From Surviving to Thriving: Navigating College With Social Anxiety

College is a time of major changes: leaving home and living on your own in an unfamiliar place, managing your (dwindling) finances, getting exposed to new subjects, and meeting lots of new people. All this can be daunting enough without the added pressure of social anxiety, which, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), affects approximately 15 million American adults.

So, what exactly is social anxiety? The ADAA defines it as “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” This is bad news for college students since college is basically one big social and performance situation.

After high school, I waited four years to start college. Partly because I didn’t know what I wanted to study, but also because I didn’t think I could handle the social obligations that come with college. Just thinking about the class participation, group projects, and presentations made me break out in a cold sweat. When I eventually enrolled, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was late for class but couldn’t find the right classroom.

I felt as though I was expected to be the sort of college student you see in the movies: someone who instantly finds their place in a group of friends, effortlessly balances all sorts of activities, and inspires classmates with passionate speeches. This didn’t happen. There were days when I barely made it through; but, college wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined, either. In fact, I ended up really enjoying a lot of it. Here are some things I’ve learned that helped prevent my social anxiety from holding me back throughout my college years.

Set realistic goals for yourself.

If you go into college expecting to be the person you want to be rather than the person you are, you’ll be disappointed. When I got my acceptance letter in the mail, I envisioned myself as someone who could start a conversation with anyone—someone who was clever and funny and never froze up at the thought of answering a question in front of the class.

I don’t know why I thought I could magically change my entire personality, but that definitely did not happen. I was still the same girl who avoided eye contact and had to psych herself up before saying “here” during attendance. I was discouraged and disappointed in myself, but I soon learned not to set the bar so high.

I decided to start small, instead, and wrote down some more attainable goals: Make small talk with a classmate. Say “here” during attendance without a massive blood pressure spike. Look up from notecards one time during a presentation. Get through introductory icebreaker without wishing I was dead. These were much more manageable, and believe it or not, I actually accomplished them.

Although those goals don’t seem like much, checking them off my list made me feel good about myself, like I was growing. Little changes add up to big progress, so set realistic goals for yourself. Maybe it’s as simple as working up the courage to say “hi” to the person you always sit next to in class. Maybe it’s raising your hand during class, attending a free movie night, or even joining a club. You may not instantly become the fantasy version of yourself, but you can begin by taking small steps in a positive direction.

Know your triggers.

Social anxiety triggers are not the same for everyone. For example, one person may dread the thought of speaking with their professor alone during office hours but feel completely comfortable doing group work, while another person may feel the opposite. It helps to be able to pinpoint the exact things that make you anxious, and why.

Something that causes my social anxiety to rear its ugly head is the first-day introductory icebreaker that professors are so fond of. The thought of standing up and sharing a “fun fact” about myself with the roomful of heads that have swiveled in their seats to stare at me makes me turn an unflattering shade of red and start breathing quickly.

By identifying and acknowledging this as one of my triggers, I can better prepare for it. Not by skipping class, as I’m often tempted to do, but by making a list of possible things to say and practicing them in the mirror. That way, I’m not saying the words for the first time in front of other people; rather, they’re familiar and easier to say.

This can apply to most college situations. If you’re anxious about speaking up in class, write down some talking points in your notes; you could even make yourself a little script. If you’re nervous about presenting, practice in front of friendly faces first. If you feel a more general sense of anxiety, go through your day a little at a time until you’ve pinpointed the exact cause(s) of that anxiety. You won’t always be able to avoid those things, but you can prepare as much as possible, which can help lessen the anxiety.

Make time for yourself.

In college, time alone is a precious commodity, but it’s vital, especially when you have social anxiety. Even scheduling just an hour of “quiet time” gives me something to look forward to―something to cling to when I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane.

When I’m stuck in an unavoidable stressful situation, it helps to have a countdown going: Okay, only one hour and seventeen minutes until I can lay on my futon in sweats and watch Stranger Things with my leftover pizza.

Work out a time when you can be alone in your dorm room or apartment. If that’s not possible, try the library, where you can look for a secluded spot or reserve a private study room. You can even go for a walk. Just give yourself some time to refocus and relax with no expectations, and you’ll feel better prepared to face whatever comes next.

Surround yourself with a support system.

