✍️ Cognitive Behavioural Model of Social Phobia (Clark & Wells, 1995) - SUMMARY
In 1995, researchers Clark and Wells proposed one of the first cognitive models of social anxiety to show how social anxiety worked and its impact on a day-to-day basis.
Based on their observations of people with social anxiety, they distinguished key patterns of behaviour like:
- having negative expectations of social interactions
- focusing on how they were doing and how they were being judged by others
- engaging in negative and self-critical evaluations after social interactions
These patterns would play out before, during and after social situations, leading them to increasingly fear and avoid social interactions.
Left untreated, these patterns of behavior would start to affect more types of situations, and in extreme cases lead to complete withdrawal from social life.
It’s important to acknowledge that almost all of us experienced some socially anxious patterns in their life, especially when stakes are high and we want to be well accepted.
A social anxiety disorder forms when one is unable to manage the anxiety and it starts to prevent them from living their life fully.
Given how severe social anxiety can get, researchers wanted to find ways to describe the patterns and develop ways of breaking the social anxiety loop.
In the model from the 1997 paper, Clark and Wells proposed 5 key elements of the so-called anxiety response, which are connected and mutually reinforcing.
The 5 elements of a typical social anxiety response:
Assumptions — With social anxiety, it is common to automatically assume that others will judge us negatively by default, e.g. They will laugh at me.
Attention — Driven by these assumptions, it is common to excessively pay attention to certain aspects of yourself or your behavior, e.g. constantly checking if my palms are sweaty.
Body — Anxiety activates the nervous system’s fight or flight response, which causes uncomfortable physical symptoms, e.g. sweating, tension, heart palpitations.
Thoughts —It is common to engage in negative self-judgement by thinking negative thoughts about ourselves, e.g. I am not smart enough to get this job.
Safety behaviors — Finally, the anxiety response culminates in taking little things to feel psychologically safer, preparing, avoiding, distracting, or checking.
Using the model, we can analyse our own behavior or imagine a person entering a social situation (e.g. going on the bus) and analyse their anxiety response. For example:
- The person first assumes that others are looking at them and checking if they dressed appropriately .
- This makes them excessively attentive to how they look.
- This in turn makes them worry that they might look weird, which makes them jittery and sweaty.
- As the anxiety gets too much, they might decide to get off the bus immediately to avoid further build up of anxiety.
Why is this model helpful?
This model gained a lot of traction in the world of psychotherapy and some of the most popular treatments for social anxiety are based on it, most notably Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy which has also been found effective in group therapy settings.
Knowing your anxiety response is the first step towards changing it.
We often cannot control deeper reasons for our negative beliefs about ourselves or some conditioning that resulted from our childhood experiences.
What we can control is how aware we are of our anxiety response.
Once we become aware of our assumptions, we can ask ourselves — how would it be like if this assumption was not true?
Or if we become aware that our heart palpitations are a signal of anxiety, we can try to utilise simple techniques that calm the nervous system down, like box breathing or a self-compassion meditation.
The Clark and Wells model is a tool that can be used for self-discovery and planning new attitudes and behaviors towards social situations.
Having said that, It is important to note that social anxiety is a relatively common disorder and this model is only one, albeit the most commonly used, way of deconstructing social anxiety therefore treatment plans still need to be individualised to different needs.
Now over to you:
- What do you think about this model?
- Does this correspond to your experience of social anxiety?
Feel free to share thoughts and questions in the comments!