Naturally, social anxiety can lead to social isolation and poor relationships among peers; it can also contribute to lower grades and poorer academic performance due to missed lectures, the unwillingness to contribute to debates and the fear of reaching out for support. If social anxiety has started to negatively affect your experience as a university student, it is never too late to take proactive steps towards diminishing those feelings of dread. Here are some useful tips on how to deal with social anxiety in university.
Scientific data from a 2022 survey shows 22% of university students in the UK suffer from some form of social anxiety. However, a growing number of universities fear that many cases of social anxiety go unreported and unresolved. The new study led by a team of psychologists identified five main characteristics among social anxiety suffering students. The characteristics prevalently included a heightened sense of self-consciousness, patterns of overthinking, the fear of judgement from peers, the tendency to self-soothe with alcohol and isolating after feeling anxious in a social space.
5 Ways to Deal with Social Anxiety in University
Popular media often paints student life as full of parties with new-found like-minded friends; for students susceptible to anxiety and social anxiety, the experience can be a world away from what they expected when they enrolled on their course. Anxiety about going to university is a common experience among students who are leaving the comfort of their high school bubble and entering a new phase of their lives.
Reality not meeting expectations can be especially difficult for students who have travelled overseas for their university degree and find themselves self-conscious about striking up a conversation in a second language amongst their dorm mates and fellow students.
Below, we will cover the five best ways to deal with social anxiety in university. If you need additional support, know that it is out there in spades from organisations such as Student Minds, student wellbeing services available on your university campus (https://www.uwslondon.ac.uk/about-uws/students-services/) and via the NHS.
Understand Social Anxiety and Why it Happens
Firstly, you should know feeling nervous is completely natural in any situation where you have pressure to make a good first impression. Generally, this nervousness and fear stems from the anticipation of negative judgement, scrutiny and worry that we will find a way to embarrass ourselves.
Historically, being accepted in social situations was crucial for survival; if we were cast out from our communities and lost our status, there would be a direct risk to our well-being. Social anxiety at university follows the same pattern. For university students in the 21st century, the same sense of fear is there, even if the imminent risk isn’t. For people suffering from social anxiety, every social setting and event is an opportunity for a fall from grace.
The best way to overcome these feelings is by reminding yourself that even if you do something that you deem embarrassing or cringe-worthy, the repercussions from it are unlikely to be as severe as you anticipate them to be. For example, if you stutter or stumble on your words while delivering a presentation or having a conversation with some new friends, it is easy to think that everyone that witnessed it will think poorly of you. The reality is that people have far more compassion than what social anxiety allows us to give them credit for, and more often than not, we will always be our harshest critic.
Challenge Negative Self-Talk and Visualise Positive Exchanges
If you find that every time you head out of the door to a lecture or to socialise that you are consumed with thoughts of things going wrong, challenge your negative self-talk. Remind yourself of all the positive experiences that you have had and know that the worst possible outcome where you humiliate yourself beyond redemption is unlikely to occur. It never hurts to be prepared for social events by considering all the possible outcomes. However, when that speculation is profoundly negative, that is a sign that you need to be kinder to yourself and make more room for positive anticipation.
If your social anxiety stems from people noticing you are anxious, know that many of your fellow students are battling the same self-scrutiny. Whoever you’re interacting with is far more likely to be more aware of their performance in a social setting than yours. That isn’t to say people will ignore you or be dismissive of you; it means that they’re far more likely to head home with obsessions around their micro-social faux pas.
Practice Mindfulness Before and During Socialising
Mindfulness is the act of being present in the moment, as opposed to tearing yourself up about the past and letting it inform your present and worrying about the future. It is all too easy to use negative experiences from our past to fuel our anxiety or to let anxiety spiral by worrying about events occurring today and impacting us further down the road. For example, if we perform badly in a group assignment, we could worry about not being able to finish our degree and never having a financially stable and happy future.
Being mindful is one of the best ways to ground ourselves in the present and resist reactive thoughts, which can quickly lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. There are multiple ways to practice mindfulness, and you can try to see what works best for you. Some students struggling with anxiety find that guided mindfulness meditation works best, while others find that mindfulness journaling is the best way to bring themselves to a more peaceful and positive state of mind.
If you find that your negative self-talk kicks in every time you interact with other students or university staff, and you feel physical sensations of anxiety, such as sweaty palms or a faster heart rate, practice slow breathing.
During bouts of anxiety, the breath can speed up to exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Pay attention to each inhale and exhale; if it helps, you can also label the breaths ‘in’ and ‘out’ to stay calm. If a breathing grounding exercise doesn’t help, anxious thoughts and fears of negative judgements can be quashed by taking note of your environment and surroundings. Take a moment to list in your head five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Take Care of Your General Mental and Physical Wellbeing
It is easy to get into the habit of using alcohol to conquer social anxiety as a student when it feels like everyone else is doing it. Contrary to trends and popular belief, it is not one of the best ways to deal with anxiety in university. It may initially make social occasions less daunting; however, in the long run, the coping mechanism quickly becomes problematic, and it does not get to the root cause of the social anxiety issue. To truly gain confidence in social situations, don’t shy away from them and learn not to fear the vulnerability of forging friendships.
It may not seem as though self-care and investing in physical well-being can quell social anxiety, but the mind and body are intrinsically interlinked. Looking after your physical health by eating as healthily as possible, limiting anxiety-boosting substances such as caffeine and processed sugars and getting frequent exercise is one of the best ways for students to ensure their mental well-being.
Being away from home and dealing with financial independence, homesickness, and academic pressures can take a toll on anyone; by no means is the anxiety a sign of weakness. What students with social anxiety need to overcome on a daily basis requires a strength that people who have never had an anxious thought in their lives could never comprehend.
Throw Away the Misconception That You Don’t Fit in or Belong Here
Many international students, especially those who have mastered another language to come to university in a different country, can easily be overwhelmed by the culture shock when getting to grips with regional accents and people who seem to talk at the speed of light compared to language learning tapes.
For many international students, the basis for anxiety comes from their grasp of the English language; try to replace that self-consciousness with pride in your bravery and linguistic skills.
Even if you don’t speak as fluently as the students studying in their home country, imagine them trying to adopt your first language, and remember that diversity is celebrated across the UK. There is a rich multi-national culture which embraces cultural diversity. No one at university is going to judge you if you ask them to repeat themselves or if you mix up a few words here and there.
Overcoming social anxiety will always be more of a marathon than a sprint. The first steps you take to overcome it will always be the hardest, but remember, it is always possible to challenge anxious thoughts, and there is never any reason to contend with it alone. Lean on your support network to discuss anxious feelings; if you need additional support in learning how to cope with anxiety at university, there is support available on your college campus and through organisations designed to support students from all walks of life.