There’s no denying it – there are few places that require you to put yourself out there more than college campuses. With sociable dorms, bustling dining halls, big student groups and intimidating participation-based classes, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and overcrowded sometimes. But dealing with social anxiety on top of all that in an environment that favors the extrovert can make college life feel downright unmanageable.
Good news: it doesn’t have to be! If you are dealing with social anxiety – diagnosed or undiagnosed – there are steps you can take to make sure it doesn’t define your college experience. We got expert and collegiette insight into what social anxiety is and how you can overcome it.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is the “extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). For those with social anxiety disorder, everyday social situations, from parties to speaking in class, hold the possibility of discomfort and humiliation around every corner.
Not sure if what you’re experiencing is simply shyness or that normal amount of anxiety that most collegiettes experience in the college environment?
“Look at the persistence and the intensity of the symptom or the problem,” says Dr. Victor Schwartz, the medical director of The Jed Foundation, whose mission is to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college and university students. “If it’s lasting longer than you’ve usually had this problem or if it’s intense to the point that it’s disrupting your basic function[ing], that’s a sign of a disorder.”
If you’ve never had trouble with social anxiety prior to college, you might be wondering, “What gives?” You’re not alone. According to Dr. Schwartz, for many collegiettes, the transition from high school to college can trigger feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and shyness that might make you feel anxious in situations you normally wouldn’t – which can lead to a full-blown anxiety disorder for some.
“College is by nature a triggering environment, and some people will have an easier or more difficult time adjusting to that than others,” he says.
Know your triggers (and how to deal with them)
There is no single cause or source of social anxiety. Louis Schmidt, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior at McMaster University, describes anxiety disorders in general as spectrums that encompass a variety of factors, including brain chemistry, personality, environmental factors and life events. An interaction of any of them can lead to issues with anxiety, and while you can’t do anything about your brain chemistry and personality, knowing which environmental factors trigger feelings of anxiety gives you the opportunity to plan ahead.
When it comes to social anxiety, there are a host of common triggers, so let’s talk a few basic coping mechanisms:
Presenting in front of groups
Unfortunately, getting through college without getting assigned a major presentation is unlikely. While you probably won’t be able to talk your way out of the assignment, requesting to practice your presentation beforehand for your professor during office hours will take the edge off. You can even ask if it’s possible for you to practice in the room that you’ll be presenting in so that you can get used to the feeling. Running through your presentation a few times in front of other people will help you get into a rhythm so that when it comes to the real deal, you’ll hopefully be less nervous.
Speaking up in classes or meetings
If you have a class with a participation grade component, you don’t have to let your fear of raising your hand in class bring your grade down. To ease the nerves of impromptu speaking, make it less impromptu! Take the time to write down your thoughts beforehand so thinking on your feet doesn’t cause you to freeze up.
If you’re nervous about what your classmates will think of your opinions, a way to ease into participating is to ask a question rather than respond to one. Plus, you can prepare questions in advance based on the material for that day, further taking some of the stress off of speaking up.
If you meet with your professor at the beginning of the semester and explain your concern for your participation grade, he or she may be willing to offer some alternative ways to gain points, or he or she may offer other strategies based on the particular class.
If hanging out with new friends kicks your anxiety into overdrive, specifying a time limit is an easy way to avoid feeling trapped during a hangout. Saying, “Let’s grab coffee before my class at 2!” gives you an out in case you start to feel uncomfortable. If all goes well, then you’ll be more at ease the next time you meet up. If you’re worried about awkward silences and having nothing to say, come up with a list of go-to topics, questions and stories beforehand that you can whip out to fall back on.
Of course, the list can go on (and on and on). Only you can know your specific triggers and how you can work with them, but the key is taking that step to identify them and develop strategies that work for you.
“I learned that dealing with anxiety is much more than filling a prescription,” says Katie Szymanski, a University of Michigan junior with generalized anxiety and social anxiety disorders. “It's about discovering your stressors and learning to tackle them head-on.”
Based on the situation, you can find an ally to try to make overcoming your anxiety easier. Whether it's a professor, guidance counselor, friend or relative, seeking advice from someone who can work with you to brainstorm a plan of action will make tackling your stressors more manageable and less scary.
Evaluate your living situation
For social-anxiety-ridden collegiettes, establishing a home base to unwind is extremely important, so take the time to figure out exactly what living situation is right for you. If you’re living in the dorms, should you choose a single or double room? When you have the opportunity, should you live off campus?
Though living alone may seem like the obvious answer to finding downtime in a busy world, there are a few things to consider when picking the perfect living situation.
One place to start is by evaluating where you fall on introversion and shyness spectrums—which, contrary to popular belief, are very different, according to Schmidt.
“Not all people who are shy are introverts, and not all introverts are shy,” he says. “Depending on where you fall on each spectrum, your anxiety may manifest in different ways and have different implications for seeking comfort.”
According to Schmidt, individuals who are both shy and introverted might experience anxiety in social situations, but they also don’t feel a high need to be around others. They are content with having a few close friends and don’t get their energy from others. For these collegiettes, living in a single room, a quieter dorm or an apartment with a few close friends would provide a good oasis from social anxiety on campus.
