College is a time of building foundations, friendships, and relationships. This is a time to interact with new people, and you will be doing that whether you like it or not; there’s simply no other way to make it through college.
You may be used to only interacting with people you already know during your past school years, or you can’t help but get tense at the thought of strangers, crowds, and awkward unanticipated interactions.
Gone are the days when you were a kid in middle school when you knew almost everyone and the conversation was much more manageable.
But now that you are older, you have so much more potential and are subject to more opportunities in life. It would be such a waste if social anxiety held you back from making the most out of your college years, reaching your full academic potential.
Even more so if it robs you of your chance to make good and lasting relationships, not to mention your chance at building a good network for your future career.
Understanding Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety, also called social phobia, is often confused with shyness and introversion. But social anxiety is, in fact, a common anxiety disorder.
Considered one of the common mental health problems, it is characterized as having persistent and overwhelming feelings of fear that you are being observed and judged in social or performance situations.
According to the National Social Anxiety Center, about 12% or 15 million people in America experience social anxiety at some point. Females are twice as likely to experience it than males, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
The discomfort of being perceived as not just common fear or uneasiness; such fear may be too intense that it can affect simple daily activities, work, school, and your physical health.
Physical symptoms, such as nausea, a rapid heart rate, sweating, and intense attacks, may ensue, especially while confronting a feared situation.
People with social anxiety fear being viewed as anything negative (e.g., stupid, boring, sluggish, clumsy). They may even be anxious about the thought of appearing nervous.
This fear prompts them to avoid social situations and fundamental interactions like asking and answering questions in class, asking for specific things in order, and asking for directions.
Social anxiety manifests in a variety of signs, symptoms, and problems:
- Extreme or irrational shyness
- Little to no class participation
- Being too quiet or too withdrawn
- Intentional avoidance of gatherings or social situations
Emotional Distress And Physical Symptoms Caused By Anxiety
Avoiding even the most minor social interactions makes initiating friendships and keeping them difficult! It also puts you at a disadvantage, especially in college, when you are supposed to build your network.
Social anxiety is also closely linked to depression and other depressive disorders. Leaving it untreated could lead to more severe issues down the road. But on the bright side, social anxiety is treatable and controllable through self-help and professional treatments.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder
Healthcare providers base their diagnosis on the following:
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 criteria
- Physical exams to determine any condition or medication that may be contributing to anxiety
- In-depth discussion of symptoms, their frequency, and in what situations
- Self-report questionnaires regarding your symptoms and other related indicators
Treatments for varying anxiety disorders or anxiety-related disorders are always individualized and according to how much the anxiety affects daily life, considering how every situation is still unique for everyone apart from the symptoms in common.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI)
- Beta Blockers
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
- Integrative therapy
Healthcare providers may also combine medication and psychotherapy to treat social anxiety disorder and other similar conditions.
10 Ways of Controlling Social Anxiety in College
With social interactions often comes some form of social anxiety, which is pretty standard and normal for everyone. A little anxiety may do you some good.
Being just a little anxious over your hygiene can motivate you to take care of it, and getting nervous about a task or an upcoming class presentation may inspire you to create quality work, keep you alert, and help you focus.
College students with social anxiety often find it challenging to perform basic tasks such as:
- Talking to your professors
- Asking for help
- Going outside
- Ordering food
- Conversing with your classmates
Anxiety isn’t something that’s just in ” your head.” In severe cases where it’s compromising your health, education, and relationships and stopping you from functioning correctly, anxiety could be considered a disability.
But whether your anxiety is minor or significantly affecting your college experience, here are ten ways to control social anxiety in college to help you out.
1. Be ready for interactions.
So much of fighting off anxiety relies on preparation. Being ready to face anyone, including new friends, as you go about your day will make you confident and less worried about all the different possibilities, the same way you feel less anxious after preparing for a difficult task or conversation.
Some small ways you can prepare are:
- Anticipate interactions.
- Think of different fun ways to start a conversation and how to keep a conversation going.
- Practice making small talk, either in the mirror or with someone you are comfortable with, then working your way up to saying good morning to your professors as you walk by them, making small talk with the lunch lady or perhaps the barista in your favorite cafe.
- Keep interactions simple, lighthearted and brief. Keep in mind that there is no need to be overly meticulous with how you go about these conversations because stuttering and awkwardness aren’t that big of a deal; we all mess up, and you don’t need to act like you’re in some serious job interview all the time.
- Engage in small talk frequently so you can get used to small daily interactions, and it might even get you some good friends in the long run.
