To fully comprehend the most effective means of challenging our self-destructive thoughts we need to set a couple of definitions.
A Situation is the set of circumstances ̶ the facts, conditions, and incidents affecting us at a particular time in a particular place. For social anxiety disorder, Situations are the places that generate discomforting anxiety or stress such that it impacts our emotional wellbeing and quality of life. Examples range from restaurants and the classroom to job interviews and social events.
Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)
ANTs are the involuntary, anxiety-provoking emotions or images that occur in anticipation of or reaction to the Situation. They are unpleasant expressions of our fears and apprehensions – manifestations of our irrational self-beliefs about who we are and how we relate to others, the world, and the future. (I am incompetent; No one will talk to me; I’ll say or do something stupid; I’ll be rejected.)They are our predetermined assumptions of what will happen in a Situation.
ANTs are the expressions of our dysfunctional assumptions and distorted beliefs about a Situation that we accept as true. For example, the Situational automatic negative thought ( I am ugly and fat and no one will like me ) might result from the core belief ( I am undesirable ), and intermediate belief ( I am unattractive ). This negative self-appraisal can elicit an endless feedback loop of hopelessness, worthlessness, and undesirability, leading to substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
ANTs are cognitively distorted and supported by maladaptive behaviors.
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns involved in the onset or perpetuation of anxiety and depression. They are thoughts that cause us to perceive reality inaccurately. We all engage in cognitive distortions and are usually unaware of doing so. Cognitive distortions reinforce or justify our negative thinking and behaviors. We convince ourselves these false and inaccurate thoughts and reactions are the truth of any situation.
Cognitive distortions define the ANT. I am ugly and fat and no one will like me is a distorted and irrational statement. It is Jumping to Conclusions—assuming that we know what another person is feeling and thinking, and why they act the way they do. There is also Emotional Reasoning, Labeling/Mislabeling, and Personalization distorting the statement. Cognitive distortions tend to blend and overlap much like the symptoms and characteristics of most dysfunctions.
Maladaptive behaviors mean we adapt to Situations badly or wrongly. In psychology, experts present two forms of behavior – adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive behavior is behavior that is positive and functional. Maladaptive behaviors are dysfunctional behaviors uniquely characteristic of social anxiety disorder. They distort our perception and we ‘adapt’ negatively (maladapt) to a positive Situation. To analogize, if the room is sunny and welcoming, SAD tells us it is dark and unapproving.
More About ANTs
Prevalent in social anxiety disorder, ANTs are irrational, perceptual, and self-destructive. To challenge them, we need to interrogate them to understand their structure. Why do we have these self-destructive thoughts and where did they come from? Without a clear inventory of the causes and consequences of our negative thoughts and behaviors, we do not have a chance of defeating them.
They originate with our Core Beliefs.
Core beliefs are determined by our childhood physiology, heredity, environment, information input, experience, learning, and relationships.
Negative core beliefs are generated by any childhood disturbance that interferes with our optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. Cumulative evidence that a toxic childhood is a primary causal factor in lifetime emotional instability has been well-established. Any number of things can generate a negative core belief. Our parents are controlling or do not provide emotional validation. We are subjected to bullying or a broken home. The disturbance can be real or imagined, intentional or accidental, A toddler whose quality time with a parent is interrupted by a phone call can feel a sense of abandonment, which can generate core beliefs of unworthiness or insignificance. This is important when it comes to attributing blame or accountability for our social anxiety disorder because of the possibility no one is responsible; certainly not the child.
Social anxiety disorder senses our vulnerability and onsets at adolescence. A combination of genetic and environmental factors drive social anxiety disorder. Researchers recently discovered a specific serotonin transporter gene called “SLC6A4” that is strongly correlated with susceptibility to the disorder, but we are still not clear why some of us are impacted and not others.
Core beliefs remain as our belief system throughout life. They mold the unquestioned underlying themes that govern our perceptions. Even if a core belief is irrational or inaccurate, it still defines how we see the world. When we decline to question our core beliefs, we act upon them as though they are real and true.
Core beliefs are more rigid and exclusive in individuals with social anxiety because we tend to store information consistent with negative beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts them. Social anxiety disorder generates a cognitive bias—a subconscious error in thinking that leads us to misinterpret information, impacting the rationality and accuracy of our perspectives and decisions.
Negative core beliefs fall within two categories: self-oriented (I am unlovable, I am stupid) and other-oriented (You are unlovable, you are stupid). Individuals with self-oriented negative core beliefs view themselves in one of four ways:
- Helpless (I am weak, I am incompetent)
- Hopeless (nothing can be done about it)
- Unlovable (no one will Ike me)
- Worthless (I don’t deserve to be happy).
