Facing Social Anxiety in College

by Gabriella DePinho, Christine Nappi & Maria Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, Features Editor & News Editor

College is a time where people form life-long friendships and socialization is at its peak; students are constantly surrounded by their friends. However, for some students, socializing can be particularly difficult and even feel more overwhelming than classes. During students’ four years here, students have to find a balance between their social life, academic life and the anxieties that accompany both.

According to the American Psychological Association, “anxiety is the top presenting concern among college students,” affecting a startling 41.6 percent of college students. Beyond just a general anxiety disorder, an estimated 12.1 percent of adults, those 18 and older, will experience social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

A study entitled “Social Anxiety in College Students” published by the Journal of Anxiety Disorders defines social anxiety as a “disorder that is characterized by the strong desire to make a favorable impression of oneself on others, in conjunction with a marked insecurity about one’s ability to do so.” Furthermore, “individuals with social phobia avoid situations in which there is potential for negative evaluation by others, or endure such situations with great anxiety and distress.”

College is a time of extreme socialization; the experiences an individual has at school largely rely on one’s ability to participate in group activities. For a student with social anxiety, the college experience can feel daunting and even crippling at times.

Professor of psychology Kimberly Fairchild, Ph.D., speculates on why college can be a particularly difficult time for someone who is affected by social phobia.

“The situations that college students have — being in classes where they suddenly have to give a presentation or being in an academic club where they have to take a leadership role or things like that — that could draw out more social anxiety that they might not have experienced at a younger age,” said Fairchild.

Oftentimes, individuals consider the first year of college to be the most challenging because it is a transitional period. However, Fairchild raises the point that for students with severe social anxiety, college could become more difficult over time.

“They’re around a lot of new people who they don’t know and maybe don’t feel comfortable with,” Fairchild said. “If they start out their first year avoiding social situations and avoiding classes where they have to give presentations and avoiding that stuff, it may actually become worse as they go along, instead of confronting it and figuring out how to make it better. And so coming in as a first year may kind of ramp up the anxiety, and if they give in to that by withdrawing from things, then I think it could make it worse in the long run.”

For students on this campus, it is important to understand social anxiety in their own terms. Junior psychology major Julia Ettere described social anxiety as “[f]eeling such discomfort during social interactions or in anticipation of them to a point where it is becoming disruptive and you focus more energy on your inner thoughts than engaging in what is happening around you.”

With her own understanding of social anxiety and general anxiety around socialization, Ettere is better able to navigate college and her own social life.

“Socializing is a major and important component of college,” Ettere said. “I find socializing essential in that everyone needs people who will support them and make life a little better when it gets tough. I think it is not so much about getting past anxiety around socialization, but rather getting through it.”

Senior psychology major Evaniz Orellana describes social anxiety in a broader sense than Ettere.

“I think social anxiety refers to struggling with any social interaction,” Orellana said. “So, this may mean that people avoid large or even small gatherings because they may fear being judged or just being around people.”

Orellana understands that social anxiety can affect students in a variety of ways from making plans on Friday nights, talking to professors or even networking for future careers.

“I think that connecting with others is a skillset that many take advantage of because some truly struggle with meeting and talking to people,” Orellana said. “It can especially be difficult at the start of one’s college career because individuals with social anxiety may worry about how to act and what to say to impress people.”

Pareveen Rampersaud is a senior political science major and serves as the Student Government Assembly vice president for commuter affairs. Rampersaud notes that “we are lucky in that we have a student body filled with kind people,” but she finds that the gap between commuters and residents is large and there are some additional factors commuters have to deal with that may increase their anxiety around socialization.

“Not having space on campus definitely contributes to the social anxiety commuters have, and further contributes to the lapse between resident and commuter friendship,” Rampersaud said. “Having a commuter space is vital to the social life of commuters. We pay to go to this great institution and yet commuters don’t have a space that would help them gain relationships, access resources, etc. There are students who just go to class and then go home and aren’t able to build relationships.”

Fairchild asserted that one way to cope with social anxiety is by facing it head on, and that avoidance can make things worse.

“When you avoid the situation that makes you anxious, you don’t ever get a chance to learn that it could be okay,” Fairchild said. “Avoiding it just exacerbates the anxiety instead of allowing you to find ways to sort of lessen the anxiety and see that in these social situations you can be capable and okay.”

In addition to confronting social anxiety directly, the counseling center is a service on campus that can help students obtain a balance in their life. They offer advice to students on a plethora of topics that can help students socialize and educate them on what healthy relationships look like.

“Having a healthy, successful social life here is going to ensure that the student’s don’t wander [around] homesick, maybe [are] not depressed, that they’re going to classes and don’t want to transfer. We try and support students until they find their friendship groups,” said Jen McArdle, director of counseling services.

As McArdle describes, the center’s main goal with these groups is to help students “get rooted” at the college. A service the center provides to help students socialize is their adjustment to college support group. This group is primarily held for freshmen during the fall semester, as the center finds that is the most difficult time for students to adjust and meet people in a new environment. In the past, they have also held similar groups for transfer and international students.

The center finds that students may struggle with socialization because they are in a different environment than they’re used to. As Christin Nedumchira, staff psychologist and guidance counselor describes, an essential part of socializing is finding a “support system,” yet many don’t have that when first coming to college.

“When [students] come away to college, there’s a distance there and you’re not living at home with your family,” Nedumchira said. “Now you have to build those supports and that kind of relationship with the people that you’re living with, which is your roommates, your friends, your classmates.”

The Counseling Center inMiguel Hall is a great place to help face anxiety. CHRISTINE NAPPI / THE QUADRANGLE

As McArdle and Nedumchira describe, it’s only natural for humans to socialize. They find that socializing in general is a crucial aspect to one’s well-being.

“We’re human and generally we’re built to be social beings, and so when we don’t have that it can really have an impact,” Nedumchira said. “The positive impact of having even a half hour with friends, that can really rejuvenate you to be able to do the work that you need.”

Although it is necessary for students to be social in regards to their mental health and wellbeing, the center advises students to take a break from their social life every once in a while. When they have too much work or they are stressed, students can benefit from being by themselves.

Although there are some benefits to not socializing, consistently being by yourself can be dangerous, according to Nedumchira and McArdle. They find that social isolation could be a sign of something more going on.

“I don’t think you should ever be completely by yourself,” Ettere said. “You should always find time to socialize during the day, even if it’s just a 10-minute conversation.”

Ettere finds that balance is a critical part of one’s college experience. When she struggled balancing work, social life and a sports team, the center advised her to prioritize what was most important to her. She learned that part of that balance was finding people who will continue to support you.

“I think balance is key,” Ettere said. “Making sure that the people you’re socializing with are good for you, because if you’re hanging out just to hang out with people and you’re actually feeling worse, then it’s not worth it.”

Ettere believes that the counseling center is a beneficial tool that helps students find friendships and educates them on what healthy relationships look like. She commends their availability and dedication to helping students.

“[The] counseling center is a really good resource that students don’t use a lot,” Ettere said. “If you make an appointment today, you’ll be seen next week.”

The counseling center’s main goal is to help students in any way they can, one of which is to help them socialize and find supportive friend groups.

“A big role of ours is to help students negotiate their relationships while in college, so everyone can have the right balance so they can be successful and have a social life too,” McArdle said.