiety about being anxious. People who are overly anxious often sweat, blush, tremble or stumble over their words and fear that others will notice this and judge them for it. They may have racing thoughts, a quickened heartbeat, muscle tension or a dry throat, all of which can impede functioning at their best. When this happens, they become hyperaware of their internal experience and focus less on the task at hand and what is going on externally.

Take, for example, someone who is on a first date or someone interviewing for a job. They might have sweaty palms from feeling anxious and then be consumed by worry about having to shake hands. Rather than mentally preparing for a positive greeting or being excited about an introduction, the person might ruminate on the thought, “If I shake hands, they’ll feel the sweat and think I’m gross, but if I don’t shake hands, they’ll think I’m awkward.” This creates the sense of a no-win situation that might lead a person to avoid such situations altogether. 

Another example is a young student who raises her hand to participate in class and feels her face getting warm as she begins blushing. She is rehearsing in her mind what she wants to say but now turns her attention to the anxiety symptoms she is experiencing — worried that others might notice them too. Her embarrassment intensifies and her fears are actualized as her peers giggle and comment on how red she is turning. Not only does she feel anxious about speaking up, but it is confirmed to her that her anxiety symptoms are on full display for others to see and judge. She decides it is safer to just not raise her hand in the future.

Many readers can relate to these scenarios because most people experience anxiety in some social situations. It would be rare to go on a first date, present in front of an audience or go into a job interview without feeling some level of anxiety. With social anxiety disorder, however, the anxiety is excessive and out of proportion to the situation. Furthermore, the anxiety creates extreme distress or impairment. That is, it gets in the way of typical functioning. 

Individuals are very likely to use avoidance behavior to not have to engage in social situations or they may tend to escape situations once in them (e.g., leaving a social gathering shortly after arriving). Social situations feel as if they are being endured and survived as opposed to enjoyed. This can create various challenges related to employment, educational opportunities and relationships. When anxiety gets in the way of life in this way, treatment with a professional is warranted.

When considering the treatment of social anxiety disorder, I tend to conceptualize it as a three-pronged approach that involves understanding the disorder, learning to accept and value oneself, and reconstructing the reality clients have built for themselves. The latter two processes are very much intertwined, and all three are fluid and ongoing as clients learn about their anxiety, discover new ways of thinking about themselves and begin to engage the word differently. As they do all of this, they are practicing new skills with an aim toward interacting and functioning more effectively in their daily lives.

Understanding the disorder

Understanding social anxiety disorder begins with psychoeducation. This process is very reciprocal, however, because counselors learn from clients too. Clients who struggle with social anxiety are well aware of the discomfort associated with it, having experienced it daily for much of their lives. Still, counselors can work through the features, symptoms and diagnostic criteria with them to help put a name and label to their experiences. 

While this is being done, clients are asked to share how the various features of the disorder have played a role in their lives. This becomes a parallel process of educating clients on the ins and outs of social anxiety disorder while they educate counselors on their individualized experience with it. This joint effort builds rapport and trust and sets the tone for a collaborative partnership throughout treatment. It also helps normalize the challenges clients have encountered due to their anxiety, puts a name to what they have experienced and may help them feel less alone in the struggle.

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the onset of social anxiety disorder occurs most often between the ages of 8 and 15, and people go an average of 15-20 years experiencing symptoms before receiving treatment. This means clients have likely avoided and missed out on many opportunities going back well into childhood. 

The counselor should explore these opportunities. Doing so can be beneficial for several reasons. First, it gives a clearer understanding of the disorder’s role throughout clients’ lives and how it has affected their quality of life. Second, it offers insight into the areas each individual client may struggle with most — at work, in school, initiating friendships, building intimate relationships and so on. Finally, the historical challenges and missed opportunities can provide motivation for truly engaging the therapeutic process now. Building this motivation can be especially important when it comes to the gold standard for anxiety treatment — exposure (discussed later in the article). 

I like for clients to consider this question: “In light of all the missed opportunities you have described, I wonder what life will be like moving forward if anxiety continues to lead the way?” With an eye toward collaboration, motivation and building hope, the counselor may follow up with, “I want to help you take back control from this anxiety.”

