9 social anxiety risk factors: This is what keeps your social anxiety alive

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There are 9 factors that maintain and exacerbate your social anxiety despite repeated exposure to social situations. The key factors that maintain and exacerbate your social anxiety are:

  1. Negative core beliefs about yourself and others. 
  2. Negative automatic thoughts.
  3. Paying attention to the negative and ignoring positive/neutral feedback (attentional bias).
  4. Self-focused attention.
  5. Negative self-image.
  6. Avoidance.
  7. Safety behaviors.
  8. Anticipatory anxiety.
  9. Negative post-event processing.
9 social anxiety risk factors

9 factors that maintain your social anxiety

Interventions that target each of these factors have been proven to be highly effective and have helped many people overcome social anxiety disorder. Think about the 9 factors as the key to overcoming your social anxiety. Also, think about how you can do the opposite of these 9 factors, and ask yourself "what can I start doing differently?"

Inaccurate negative beliefs are the root cause of social anxiety. Factors 2-9 continually reinforce your negative beliefs, which in turn sets you up for more social anxiety in the future. This means that your false negative beliefs never have the opportunity to be disproved. The fact that your negative beliefs never get disproved is what keeps your social anxiety alive despite repeated exposures to fearful situations. Let’s explore each of the factors.

1. Negative core beliefs about yourself and others 

Your negative core beliefs, false assumptions and misinterpretations are the foundation of your social anxiety. The good news is that, with a few tweaks to your beliefs and assumptions, you can begin to reverse the detrimental effects of social anxiety on your life. Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy work - it does take effort to change your core beliefs and false assumptions. But rest assured that there is NOT something inherently wrong with you. Think of recovery as a course-correction. It’s similar to a jet pilot who gets off-course by the smallest degree and ends up hundreds of miles off-course. You’ve gotten off-course by a small degree and now you need to do a course-correction to get back on track. It is within your grasp to change your inaccurate beliefs to beliefs that are more logical, true and realistic.

So what are these negative beliefs and false assumptions? You developed negative beliefs about yourself and your social world based on your life experiences. Your negative beliefs and false assumptions typically fall into three main categories:

A. Social standards are excessively high.

For example, you may think:

  • “I must never show signs of anxiety or weakness”
  • “I must be calm, cool, and collected at all times”
  • “I must be flawless and perfect”
  • “I need to be funny, witty and charming”
  • “I need to be the life of the party, and if I’m not, something’s wrong”
  • “I must be confident and sharp at all times”
  • “I must be awesome”
  • “If I make a mistake, I’m an idiot”
  • “ if I show signs of anxiety, I’m incompetent”
  • ...Other similar beliefs. Each person is different and a good treatment program will help you identify your negative beliefs.

B. You believe that if you perform in a certain way, you’ll experience pain.

For example, you may think:

  • “If I express my opinion, I will be rejected”
  • “If I speak, I will look foolish”
  • “If I go on a date, I will be disliked”
  • ...Other similar beliefs. Each person is different and a good treatment program will help you identify your negative beliefs.

C. You have certain general negative beliefs about yourself. 

For example, you may think:

  • “I’m unlikable”
  • “I’m a failure”
  • “I’m an idiot”
  • “I’m broken - something is wrong with me”
  • “I’m not good enough”
  • “Other people are better than me”
  • ...Other similar beliefs. Each person is different and a good treatment program will help you identify your negative beliefs.

Overall, individuals with social anxiety generally believe that:

  1. “Others are generally critical and are likely to judge me negatively.”
  2. “Negative evaluation from others comes at a high cost. I will pay a high price and it will be very painful.”

2. Negative self-talk and thoughts 

Your negative self-talk happens automatically - you’re probably not even aware of the messages you’re giving yourself. These arise automatically from your core beliefs. For example, when you’re in a frightening social situation, you may say to yourself (without realizing it):

  • “Uh oh, I’m going to make a fool of myself”
  • “Something horrible is going to happen”
  • “People won’t like me”
  • “Something is wrong with me”
  • “If I make a mistake, people will laugh at me”
  • “If I can’t do this perfectly, I’m a failure”
  • “I should know the answer to everything. If I don’t know the answer, I won’t be promoted”
  • “I should not be feeling any fear. I should have zero fear in social situations”
  • “Fear symptoms (link) are bad - if my heart beats faster or if I blush, something is wrong. People will notice and think less of me”
  • ...Other similar thoughts. Each person is different and a good treatment program will help you identify the illogical automatic thoughts that increase your anxiety levels in social situations.

