How to use CBT for social anxiety

Before delving into cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, it's essential to grasp what social anxiety entails. It's more than just feeling shy or nervous in social situations.


Social anxiety involves an intense fear of judgement, embarrassment, or negative evaluation by others. This fear can be so overwhelming that it interferes with daily activities and can lead to avoidance of social situations altogether.

Identifying negative thought patterns

CBT operates on the principle that our thoughts influence our emotions and behaviours. The first step in using CBT for social anxiety is to identify negative thought patterns that contribute to anxious feelings. These thoughts often revolve around excessive self-criticism, fear of rejection, or catastrophic thinking about social interactions.

Through CBT, individuals learn to recognise and challenge these negative thoughts. Instead of automatically accepting them as truth, they develop the ability to question and reframe these thoughts in a more realistic and balanced way.

Setting realistic goals

CBT for social anxiety involves setting realistic and achievable goals for social interactions. Rather than aiming for perfection or trying to eliminate anxiety entirely, individuals work towards manageable objectives. These could include initiating a conversation, maintaining eye contact, or participating in a group activity.

Setting small, incremental goals allows individuals to gradually confront and overcome their anxiety in a controlled manner. Success in achieving these goals helps build confidence and reinforces positive behavioural patterns.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a key component of CBT for social anxiety. This involves gradually facing and confronting feared social situations. The process starts with less anxiety-provoking situations and progresses to more challenging ones over time.

By repeatedly exposing oneself to feared situations in a systematic way, individuals can desensitise themselves to the anxiety they experience. This gradual approach helps reshape their behavioural responses and teaches them that the feared outcomes are unlikely to occur.

Learning and practising social skills

Another vital aspect of CBT for social anxiety is the development and refinement of social skills. This includes effective communication, active listening, and assertiveness. Through role-playing and real-life practice, individuals gain confidence in their ability to navigate social interactions successfully.

Practising these skills in a safe and supportive therapeutic environment allows for constructive feedback and the refinement of social skills over time. As these skills improve, individuals often find that their anxiety diminishes in social situations.

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

CBT incorporates mindfulness and relaxation techniques to help manage anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness involves staying present in the moment without judgment. Techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can be powerful tools in reducing anxiety levels.

Regular practice of these techniques enhances an individual's ability to stay calm and focused during social interactions. It provides a valuable coping mechanism for handling anxious thoughts and sensations as they arise.

In conclusion, cognitive behavioural therapy offers a practical and effective approach to addressing social anxiety. By identifying and challenging negative thought patterns, setting realistic goals, engaging in exposure therapy, learning social skills, and incorporating mindfulness techniques, individuals can gradually overcome social anxiety and build more meaningful connections with others.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW1 & Richmond TW9
Written by Natasha Kelly, BA (Hons) MBACP
Twickenham TW1 & Richmond TW9

Natasha is a counsellor based in London and online. Her passion lies in helping individuals build meaningful connections and foster strong rapport. With a deep understanding of human emotions and interpersonal dynamics, she has worked as a primary school teacher and as a freelance writer on mental health.

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