Cognitive Models of Social Anxiety
Part 1: Chronological Stages
Social anxiety can be considered in terms of distinct chronological stages: before, during, and after each social situation. Clark & Beck (2010) provide a complex cognitive model of social anxiety divided into “before, during, and after” stages termed: “anticipation”, “situational exposure”, and “postevent processing.” Below is a simplified break-down of the typical features of the three chronological stages found in social anxiety.
1. Before (Anticipation and Preparation)
- Thoughts. Worry about the social situation, i.e., thinking about it for long periods, dwelling on the worst-case scenario (“catastrophic” predictions).
- Feelings. Anticipatory anxiety, which inevitably tends to mount as the event draws closer in time (and location).
- Actions. Avoidance of the event, e.g., calling in to work sick to avoid a presentation. Excessive planning or preparation for event and preoccupation with it.
2. During (Exposure and Coping)
- Thoughts. Automatic appraisals of social threat, i.e., involuntary thoughts and images regarding negative evaluation by others, e.g., things going wrong, humiliation, etc. Heightened self-focused attention.
- Feelings. Acute anxiety and sometimes even panic attack symptoms, e.g., heart racing, shaking, sweating, blushing, disorientation, dissociation (“derealisation”), etc.
- Actions. Automatic “inhibition” of speech and behaviour, e.g., “clamming up”, feeling frozen, moving awkwardly. Automatic safety-seeking and avoidance, e.g., avoiding eye contact, gripping objects, etc.
3. After (Reflection and Rumination)
- Thoughts. Rumination and self-criticism about the outcome, focusing on negative aspects and their perceived significance for self-esteem, etc.
- Feelings. Shame and damaged self-esteem.
- Actions. Attempts to suppress negative thoughts and feelings, e.g., using alcohol or distraction, etc. Further avoidance of future situations.
During exposure to the situation a rapid series of responses occur which are broken-down further in part 2 of this article.