You repeat this script over and over which increases your anxiety in social situations. Your self-talk ultimately springs from your negative core beliefs.

3. Paying attention to the negative and ignoring positive/neutral feedback (attentional bias)

“Attention is the microscope of the mind.”

You pay attention to the negative and ignore positive or neutral social cues. This happens before, during or after social situations. For example, your boss may say “great job,” and you interpret that feedback as sympathy rather than positive feedback (“she feels bad for me so she had to say that, but she doesn’t really think I did a great job”). Or you’re speaking in front of a group and everyone in the audience is smiling, but you pay attention to the one person in the audience who is not smiling. When someone is laughing across the room, you interpret that they are laughing at you. You continually scan the social environment for anything that could be construed as negative evaluation such as frowns, yawns or any ambiguous/meaningless feedback.

In essence, you’re not paying attention to neutral or positive feedback and that feedback is lost forever. Instead, you’re paying attention to negative feedback, or twisting positive feedback into something negative. When the positive feedback is lost, your false negative beliefs never get disproved.

4. Self-focused attention

Self-focused attention is where you continually scan and scrutinize your performance, your anxiety levels, and your physical symptoms when you are in a social situation.

Basically you’re scrutinizing yourself through the other person’s eyes (the observer’s eyes). In other words, you are looking through their eyes at yourself and thinking poorly of your performance, your anxiety levels and your physical symptoms. It’s basically you criticizing yourself and you’re experiencing it as the other person criticizing you. The other person is not really criticizing you, but ultimately, you misinterpret how they are thinking about you, and you assume that they’re thinking negative things. You’re falsely assuming that the other person is highly critical and is scrutinizing every facet of your performance. You’re also assuming that they are noticing your anxiety symptoms (sweating, heart beating faster, etc) as they are just beginning to increase, and this makes you all the more anxious, which then makes the symptoms escalate and become more obvious. 

Speaking and socializing is a challenging task. It requires attention and focus. But because your focus is on yourself, instead of the task at hand, you end up overloading your brain with too many demands. You can’t think straight when your brain is so overloaded and distracted, which is why you can easily lose your train of thought. Your attention is divided by external threat (people) and by internal threat (fear symptoms) and you can’t focus on the task at hand. This interferes with your social performance.

The fact is, you don’t know what other people are really thinking unless you ask them, and most people are much more supportive and less critical than you think. Where you got off-course is (1) thinking that you can read minds when you can’t, (2) being so sure that others have a negative and critical opinion of you, and (3) believing that any negative opinions will cause you great pain. A good treatment program will help you course-correct these false assumptions, and replace them with more realistic and logical assumptions such as “I don’t know what other people are thinking for sure,” “people are more supportive and friendly than I think,” and “a little negative evaluation from someone isn’t going to hurt me.”

For some individuals with social anxiety, self-focused attention can feel like a switch going off. You may feel pretty relaxed going into a social situation, but then a “switch” goes off and you become more painfully self-aware and your anxiety levels go up. This happens when you take the observer’s perspective and begin to scrutinize yourself from “their perspective” (i.e. what you falsely assume is their negative and critical perspective). What you think is “their perspective” is really your perspective.

5. Negative self-image

You form a mental representation of yourself creating a vivid impression of how others see you (the observer’s perspective). This mental representation is not based on objective feedback. It’s internally constructed based on a combination of long-term memory (previous experiences in social situations), your misinterpretation of your symptoms and your misinterpretation of other’s feedback. 

Your attention is primarily focused on the negative aspects of that mental representation. You misinterpret the observer as critical which keeps reinforcing your negative self-image. You also interpret your symptoms as evidence that you’re performing poorly which also reinforces your negative self-image.