When anxiety leads the way and controls our behavior, it becomes problematic. It creates impairment. Anxiety itself, however, is actually healthy and helpful. Being anxious about an important exam motivates us to study for it. Having anxiety about an upcoming business presentation focuses our preparation and encourages us to give it due attention. Feeling anxious about an upcoming networking opportunity might indicate that we value relationships and view social connection as important. 

Part of educating clients is helping them understand the benefits of anxiety and learning to distinguish helpful anxiety from the excessive anxiety they experience. The former motivates us and helps us prepare, whereas the latter paralyzes us into inaction.

Don’t let anxiety drive the car

Back to the opening story. The anxiety had stopped being helpful long before my presentation began. It was excessive and paralyzing at times. When I was anxiously preparing to begin a conference presentation, I would start implementing a handful of interventions to try to get rid of the anxiety. I would quickly run through them, expecting one to be the magic pill that would make me feel better. It was not a helpful way to view anxiety, and when none of the interventions made it disappear altogether, I was left feeling even more anxious. I had a combative relationship with the anxiety; it was overwhelming me, and I was fighting as hard as I could to make it go away. Only when I accepted that it was going to be there did I experience some level of freedom from it.

“Don’t let anxiety drive the car” was the phrase and visual that came to my mind. It became my imagery for managing anxiety. Anxiety was coming along for the ride — there was no doubt about that — but it did not have to be all-consuming and control where we went, whether we went at all or how we got there. 

Instead of creating an inner conflict that I was battling and trying to overcome, I began to externalize the anxiety and invite it along. I had a mental image of me sitting in the driver’s seat and opening the passenger door to welcome it. Essentially, I was saying, “I know you’re going to be there, so get in and let’s go.”

Externalizing the anxiety and inviting it along meant that I was no longer fighting against it and consistently losing. Rather than fearing the symptoms and engaging the racing thoughts, I could simply acknowledge them, accept that they would be there and make the decision to continue forward anyway. To keep things light and in perspective, I might even say to the anxiety, “It sure would be nice to just put you in the trunk.” For some anxiety-inducing situations, that can be a good way to monitor its severity. Is it tucked away in the trunk and mostly out of mind? Is it in the back seat just riding along? Or is it sitting in the passenger’s seat trying to grab the wheel and take control? 

Once we understand that anxiety is not something that is going to disappear, we can turn our attention to navigating our lives despite its presence. We can learn how to lessen its impact and manage it when it becomes excessive and unhelpful.

Acceptance of oneself

If I think poorly of myself, it naturally follows that I will expect others to think poorly of me too. How could I expect others to view me in high regard if I do not see myself that way in the first place? This is important because social anxiety is largely focused on how we think others perceive us, which leads to the presence of anxiety when around others.

Therefore, the second prong to the treatment approach is to help clients better accept and value themselves. Counselors can explore with clients their natural dispositions and work with them to understand and value their individual strengths and personalities. People with social anxiety may long to be extroverts or overvalue outgoing personalities, despite themselves being quiet observers who are rejuvenated by alone time and drained by social interaction. It is important to recognize these tendencies, not only to manage client expectations but also to highlight the value of these tendencies and reframe them. A client who puts herself down for being too reserved may learn to recognize how this plays a role in her being such a good listener with her friends. A client who longs to be more outgoing may learn to recognize how his quieter demeanor has made him more observant and intuitive.

It is also possible that social skill development is necessary for some clients. Areas may exist in which clients can improve their role in social interactions. Those who have social anxiety have spent years avoiding social situations and have not practiced and honed their skills in the way that others who are more socially comfortable have. Take, for example, a child who plays a sport or musical instrument. If this child shows up to practice two days each week while all the other children practice five days per week, those who have practiced more will have developed better skills. Similarly, an individual who has not had much practice in social situations may need to develop and practice skills that have not regularly been used. The counseling relationship is an opportunity for clients to become more competent with initiating conversation, recognizing social cues, speaking clearly, making eye contact, practicing how to show interest in others through prompts and questions, and any number of other social skills. With improvement of skills and competency comes more confidence.

