CBT consists of a number of techniques, many of which focus on unhelpful thinking styles. Cognitive methods help lessen anxiety in interpersonal relationships and groups, and give the person with SAD a feeling of control over their anxiety in social situations. The ultimate goal of cognitive therapy is to change your underlying core beliefs (also known as your “schemas”) which influence how you interpret your environment. A change in your core beliefs will lead to long-lasting improvement of your anxiety symptoms.
One of the central problems targeted by CBT are automatic negative thoughts. People with SAD have developed unhelpful ways of thinking, which lead to automatic negative thoughts, that are misaligned with reality, increase anxiety, and lessen your ability to cope. These thoughts occur instantly when you think about a social situation. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, just thinking about the situation will elicit negative automatic thoughts of inept performance with then provoke feelings of anxiety about potential embarrassment. The goal of CBT is to replace these unhelpful ways of percieving with more realistic views.
As a person suffering from SAD, at some point in your life someone has probably told you to just “think positive”. Unfortunately, the problem is not that simple to solve — if it were, you likely would have overcome your anxiety long ago. Because your brain has become engrained over time to think negatively and have anxiety provoking thoughts, it needs to be gradually trained to think in a new way. Just telling yourself “I will be less anxious next time” doesn’t work because this is an irrational statement, given your current way of thinking.
Changing negative automatic thinking in the long term requires practice and repetition, every day for several months. At first you might be asked simply to catch negative automatic thoughts and make them rationally neutral. As this becomes easier, you would work your way up to thoughts that are more realistic. Only then does it become automatic and habitual.
Over time, your memory processes will be affected and the neural pathways in your brain will be altered. You will begin to think, act and feel differently, but it will take persistence, practice, and patience for progress to be made. At first, this is a conscious process but as it is practiced and repeated it becomes automatic.