6. Avoidance

The more you avoid potentially fearful situations, the more your anxiety will grow out of control. Avoidance is what fuels your anxiety. Avoidance also gives you no ability to disconfirm your fears and false assumptions.

It makes sense then that, to overcome social anxiety, you have to begin to face fearful situations. BUT WAIT A MINUTE...DON’T WORRY...we’re not talking about jumping in the deep end of the pool. (When you don’t swim, jumping into the deep end of the pool only makes the anxiety worse and is the last thing you should do.) When we talk about facing a fearful situation, we’re not talking about gritting your teeth and enduring the pain. Instead, we’re talking about going into a fearful situation with coping strategies and a well-designed desensitization plan. We’re talking about a very gradual and gentle desensitization process where you take baby steps that are manageable for you. This is like dipping your toe in the water, and then taking the next manageable step to help you gradually build confidence. Good treatment programs will help you develop coping strategies and a personalized desensitization plan.

7. Safety behaviors

Safety behaviors are subtle avoidance behaviors that are used to try to prevent the fear from coming true, but they actually keep the fear alive. They provide temporary relief and a sense of control, but they actually serve to maintain and exacerbate social anxiety. 

For example, if you don’t disclose personal information in a conversation with someone, and the other person does not reject you, you may attribute the absence of rejection to staying quiet. When in reality, the absence of rejection could be because they like you. 

That’s why in good treatment programs, they ask you to become aware of any safety behaviors you might be using. This is to ensure that when you are successful in the social situation, you will be able to attribute that success to yourself.

8. Anticipatory anxiety

Social anxiety suffering doesn’t just happen during a fearful situation. The suffering also happens before and after the situation. The suffering that happens before the situation is called “anticipatory anxiety” and the suffering that happens after the situation is called “post-event rumination.”

Think of someone who dreads giving a best man speech at a wedding. He dreads the speech months or weeks before the wedding and rehearses his worst fears playing out in his imagination. This is anticipatory anxiety. That worry and stress before the event “primes the anxiety pump” meaning it takes very little time for anxiety to escalate once you’re in the fearful situation. Anticipatory anxiety also keeps your anxiety aroused for extended periods of time resulting in chronic stress and harmful cortisol levels in your body. 

9. Post-event rumination

Post-event rumination happens once the fearful event is over. It’s where you continually review the fearful event in your mind and criticize your social performance. You re-play the movie in your mind sometimes for days, weeks, months or years. Like anticipatory anxiety, this “primes the anxiety pump” for the next time you face a fearful situation, and creates chronic stress and worry. 

Key Take Aways

  1. Social anxiety is due to false assumptions that (1) others are generally critical and are likely to judge you negatively and (2) there is a high cost to negative evaluation from others.
  2. The more likely or costly you believe rejection to be, the more your symptoms will intensify. Your symptoms then lower your confidence and increase your negative self-image. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle: Fear of rejection = symptoms increase = negative core beliefs about self = fear of rejection = symptoms increase = negative core beliefs about self = this becomes a continual loop until you tweak your negative core beliefs and begin to reverse the cycle.
  3. All 9 factors keep you mentally and emotionally pre-occupied with potential social failure. This keeps the fear center in your brain (the amygdala) and your nervous system on high threat alert. Over time, your amygdala can actually increase in size! This makes you more likely to have an automatic fear response in fearful situations (i.e. sensitization).
  4. When you have social anxiety, you expect to fail to meet social standards. Basically you think that social standards are too high, and you’re missing the mark. So you go into social situations anticipating social danger.
  5. When you have social anxiety, you misinterpret ambiguous social cues and focus on negative interpretations. For example, if someone smiles at you, you interpret it as sympathy for your poor social performance (negative) rather than genuine approval.

Treatment programs that target each of the 9 social anxiety risk factors have been proven to be highly effective. You can find some of them in this list of "gold standard" social anxiety treatment programs.

Do the 9 factors help you understand what's going on and why you have social anxiety? Do they give you a sense of what you can start doing differently? Feel free to comment at the end of the page. 

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