Take some pressure off yourself by sharing your worries with others. Talking about your social anxiety with family members and friends will help provide support from people you love and trust. Their own knowledge of your social anxiety will also prevent them from pressuring you to do things that you don’t feel comfortable with or from pulling you into situations that overwhelm you. Let them be there for you in whatever ways they can.  

During my freshman year of college, I regaled a friend with a very specific scenario that I feared would come to pass. I imagined that, during my group project meeting later that day, I would make a dumb suggestion for the project. Everyone would laugh uproariously at me, whip out their phones, and text their friends about how stupid I was. Or, worse yet, there would be an uncomfortable silence while everyone worked out how to respond. My friend did not hug me and assure me that everything was going to be okay. Instead, she laughed.

Once I stopped being offended by her apparent disregard for my very real fear, however, I was glad I’d told her. Her reaction actually helped me put my fear in perspective.

Surround yourself with people who care about you and want the best for you: people who will tell you the truth even when you don’t want to hear it. These people will understand when you need some space. They’ll also gently introduce you to new situations but won’t force you into anything you’re uncomfortable with (you won’t have to fake having the flu to avoid karaoke night due to your friends not understanding how much you absolutely cannot sing in front of other people).

If you don’t already have friends like this, a good place to start is by joining a club. Or, if you don’t feel up to that, attend an event, such as a movie night or a reading, where you’re not expected to participate but will still have the chance to meet people who share your interests. It’s a lot easier to be around people you have at least one thing in common with, and this can lead to some wonderful friendships.

Additionally, you can look into campus counseling as a resource. I can’t speak for every school, but most colleges have free counseling available for students and offer help for a variety of issues. I never talked to a counselor at my school, but just knowing that option was there reassured me that, if my anxiety became too much for me to handle, there was always someone to help. I was not alone.

Practice, practice, practice.

Navigating social situations is an art, and like any other art form, you need practice to improve. I learned very quickly that, as much as I would like to, avoiding situations that make me anxious doesn’t do me any good. I’m awesome at dreading situations and imagining increasingly terrible worse-case scenarios, but that stresses me out to the point that I avoid all human contact and subsequently feel crappy about myself.

I’ve come to find that most of the time, things are not nearly as bad as I’ve built them up to be, and had I given into my anxiety and avoided those situations, I would have missed out on some wonderful opportunities. As bad as forcing myself into social situations seems sometimes, the regret I feel when I miss out on opportunities because of my social anxiety is equally as bad.

No matter how scary it is, participate in social activities. It’s usually pretty tempting to just skip out on those events rather than push yourself to attend. The time leading up to the event is especially hard—and often when we’re most likely to bail. Getting up to go can be the most difficult part. If you feel stuck or frozen, count to five in your head, then stand up. Once you’re up, it will be easier to get moving and head toward the place you’re supposed to be (no matter how daunting that place seems).

Another tip is to notice your surroundings. Social anxiety involves an inward focus, so shifting your focus outward (and away from your own feelings) may help. Make a mental note of three details about your surroundings. For example, what color and texture are the walls (if you’re indoors)? What do you smell? What specific sounds do you hear? Focusing on outward details can help you feel grounded while also taking your mind off any negative feelings. This can help you drum up the motivation to enter a new situation.

It’s true that when you put yourself out there, you might mess up sometimes. You might say something extremely awkward and then keep yourself awake at night replaying that moment over and over in your head. You might drop your notecards during a presentation or spill your spaghetti in the dining hall while someone at the table next to you claps sarcastically. These moments are awful and embarrassing and make you want to hide in your room and never come out.

But, learn to face these moments head-on, accept that they are part of life, and maybe even embrace them as an inevitable part of human existence. You’ll likely find that they’re not as devastating as you anticipated, especially when you get used to them.

Social anxiety sucks—there’s no getting around that—but don’t let it hold you back from living your college life to the fullest. It’s a learning curve, that’s for sure, but it’s absolutely possible for someone with social anxiety to not only survive college, but to thrive, and maybe even come to enjoy the social situations that come with the territory. You’ve got this.

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I’m a writing major at Grand Valley State University. Creative writing is my passion–although I also enjoy professional writing and copywriting–and I will defend the Oxford comma to the death. When I’m not writing, I’m re-reading Harry Potter for the hundredth time, searching for new ice cream parlors to try, playing the flute and piano, or watching the Food Network (and sometimes doing a little baking of my own).

