Author: Ruby M, LMSW, MBA, Coach

Everyone I have ever met has felt anxiety at some point in their lives. Small children often feel anxiety when they are separated from a parent. Adults feel anxiety before giving a speech or going for an interview. In some cases, their anxiety can help them to prepare for the interview or rehearse the speech in advance – leading to a positive outcome. However, in other cases their anxiety might prevent them from doing well on the interview or speech. How can you tell what is normal, healthy anxiety versus anxiety that is problematic?

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, problematic anxiety can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work and relationships (Reference: NIMH). Among US adults, 18% suffer from an anxiety disorder annually and 29% will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime (See our anxiety facts blog). There are several types of anxiety disorders, but the primary symptom of problematic anxiety centers around irrational, excessive dread or fear that interferes with daily activities.

One of the most common forms of anxiety is social anxiety or social phobia. Social anxiety is characterized by:

  • Fear of being around or talking to other people
  • Fear of being judged by others
  • Feeling self-conscious around other people
  • Staying away from other people
  • Worrying for weeks or days prior to an event where there will be other people
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Shaking, sweating or blushing when around others

For those with social anxiety, every day events can cause uncalled for anxiety which interferes with daily functioning. Today, networking is one of the most important ways to get ahead at the workplace. Imagine how avoiding after work outings or holiday parties due to feelings of anxiety can effect career progress. Imagine sitting in a classroom and knowing the answer to a question, but not raising your hand for fear of judgement. Anxiety may be easy to ignore initially because the symptoms are rarely life threatening, but anxiety can have a significant impact on a person’s day-to-day quality of life.

The good news is that problematic anxiety can be treated. One of the key evidenced based treatment approaches for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps individuals identify harmful patterns of thinking that spiral into negative feelings and behaviors that, in turn, reinforce the original thought pattern in a vicious circle.

Let’s take a closer look at how this cycle might manifest itself through the story of Kate (actual name changed). Kate was bullied at school starting at a young age for reasons only 9-year-olds may know. As she grew up, Kate learned to avoid people she didn’t know for fear of being bullied. She assumed something was wrong with her and mostly kept to herself. As she grew older, Kate did not attend social gatherings or approach people for fear of rejection. Kate was rarely invited to parties and did not have many friends. Kate often looked at the handful of people she spoke with and the small number of events she was invited to as proof of her social impairments. “I wonder why I don’t have many friends; there must be something wrong with me”. This caused Kate to feel sad and anxious and further retreat from others in a vicious cycle. Now, let’s apply CBT to this situation:

 

Thoughts

Thoughts

Kate’s thought that there is something wrong with her originated from a young age when Kate was bullied in school (perhaps for being a good student).

Thoughts

Feelings

When Kate thinks this way, she feels inadequate, sad and anxious.

Thoughts

Actions

These feelings cause Kate to further isolate from others and avoid social situations – this is the action.

As a result, Kate continues to lack friendships or to be invited to social events. Using CBT, we can identify how Kate’s thoughts, feelings and actions reinforce each other. By challenging her thought patterns, CBT can help Kate to change her thoughts, feelings, and actions in a way that promotes positive outcomes.

Can CBT help you overcome anxiety? To find out, try wayForward app for free here. You’ll be guided through CBT techniques to help you manage and reduce anxiety associated with relationships, interviews, public speaking and social gatherings.