Self-esteem activities are another useful tool in the process of helping clients accept and value themselves. One that I particularly like is having clients consider five different aspects of themselves: physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual and social. Clients are asked to identify personal characteristics within each area that they value and appreciate in addition to identifying some areas for growth. Using this approach makes the abstract concept of self-esteem more concrete and can help clients create a more balanced and holistic view of themselves. As counselors observe this process, they can also keep an ear out for particularly negative language or self-talk.

Reconstruction of reality

Throughout the steps noted in the previous sections, clients are beginning to understand themselves better and view themselves differently. The third prong to treatment — helping clients reconstruct their reality — continues this effort. Here, clients really begin to explore their self-talk and maladaptive behaviors. 

This process is easier said than done. Clients often come to us with low self-esteem, and there is no switch to flip to instantly have them think better about themselves. To emphasize it as an ongoing process, counselors can present it as “chipping away” at old ways of thinking and starting to entertain new ones.

Negative self-talk: One of the first steps in this process is exploring our clients’ negative self-talk and inner critic. This is that voice in our mind that continually criticizes us for not being good enough. It is hard to develop a healthy sense of self with such a critic living within. 

To emphasize the importance of healthier self-talk, counselors might pose the following scenario to a client: “I want you to think about the person you love most in this world. It could be your child, your partner, your niece or nephew, or any person you just absolutely love. Now, tell me how that person would develop mentally and emotionally if you talked to them the same way you talk to yourself.” 

Often, this becomes a rhetorical question that, in my experience, generates tears for many people. They recognize that they would never talk so harshly and critically to someone they love, and they recognize their loved one would not develop into a healthy, confident, high-functioning person if they did. This helps make clear the connection between our self-talk and our self-esteem. If we want to be healthy and confident, it is helpful to talk to ourselves in a way that promotes that. 

Again, this does not mean our clients will flip a switch and miraculously begin thinking only in helpful and healthy ways, but it does lay a foundation for monitoring their thought processes; identifying negative, unhelpful self-talk; and beginning to choose kinder ways of speaking to themselves.

Monitoring negative self-talk becomes another collaborative process. Counselors can prompt discussion by simply asking about it (“What were you telling yourself in that moment?”) and by pointing it out in the present (“I am hearing a lot of negative self-talk as you discuss this. Can we pause to look at that?”). This process teaches clients how to train their own ears to catch it as well. They can begin to monitor their self-talk outside of the counseling office and use interventions such as thought records that they write down and bring back to session. When reviewing such records, counselors can help clients brainstorm new thoughts to interject as healthier ways of thinking. Over time, this practice can give rise to clients monitoring and replacing negative self-talk in real time on their own.

Core beliefs: To further enhance the treatment process, counselors would do well to connect their clients’ thoughts to the idea of core beliefs. Core beliefs are those that develop early in life and become deeply held, foundational views of ourselves, others and the world in general. These tend to take the shape of absolute statements such as “I am _____” or “The world is _____.” Everyone has both positive and negative core beliefs, but the negative beliefs tend to be more prominent, especially for people experiencing enough distress in life to seek counseling.

Early childhood interactions, especially with caregivers, play a significant role in the development of these beliefs. Take, for example, a client who as a child was told by her parents that she was always in the way, she was a “mistake baby,” and they wished they had never had a kid. A profoundly negative message such as this is repeated in various ways throughout the client’s life, so she develops the belief that “I am worthless and unlovable.” One can imagine the implication of this belief on her thoughts and how it interferes with developing healthy relationships throughout life. A second example might be a client who experienced significant traumas early in life and develops a belief that “the world is unsafe and dangerous” or “people are manipulative and untrustworthy.”

Clients are generally not going to walk into the counseling office and tell us their core beliefs. They are usually unaware of this concept, and their beliefs operate more implicitly. Clients’ thought processes and self-talk very much lend insight into what their beliefs may be, however. As we listen to clients share stories about their day-to-day lives, recall memories from their past and especially make “I” statements, we can hear how their language is shaped by core beliefs about being unlovable, incapable, inadequate and so on.