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From Surviving to Thriving: Navigating College With Social Anxiety

College is a time of major changes: leaving home and living on your own in an unfamiliar place, managing your (dwindling) finances, getting exposed to new subjects, and meeting lots of new people. All this can be daunting enough without the added pressure of social anxiety, which, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), affects approximately 15 million American adults.

So, what exactly is social anxiety? The ADAA defines it as “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” This is bad news for college students since college is basically one big social and performance situation.

After high school, I waited four years to start college. Partly because I didn’t know what I wanted to study, but also because I didn’t think I could handle the social obligations that come with college. Just thinking about the class participation, group projects, and presentations made me break out in a cold sweat. When I eventually enrolled, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was late for class but couldn’t find the right classroom.

I felt as though I was expected to be the sort of college student you see in the movies: someone who instantly finds their place in a group of friends, effortlessly balances all sorts of activities, and inspires classmates with passionate speeches. This didn’t happen. There were days when I barely made it through; but, college wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined, either. In fact, I ended up really enjoying a lot of it. Here are some things I’ve learned that helped prevent my social anxiety from holding me back throughout my college years.

Set realistic goals for yourself.

If you go into college expecting to be the person you want to be rather than the person you are, you’ll be disappointed. When I got my acceptance letter in the mail, I envisioned myself as someone who could start a conversation with anyone—someone who was clever and funny and never froze up at the thought of answering a question in front of the class.

I don’t know why I thought I could magically change my entire personality, but that definitely did not happen. I was still the same girl who avoided eye contact and had to psych herself up before saying “here” during attendance. I was discouraged and disappointed in myself, but I soon learned not to set the bar so high.

I decided to start small, instead, and wrote down some more attainable goals: Make small talk with a classmate. Say “here” during attendance without a massive blood pressure spike. Look up from notecards one time during a presentation. Get through introductory icebreaker without wishing I was dead. These were much more manageable, and believe it or not, I actually accomplished them.

Although those goals don’t seem like much, checking them off my list made me feel good about myself, like I was growing. Little changes add up to big progress, so set realistic goals for yourself. Maybe it’s as simple as working up the courage to say “hi” to the person you always sit next to in class. Maybe it’s raising your hand during class, attending a free movie night, or even joining a club. You may not instantly become the fantasy version of yourself, but you can begin by taking small steps in a positive direction.

Know your triggers.

Social anxiety triggers are not the same for everyone. For example, one person may dread the thought of speaking with their professor alone during office hours but feel completely comfortable doing group work, while another person may feel the opposite. It helps to be able to pinpoint the exact things that make you anxious, and why.

Something that causes my social anxiety to rear its ugly head is the first-day introductory icebreaker that professors are so fond of. The thought of standing up and sharing a “fun fact” about myself with the roomful of heads that have swiveled in their seats to stare at me makes me turn an unflattering shade of red and start breathing quickly.

By identifying and acknowledging this as one of my triggers, I can better prepare for it. Not by skipping class, as I’m often tempted to do, but by making a list of possible things to say and practicing them in the mirror. That way, I’m not saying the words for the first time in front of other people; rather, they’re familiar and easier to say.

This can apply to most college situations. If you’re anxious about speaking up in class, write down some talking points in your notes; you could even make yourself a little script. If you’re nervous about presenting, practice in front of friendly faces first. If you feel a more general sense of anxiety, go through your day a little at a time until you’ve pinpointed the exact cause(s) of that anxiety. You won’t always be able to avoid those things, but you can prepare as much as possible, which can help lessen the anxiety.

Make time for yourself.

In college, time alone is a precious commodity, but it’s vital, especially when you have social anxiety. Even scheduling just an hour of “quiet time” gives me something to look forward to―something to cling to when I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane.

When I’m stuck in an unavoidable stressful situation, it helps to have a countdown going: Okay, only one hour and seventeen minutes until I can lay on my futon in sweats and watch Stranger Things with my leftover pizza.

