Social Anxiety in College

Social Anxiety in College Students

For many, college is not only a place for education. It’s also an excellent moment in time to meet new people, go to parties, and create new experiences. But, if you have social anxiety disorder, these moments aren’t so exciting. In fact, social anxiety in college creates additional challenges for students and can hamper their experience. 

As a therapist in Rockland County, NY that provides therapy for social anxiety, I often see first hand the many difficulties college students face.

Effects of Social Anxiety in College

Social anxiety disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by a fear of negative evaluation and judgment by others in social situations. The fear of being embarrassed or criticized causes great discomfort and distress. The symptoms are physical (e.g. blushing, trembling), cognitive (e.g. thoughts of being judged harshly) and behavioral (e.g. avoiding social events). 

The effects of social anxiety are continually studied and there is evidence that it can have a negative impact on quality of life and daily functioning. For college students in particular, the anxiety can impact academic performance, ability to socialize with peers and create friendships. It can also lead to avoidance behaviors and feelings of isolation and loneliness.  

Decreased Academic Performance

Traditionally, there has always been a set of expectations placed on a student in the classroom setting. For example, it is expected to pay attention, raise your hand to answer or ask questions, and cooperate during peer interactions.

A student with social anxiety in college may struggle greatly with class participation. There is often a great emphasis on class presentations, group projects, and active talking during classes. Speaking in front of others during in-person or online classes may cause distress and nervousness.

Students with social anxiety begin to experience anxiety symptoms related to participation for days or weeks in advance. They may imagine worse case scenarios of failure. Imagine that they will be embarrassed when sharing their thoughts in class. 

A negative thought about the professor believing that they are not capable can reduce participation in the classroom. This can be the case with peers as well. A student may fear voicing their opinions and ideas during a group project. Simply imagining that their peers will view their contribution as not good enough can increase feelings of dread and fear to speak up.

Avoidance and Reduced Attendance

To try to reduce their anxiety, many students will engage in avoidance and other behavioral strategies. For example, students may avoid raising their hand in class, stop handing in assignment for fear of criticism. Other students avoid going to particular classes in which they anticipate interacting with peers or making a presentation.

Still, others begin a pattern of missing several classes to avoid social situations and the potential for negative evaluation. Avoidance may progress from avoiding a few classes to dropping the class altogether. The prospect of returning to class and facing questions about attendance causes great distress and fear.

The effects of social anxiety in college are numerous. There is a risk to academic success as many professors routinely assign a class participation percentage to the overall final grade. A socially anxious student may rather take the risk to lose points in an effort to try to control their symptoms. Missing assignments may be less stressful than tolerating difficult interactions. 

Social Anxiety in College and Friendships

Feelings of nervousness may arise when meeting people for the first time. Socially anxious individuals may be less likely to start a conversation with another student. A very common thought and fear is, “I won’t know what to say.” A socially anxious person may believe that they lack the skills or confidence needed to pull off a conversation.

There is an intense focus on how they perform, present and are perceived by others. This focus on themselves can inadvertently take away from the attention needed to listen and participate in the conversation. 

Unintentionally, this inward focus on themselves can potentially increase the physical and emotional anxiety symptoms. For example, if you are in your own mind, you may become alerted to the fact that your palms are sweating. Or notice a nervous fidgeting action with your hands. You suddenly become concerned on how visible this is to your conversation partner. You wonder if they are able to tell that you are nervous and are judging you. This thought process will increase anxiety and make the social interaction less pleasant. 

Avoidance and Reduced Social Participation

In addition to starting and sustaining conversations, attending social events is also a challenge for students with social anxiety. They may decline social invites, may be less likely to join a sports team, club or organization group on campus. In doing so, they may miss important opportunities to create and build lasting relationships and practice social skills. 

Social isolation, loneliness and feelings of sadness are common experiences for many people dealing with social anxiety in college. Avoidance of social events does not mean that there is a disinterest or a lack of desire to have friends.  

Many students would love to share in events, spend time with others, and feel included in a group. The problem lies in the distress associated with the experience.

girls with social anxiety in college sitting down at a table

4 Ways to Help Manage Social Anxiety in College

  • Increase awareness of your thoughts: monitoring your thoughts and their impact on your anxiety and behaviors is a good place to start. Are you having more negative thoughts than positive? Are you finding that you are self-critical and expect others to be criticizing too? Practice replacing negative thoughts with positive and encouraging statements. You are more likely to engage in a conversation when you have a positive outlook and are feeling good. Tease out those negative thoughts that lead to despair and frustration.
  • Practice relaxation: breathing exercises, listening to positive and motivating music, or engaging in another pleasant activity prior to a social event can help to manage stress and anxiety. When you feel more relaxed, you are more likely to have fun.
  • Start small: practice smiling or saying hello to people that you are already familiar with and appear to have a friendly demeanor. Be aware of eye contact and practice sustaining eye contact with another person. As you gain confidence, try asking an open-ended question. This will elicit a longer response from the person and help you to get to know them better. Additionally, open-ended questions create flow to the conversation and keeps the ball rolling. 
  • Seek supports: find one or two people that you do feel comfortable around and can be open with about your anxiety. Seeking support from people that you trust and can offer you emotional support is key. They may help to remind you of your positive attributes and what makes you fun and interesting.

When to Seek Professional Counseling and Supports

In some situations, professional counseling is a better option. If you have anxiety symptoms that interrupt your ability to function in school, with peers, or in other areas of life, you can benefit from talking to someone.

Most colleges have on-site counseling centers that support their students with academic and mental health concerns. Become familiar with on-campus resources and counseling services. There are also therapists in the community and outside of campus grounds.  Call and schedule an appointment to begin addressing social anxiety. Therapy can be very effective in managing symptoms.  

Therapy for for social anxiety is available. The Counseling Perch Mental Health Counseling, P.C. offers therapy to residents in Rockland County, Westchester County, and all around New York State via online video platform. Call to schedule an appointment. 

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