Opportunity or Apprehension?

Starting college comes with bittersweet anticipation for most students. It’s considered a rite of passage into adulthood and with this milestone comes independence, exploration and personal development.

Some see the social parts of college life as the driving force to enroll. Keg parties, fraternity or sorority life and meeting new people is, to some, as important as academics.

For those who struggle with anxiety, though, leaving for college can fill them with apprehension. They are moving away from the comfort of family and friends to a place of uncertainty, where interacting with strangers is inevitable. The college environment places heavy demands on social performance. Making new friends, group projects, class presentations and everyday interactions with people can be challenge.

Managing Social Anxiety as a College Student

It’s important to remember there are three parts to social anxiety: thoughts; feelings or emotions; and behaviors. These connect and feed on each other:

“I have the thought that I’m not going to make any new friends because of my social anxiety.”

“I feel fear and anxiety in anticipation of meeting my roommate.”

“I won’t go to the dorm meet-and-greet because I’m going to feel anxious.”

The key is to try to separate and counter them. By avoiding social situations, we miss out on the chance to test our anxiety-fueled beliefs. If those beliefs aren’t countered, we’re bound to continue feeling fear and anxiety. Try to act in line with what you want from your college experience instead of giving into your beliefs and emotions.

Long-Term Strategies for Having a Successful College Experience with Social Anxiety

  1. The goal is avoidance reduction, not anxiety reduction.  No one likes feeling fear and anxiety. But when we avoid situations because of it, the anxiety is in control. Trying things that seem impossible can help change our beliefs. We all remember how nervous we were on the first day of middle school but, by the end of the year, it was much easier.
  2. Create a hierarchy.  Compile a list of social interactions important for you to conquer, ordering it from easiest to hardest. Focus on getting comfortable with the easier activities, like saying hello to your dorm neighbors, before moving on to harder items on your list, such as joining a club where you don’t know anyone.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Exposing yourself to challenging social interactions will only get easier if you keep doing it. Like learning a musical instrument or foreign language, skill and confidence come with practice.
  4. Debrief your experiences.  After each social interaction, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” to determine if your belief about the situation actually happened. Often, we find anxiety was strongest in anticipation of the event. Other times, we do find our worry came to pass. Either way, debriefing is a chance to learn from the situation so you’re more prepared for the next one.

Short-term Tips for Success Despite Social Anxiety

  • Touch base with your new roommate, if you can, before leaving for school. This will show you’re eager to meet and help you begin to feel comfortable with them.
  • Reach out to any acquaintances going to the same college and, if possible, meet them before you leave. A familiar face on campus will help reduce feeling isolated and alone.
  • Attend as many orientation events as you can; they’re created to help meet new people. Set realistic expectations, though; meeting one or two new people is more manageable than trying to meet everyone.
  • Set goals, such as initiating introductions. Share three things about yourself and ask two questions of the other person.
  • Join clubs that focus on things of interest or that are familiar to you. Clubs related to your major can be helpful, while religious organizations can be welcoming and friendly.
  • Arrive to class early and try to sit in the same spot each time; others will likely do the same out of routine. That familiarity helps build relationships. Start by making eye contact and smiling at people you recognize. Add a ‘hello’ the next time.
  • When assigned a group project, try using non-verbal communication to let people know you want to work with them. Then invite them by saying, “Hey, would you like to pair up?”
  • For class presentations, practice what you want to say, but don’t memorize it, which will give you a false sense of confidence. Use notes and PowerPoint to guide you.
  • While tempting to head home on the weekends, try to stay on campus as much as you can.

Celebrate Your Successes    

Learning to manage your social anxiety is like any other skill; we get better with practice.

Don’t despair if you have setbacks. Acknowledge and reward your successes. Keep going if you face challenges and ask for help if you seem to be stuck or are experiencing extreme or debilitating anxiety.

Check out the campus counseling center as a resource. Regional clinics of the National Social Anxiety Center can also be a help. Each of those has psychotherapists trained to help with social anxiety.


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