- Research conversational techniques to improve your talking skills and to help increase your confidence as you ease into having more daily conversations.
2. Cut down on caffeine.
Getting through college without coffee is an impossible feat for most college students. Coffee and energy drinks are an inevitable part of college life.
Many students bond over coffee and depend on caffeine to get through all-nighters. But as a rule of thumb, moderation is key, and anything in excess is not good for you.
Caffeine is the most common of the addictive stimulants that will affect your brain, and can cause other symptoms such as palpitations, increased blood pressure, insomnia, and anxiety.
Decide to quit caffeine entirely or limit caffeine consumption to no more than 1-2 cups of coffee daily. Trade your regular coffee for decaffeinated options or caffeine-free alternatives.
Also, be mindful of having caffeinated food and drinks, especially before anticipated social interactions and later in the day when it’s close to bedtime. This will help lessen your anxiety levels and improve your sleep, which may also help treat anxiety.
3. Watch your nicotine consumption.
The effects of nicotine can vary from person to person. To some, it acts as a stimulant and gives a particular addictive “kick.” For others, it may serve as a depressant.
Either way, studies have shown that nicotine, regardless of whether it gives a stimulant or depressant effect, can worsen depression and anxiety over time.
Some students also mistakenly use nicotine in social situations to “ease up.” A study in the Journal of American College Health says that 70% of college smokers have reported that they smoke in social settings, such as parties or events university students typically attend to socialize.
Nicotine gives an immediate relaxing effect, so many people smoke and vape as a form of self-medication to decrease stress and anxiety in various situations, including social problems.
But nicotine is not a good long-term solution for anxiety, let alone social anxiety. If you regularly smoke or vape despite your anxiety, make an effort to quit or at least lessen your nicotine consumption.
That nicotine hit might feel too good to let go of, but wouldn’t you rather feel much less socially anxious and be healthier— all for a small sacrifice?
4. Maintain the proper diet.
Eating healthy does wonders. It doesn’t guarantee to completely rid you of social anxiety or magically make it easier to make friends, but it sure does help with regulating and decreasing stress and anxiety levels.
And just like what we’ve been taught all our lives, it’s true that proper nutrition is directly connected to a healthy mind— and the unhealthy things we consume do interfere with our brain chemistry.
The diet of an average college student is also nowhere near ideal, so it’d be wise to watch what you eat and watch for any food sensitivities you might have, as these can cause unpleasant symptoms linked to anxiety and shifts in your mood.
Aim for nutrient-dense, high-protein foods, and incorporate complex carbohydrates into your diet.
Make these healthy and practical food choices:
Eggs. An excellent protein source, eggs are also rich in amino acids. They also contain tryptophan which creates the “happy hormone” serotonin, which can help regulate mood and anxiety.
Dark chocolate. Research has found that dark chocolate improves mood through the gut-brain axis.
Fruits and vegetables. Not only are they rich in nourishing vitamins and minerals, but they also are good complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates. Linked to increased serotonin levels, complex carbohydrates can help alleviate anxiety. And here’s a bonus tip about food: you can bond with your peers over food. Learning to harness food to help you manage anxiety is also an excellent way to stay healthy while improving your social skills.
5. Identify your triggers.
Be it regular anxiety or an actual anxiety disorder; it always helps to know your triggers. Not to avoid them but to figure out how to face them until they start to trigger you less or no longer trigger you. Triggers may either be internal or external.
Internal triggers are the ones you usually inflict on yourself and can do something about: such as negative self-affirmations and lack of preparation.
External triggers are situations beyond your control: such as being watched and required to deliver a presentation.
Other common triggers for social anxiety include:
- Talking with authority figures
- Negative self talk
- Getting called on in class
- Public speaking
- Going on dates
- Being observed in the middle of doing something
But regardless of whether or not you can control a trigger, you can always control your reaction! If you find yourself dreading and delaying facing trigger situations such as going to your professor or peers for help, recognize your usual unhealthy response. In this case, it may be completely holding you back from asking for help.
After recognizing your usual response, look for better alternate responses. It could be choosing to email them instead or reaching them online if it’s too challenging to face them in person.
Assessing the situation, observing what kind of trigger you are faced with, and keeping track of your reactions to these triggers will give you a good understanding of the reasons behind your anxiety and the power to react differently than you usually would.
6. Do breathing exercises.
In situations where you are facing overwhelming anxiety, good old breathing exercises are a textbook-effective way to soothe anxiety and a variety of overwhelming emotions like anger, frustration, and even over-excitement.