These beliefs can lead to fears of intimacy and commitment, an inability to trust, debilitating anxiety, codependence, aggression, feelings of insecurity, isolation, a lack of control over life, and a resistance to new experiences.
People with other-oriented negative core beliefs view people as demeaning, dismissive, malicious, and manipulative. We tend to blame others for our condition, avoiding personal accountability (I can’t trust anyone). This generates serious anxiety towards Situations we perceive as potentially dangerous, causing us to avoid them in anticipation of harm.
So, we accumulate negative core beliefs due to childhood disturbance and other early-life experiences. They heavily influence our intermediate beliefs which are developing our adolescence. These beliefs are negatively aggravated by the onset of social anxiety disorder, which generates our negative self-beliefs and image, which generate our fears and anxieties of a Situation, which generate our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). A corresponding intermediate confirmation of the core belief, I am undesirable might be, I am unattractive and fat. A corresponding intermediate resolution might be, If I diet and have my nose fixed, I will be desirable.
Intermediate beliefs are the go-between our core beliefs and our automatic negative thoughts and image. Despite similar core beliefs, we have different intermediate beliefs because they are developed by our social, cultural, and environmental experiences – the same things that make up our personality.
Intermediate beliefs establish our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. Attitude refers to our emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. Rules are the principles or regulations that influence our behaviors. Our assumptions are what we believe to be true or real which, in social anxiety disorder, are irrational and cognitively distorted. Dysfunctional assumptions caused by our negative intermediate beliefs, and consequential to our negative core beliefs, generate our ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). Even when we know our fears and apprehensions are irrational, their emotional impact is so great, that our dysfunctional assumptions run roughshod over any healthy, rational response.
How do we challenge our self-destructive thoughts?
Challenging and moderating our self-destructive thoughts is a process of revelation, evaluation, and implementation. ReChanneling has established nine steps to Moderating our Fear(s) of a Situation:
- Identify the Feared Situation
- Identify the Associated Fear(s)
- Unmask the Corresponding ANT(s)
- Examine and Analyze Our Fear(s) and Corresponding ANT(s)
- Generate Rational Responses
- Reconstruct Our Thought Patterns
- Create a Plan to Challenge Our Feared Situation(s).
- Practice the Plan in Non-Threatening Simulated Situations.
- Expose Ourselves to the Feared Situation(s)
Identify the Feared Situation(s). Where are we when we feel anxious or fearful and what activities are involved (what are we thinking, what might we be doing)? Who and what do we avoid because of these insecure feelings?
Identify the Associated Fear(s). One way to identify our anxiety is to ask ourselves the following: What is problematic for me in the Situation? How do I feel (physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually)? What is my specific concern or worry? What is the worst thing that could happen to me? What do I imagine might happen to me?
Unmask the Corresponding ANT(s). Determine how we express our anxiety? What are our involuntary emotional expressions or images?
Examine and Analyze Our Fear(s) and Corresponding ANT(s). Examine and analyze the origins and trajectory of self-beliefs underlying our fears and anxieties while rationally addressing their veracity.
Generate Rational Responses. Recognize and accept the cognitive distortions and irrationality of our fears and ANTs and create rational responses.
Reconstruct Our Thought Patterns. Through proactive neuroplasticity and supporting psychological approaches, restructure our neural network by changing our thought patterns.
Create a Plan to Challenge Our Feared Situation(s), Utilizing the appropriate tools and techniques to challenge our fears and ANTs, develop a comprehensive plan to challenge the feared Situation.
Practice the Plan in Non-Threatening Simulated Situations. Strengthen our rational responses by repeatedly implementing the Plan in practiced exercises including role-play and other workshop interactivities. Practice affirmative visualization.
Expose Ourselves to the Feared Situation. This should only transpire after a suitable period of graded exposure to facilitate the reconstruction of our neural network and a familiarity with the prescribed tools and techniques.
Converting ANTs to ARTs
The process of proactive neuroplasticity is theoretically simple but challenging, due to the commitment and endurance required for the long-term, repetitive process. We do not put on tennis shorts and advance to Wimbledon without decades of practice with racket and balls; philharmonics cater to pianists who have spent years at the keyboard. Neural restructuring requires a calculated regimen of deliberate, repetitive, neural information that is not only tedious but also fails to deliver immediate tangible results, causing us to readily concede defeat and abandon hope in this era of instant gratification. However, once we initiate the process begin the process utilizing the tools and techniques provided by a comprehensive recovery program, progress is exponential.
WHY IS YOUR SUPPORT ESSENTIAL? ReChanneling is dedicated to researching methods to (1) alleviate symptoms of disorder and discomfort (neuroses) that impact our emotional wellbeing and quality of life, (2) pursue our personal goals and objectives—eliminating a bad habit, self-transformation. Our paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychology, and techniques designed to reinvigorate self-esteem. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.