Work out a time when you can be alone in your dorm room or apartment. If that’s not possible, try the library, where you can look for a secluded spot or reserve a private study room. You can even go for a walk. Just give yourself some time to refocus and relax with no expectations, and you’ll feel better prepared to face whatever comes next.

Surround yourself with a support system.

Take some pressure off yourself by sharing your worries with others. Talking about your social anxiety with family members and friends will help provide support from people you love and trust. Their own knowledge of your social anxiety will also prevent them from pressuring you to do things that you don’t feel comfortable with or from pulling you into situations that overwhelm you. Let them be there for you in whatever ways they can.  

During my freshman year of college, I regaled a friend with a very specific scenario that I feared would come to pass. I imagined that, during my group project meeting later that day, I would make a dumb suggestion for the project. Everyone would laugh uproariously at me, whip out their phones, and text their friends about how stupid I was. Or, worse yet, there would be an uncomfortable silence while everyone worked out how to respond. My friend did not hug me and assure me that everything was going to be okay. Instead, she laughed.

Once I stopped being offended by her apparent disregard for my very real fear, however, I was glad I’d told her. Her reaction actually helped me put my fear in perspective.

Surround yourself with people who care about you and want the best for you: people who will tell you the truth even when you don’t want to hear it. These people will understand when you need some space. They’ll also gently introduce you to new situations but won’t force you into anything you’re uncomfortable with (you won’t have to fake having the flu to avoid karaoke night due to your friends not understanding how much you absolutely cannot sing in front of other people).

If you don’t already have friends like this, a good place to start is by joining a club. Or, if you don’t feel up to that, attend an event, such as a movie night or a reading, where you’re not expected to participate but will still have the chance to meet people who share your interests. It’s a lot easier to be around people you have at least one thing in common with, and this can lead to some wonderful friendships.

Additionally, you can look into campus counseling as a resource. I can’t speak for every school, but most colleges have free counseling available for students and offer help for a variety of issues. I never talked to a counselor at my school, but just knowing that option was there reassured me that, if my anxiety became too much for me to handle, there was always someone to help. I was not alone.

Practice, practice, practice.

Navigating social situations is an art, and like any other art form, you need practice to improve. I learned very quickly that, as much as I would like to, avoiding situations that make me anxious doesn’t do me any good. I’m awesome at dreading situations and imagining increasingly terrible worse-case scenarios, but that stresses me out to the point that I avoid all human contact and subsequently feel crappy about myself.

I’ve come to find that most of the time, things are not nearly as bad as I’ve built them up to be, and had I given into my anxiety and avoided those situations, I would have missed out on some wonderful opportunities. As bad as forcing myself into social situations seems sometimes, the regret I feel when I miss out on opportunities because of my social anxiety is equally as bad.

No matter how scary it is, participate in social activities. It’s usually pretty tempting to just skip out on those events rather than push yourself to attend. The time leading up to the event is especially hard—and often when we’re most likely to bail. Getting up to go can be the most difficult part. If you feel stuck or frozen, count to five in your head, then stand up. Once you’re up, it will be easier to get moving and head toward the place you’re supposed to be (no matter how daunting that place seems).

Another tip is to notice your surroundings. Social anxiety involves an inward focus, so shifting your focus outward (and away from your own feelings) may help. Make a mental note of three details about your surroundings. For example, what color and texture are the walls (if you’re indoors)? What do you smell? What specific sounds do you hear? Focusing on outward details can help you feel grounded while also taking your mind off any negative feelings. This can help you drum up the motivation to enter a new situation.

It’s true that when you put yourself out there, you might mess up sometimes. You might say something extremely awkward and then keep yourself awake at night replaying that moment over and over in your head. You might drop your notecards during a presentation or spill your spaghetti in the dining hall while someone at the table next to you claps sarcastically. These moments are awful and embarrassing and make you want to hide in your room and never come out.

But, learn to face these moments head-on, accept that they are part of life, and maybe even embrace them as an inevitable part of human existence. You’ll likely find that they’re not as devastating as you anticipated, especially when you get used to them.

Social anxiety sucks—there’s no getting around that—but don’t let it hold you back from living your college life to the fullest. It’s a learning curve, that’s for sure, but it’s absolutely possible for someone with social anxiety to not only survive college, but to thrive, and maybe even come to enjoy the social situations that come with the territory. You’ve got this.

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