They may sound a bit hard to do when your anxiety has already manifested into physical symptoms.
When your breathing is raggedy, your pulse becomes out of control, and your thoughts start to race. But all it takes to begin soothing yourself is taking a conscious breath.
Breathing exercises increase the oxygen exchange in your body, slow your heart rate, release muscle tension, and lower blood pressure.
The following breathing techniques are the most commonly used for anxiety relief. You can look them up and try them anytime:
There are also many other kinds of breathing exercises you can try. Take time to learn which works well for you and when, how, and where to use them.
7. Do not isolate yourself.
Isolation only reinforces negative thoughts about yourself, such as the thought that you are alone and the belief that you cannot get the support you need since it will stop you from experiencing situations that prove otherwise.
Ironically, the more you expose yourself to social interaction, the less you will feel anxious. This is because you are teaching your brain that things are not as likely to go wrong as initially thought.
Stick your toes outside your comfort zone every once in a while. You don’t need to jump straight into attending huge social functions or going up to people to try and make friends. Gradually get yourself used to being around other people.
Start small! Join support groups and talk to people you can find common ground. Practice asking for small favors. Reach out for the sake of reaching out and for help.
You could also open up to a family member or a friend you can trust, so you can receive valuable advice and support.
8. Thoroughly prepare for presentations.
Public speaking is a very socially anxious student’s nightmare. Nothing is quite as nerve-wracking as having hundreds of eyes on you.
Preparation is the best way to fight anxiety for situations like this, or even for almost any situation.
In this case, setting assessed presentations is the way to go. Preparing for presentations significantly lessens your likelihood of making mistakes, helping you feel more confident in the overall turnout of your work.
Have a manuscript to guide you through the entire presentation, if possible. Be well-versed in what you are presenting and anticipate possible interactions and questions you may receive while presenting; so you don’t get thrown off by your professor or your audience should they ever spontaneously remark or ask a question.
Practice out loud—either alone or with a friend who can give you constructive criticism. It may also help to take a genuine interest in what you are presenting and immerse yourself in the contents of your presentation rather than focusing on what your audience may think or on what could go wrong.
9. Engage in positive self-talk and realistic thinking.
Having an internal dialogue is a natural cognitive process. You don’t exactly control when and where it happens, only how it happens. You get to choose how you talk to yourself.
Take time to observe your inner dialogue. Do you tend to overestimate or underestimate situations? Do you talk down on yourself? Or are you generally as encouraging towards yourself as you are to others?
Positive self-talk is known to have many benefits. It helps increase your confidence and helps regulate stress and anxiety effectively. It also shifts your focus away from your fears and perceived flaws about yourself, which plays a huge role in anxiety.
Moreover, combining it with realistic thinking will stop you from perceiving problems as bigger than they are, helping you focus on what is important.
When you notice that you become excessively self-critical, think instead of positive affirmations. Turn that “I’m so clumsy” into “it’s okay, accidents happen” and that “I can’t do this” into “It’s worth a shot.”
Engaging in positive self-talk and realistic thinking is as simple as talking to yourself with respect, kindness, and compassion from an unbiased point of view, the same way you would for others.
10. Seek professional help.
If self-help isn’t doing much for you, it’s probably best to reach out for help and turn to professionals for proper diagnosis and help to navigate your problems.
The warning signs that indicate you should see a professional may include the following:
- Constant worrying and feelings of restlessness
- Physical symptoms; such as nausea, an abnormally fast heart rate, and muscle tension
- Full-blown attacks in cases of failure to avoid gatherings and social situations or when confronting uncomfortable social situations
- Debilitating fear that stops you from engaging in necessary interactions
You can also opt to reach out to therapists and counselors online, talk to your guidance counselor, or look into your university’s mental health resources.
Reaching out may be hard for someone with severe social anxiety or social phobia, but taking the first step towards getting help and getting better will take you farther than you’d imagine.
Professionals who are seasoned experts in a wide variety of disorders can offer you helpful, structured treatments that are better and likely more effective than experimenting entirely on your own.
College is a whole new world. And while new things can be exciting, this can also be anxiety-inducing, which unfortunately will confine you in a box – unless you refuse to let it. Don’t let social anxiety hold you back!
Remember that you always have power over your anxiety and how you react to triggers and uncomfortable situations. And when it may feel like it’s too much to handle by yourself– know that you are not alone. You can always reach out for help from a mental health professional from your college’s mental health center!