On the other hand, there are those who Schmidt calls socially conflicted, who, despite being shy, find themselves on the opposite side of the introversion spectrum—that is, extroverted. Socially conflicted individuals have a deep need to affiliate, but are inhibited from doing so due to shyness or anxiety. For socially conflicted collegiettes with social anxiety, living alone might perpetuate the problem instead of ease it. Seeking busier living situations where you don’t have to go out of your way to seek socialization—having a roommate or a single room in a social dorm—will keep you from feeling isolated and reduce social anxiety in the long run.
Keep your friends in the loop
If you have social anxiety, you’ve likely dealt with the precarious balancing act of caring for yourself and not pushing your friends away. You’ve probably found yourself rejecting invitations and canceling plans, things that your friends might take personally if they don’t know what you’re dealing with.
With this in mind, nothing compounds social anxiety like trying to hide it. Even if you don’t want to talk to a therapist about your problems, having someone you care about in your life on the same page as you will take a giant load off your shoulders.
Not to mention, telling your friends about your triggers will keep them from dragging you into situations that will exacerbate your anxiety.
“If you’re struggling with anxiety, tell somebody. Seriously,” says Georgia College senior Briana Morgan, who has suffered from generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder all four years of college. “Whether it’s a friend, family member or therapist, discussing what’s going on in your life can be a big help. You need some kind of support system to praise your successes and help you recover from setbacks.”
Develop relationships with your professors
Drafting a professor or two into your support system can be a big help for college students with large amounts of school-related social anxiety, like presentations, group projects or class participation. Visiting professors in office hours to create a dialogue about your classroom experience will make you feel less alone when you’re struggling.
“Administration can provide support by offering counseling services staffed with trained professionals who can help students directly, but it is us, [the faculty], who students see and interact with every day,” says Jens Koch, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern University. “Education and well-being of students is important to us; in fact, the former does not work very well without the latter. It is our responsibility to show solidarity and support not only for the student who broke an arm but also for the student who is struggling with anxiety… or any other mental health issue.”
If unloading your mental health issues on a professor seems too daunting, know that you don’t have to bring anxiety into the conversation in order to reap the benefits of a close relationship.
“I've learned to form close relationships with professors, and going to office hours can help rack up some extra brownie points to make up for lack of participation [in class],” Katie says.
Make time for relaxation
No matter what kind of anxiety you’re dealing with, self-care is important. Sure, relaxation can’t solve everything, but collegiettes and professionals alike suggest that activities such as exercise, yoga, deep breathing and listening to calming music can do wonders to help you manage feelings of anxiety. Adopting coping mechanisms helps you feel in control and gives you a much-needed step back from stressful situations.
“I was skeptical at first, but I can't emphasize enough how 10 minutes of deep breathing and calming music can really change your mindset and calm your nerves at the same time,” Katie says. “Along with meditation, exercise and yoga are both great ways to refocus your energy and pump up your feel-good endorphins.”
Similarly, you might want to consider cutting caffeine out of your diet, according to Dr. Schwartz. We know—that sounds impossible as a college student, but as a stimulant, caffeine can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and make you feel even more overwhelmed.
Watch your alcohol intake
An important heads up: Moreso than other college students, those with social anxiety are particularly susceptible to using alcohol to facilitate social situations, according to Schmidt. It’s not hard to understand why – being in an altered state of mind can help take the edge off symptoms in the short run, and consequently, alcohol may appear like a good way to deal with symptoms of your social anxiety.
But with 20 percent of adults with social anxiety disorder also suffering from alcohol abuse or dependence, collegiettes should pay close attention to their relationship with alcohol. Drinking and partying is a large part of college culture for many, but if you find yourself only able to socialize while drunk or if you think drinking might be compromising your mental health, it might be time to seek treatment for your anxiety.
Let’s talk about treatment
If you’re dealing with anxiety, it’s not your job to solve the problem yourself. Many still subscribe to the negative stigma that mental health problems are a sign of weakness, and that in order to be strong, people must work to “fix” themselves and deal with it on their own. Before going any further, throw that idea out the window. Professional help exists for a reason, and it could very well be exactly what you need to get your anxiety under control.
Even so, there’s no ignoring the fact that many suffering from anxiety have their disorder go undiagnosed and untreated. According to research out of the ADAA, social anxiety disorder affects 15 million American adults. Despite the prominence, 36 percent of people with it report that they had symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking treatment. It’s an understandable statistic for a problem where seeking treatment could also be an anxiety trigger in and of itself.
But even if it’s understandable to avoid it, treatment shouldn’t be discounted.
“There’s a fundamental claim to be made that it’s usually better to know than not to know what’s going on,” Dr. Schwartz says. “And I think if you can really keep that as the focus, you can address the problem the more you understand it.”
Don’t feel pressure to seek help unless and until you are ready—but also remember that professional help is always an option.
No matter the degree to which social anxiety is a problem in your life, tackling it requires time and attention. Do yourself a favor and listen to your body and mind. If anxiety is interfering with your ability to enjoy college to the fullest—and most importantly, interfering with your happiness—it’s time to act. Happy healing, collegiettes!