I like to think of core beliefs as root systems. Any flowering plant needs a healthy root system to produce healthy flowers or fruits. An unhealthy root system will lead to unhealthy plants. Similarly, a client’s negative core beliefs will naturally result in negative thought processes. So I want to help my clients reevaluate their root systems, or core beliefs, to establish a healthier foundation that can give life to healthier thoughts about themselves and the world around them.

When working with clients on restructuring how they perceive themselves and others, we cannot expect an immediate switch from negativity to positivity. They have spent their entire lives with these negative core beliefs as a foundation and, once made aware of them, can often provide significant evidence as to why they think their beliefs are true. Our job is to help clients chip away at those unhelpful core beliefs and begin to find a healthier balance. 

We can do so by helping them discover alternative ways of thinking about themselves and then intentionally looking for evidence to support those newer, healthier ways of thinking. This evidence might come from a reinterpretation of past experiences or be found by intentionally looking for it moving forward. For example, a compliment from one’s boss may no longer be shrugged off as obligatory and undeserved, but instead lead to ownership of a job well done — thinking to oneself, “I did do good work on that project. I’m glad it was recognized.” The new evidence and ways of thinking begin to plant the seed of a new core belief of “I am capable” or “I am enough.”

Exposure: The previously discussed interventions for helping clients view themselves differently build motivation and courage for what comes next — exposure. Exposure is generally considered the gold standard for anxiety treatment, which often comes as bad news for those who experience anxiety. It can be hard to hear that engaging in the very situations that create anxiety is ultimately the best way to reduce that anxiety. Avoidance feels safer in the short term, but it impedes us in the long term. 

The inconvenience of this reality is why I like to start treatment with understanding the disorder and developing a better acceptance and valuing of oneself. As we do these things and establish a strong counselor-client relationship, clients grow more willing to expose themselves to situations that require a lot of bravery.

Exposure therapy does not mean identifying what causes our clients the most anxiety and having them jump right in. On the contrary, it is a process of identifying situations that cause varying levels of anxiety and working through them systematically. We can help our clients create a list of situations that create anxiety for them and rate them on a 1-to-10 scale. At the bottom of the list (1) is something that evokes mild anxiety symptoms; at the top (10) is a situation that causes significant anxiety. 

These lists are extremely individualized, but examples may include waving to and saying hello to a neighbor across the road as a lower anxiety situation and attending a networking event where the client doesn’t know anyone as a higher anxiety situation. Between the two are many situations that induce increasing levels of anxiety that can be worked through one at a time, from least frightening to most frightening.

Clients work through the list systematically with the support of the counselor. It may begin with simply visualizing the scenario together in the counseling session and thinking through how it might go, discussing what clients feel as they think about it, and talking about how to best approach the real scenario outside of the counseling office. This imaginal exposure can introduce clients to the process, allowing them to first navigate it from a distance and deal with some of the feelings associated with it prior to engaging the real scenario. 

The idea behind exposure is that clients learn to engage situations that make them uncomfortable as opposed to continuing patterns of avoidance behavior. As they do so, they build a tolerance for discomfort and learn to take control of the anxiety, moving forward even with it present. Successfully engaging situations will help develop a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy that motivates them to continue working toward more challenging situations. 

Clients will also notice a reduction in anxiety symptoms if they engage situations many times before moving on to a more challenging one. Clients do not need to feel 100% comfortable and confident before engaging the scenarios or moving on to the next one, however. They may need to learn that the anxiety will sometimes come along for the ride. Clients just need to make sure it isn’t driving the car.

 

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Brad Imhoff earned his doctorate in counselor education from Ohio University and currently serves as the director of the online Master of Arts in addiction counseling program at Liberty University. His scholarly interests include the understanding and treatment of social anxiety disorder, substance and behavioral addictions, and counselor well-being and self-care. Contact him at bimhoff@liberty.edu.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

4 Comments

  1. Kristie

    Your articles are really helping me. I’ve read 2. One on sex trafficking victims. It helped me to understand the diagnosis and by what I read and some ways I can learn to keep it under control. How to handle it better. So I can live with it.

    Reply

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