By Renée Morrison and Macaela Mackenzie
Almost everyone experiences social anxiety on occasion, but for some, it’s a disorder that manifests itself as an extreme fear—one that can be a hindrance to overall happiness. There’s a difference between feeling nervous in a crowd and having social anxiety disorder. For some students, the idea of meeting new people and speaking up in class can be paralyzing.
“If someone feels uncomfortable in new situations, or takes time to ‘warm up,’ or just prefers small groups, that’s not social anxiety disorder,” says Dr. Eli Lebowitz, assistant professor for the anxiety disorders program at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “Social anxiety disorder is more than occasional shyness or social discomfort.”
Anxiety is sometimes diagnosed as a phobia, but only when it really puts a damper on your life, every day (or almost), even in situations that most people wouldn’t be uncomfortable in.
“For those with social anxiety disorder, there will be many situations they avoid: conversations with other people, eating or drinking in public, answering the phone, or speaking in class,” says Dr. Lebowitz. “Also, a disorder will only be diagnosed if the condition has lasted for at least six months.”
Students may be dealing with severe social anxiety if they:
- Become emotional (crying, irritable, or angry) when discussing a new social situation.
- Rarely attend social events, or say they will attend and consistently don’t.
- Speak in a very low voice and avoid eye contact during conversation.
- Express low self-esteem or consistently voice fears about being unattractive, boring, embarrassing, or unintelligent.
- Have had these symptoms for longer than six months.
Here’s what you can do to help:
Make anxiety an accessible topic on campus
Whether it’s through student-led programming or materials provided by the counseling office that help destigmatize the topic.
Educate students on the difference between normal anxiety and anxiety that’s become problematic.
When it’s the latter, make sure students know how they can get support through school counseling staff and/or community resources.
Include deep breathing exercises in student wellness curriculum.
Deep abdominal breathing (vs. shallow chest breathing) can help alleviate anxiety, says Mary K. Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland.
Offer meditation or mindfulness classes and clubs on campus.
“Anxiety causes people to get lost in their heads, worrying about what others think about them,” says Holly Rogers, a psychiatrist at Duke University and founder of the Center for Koru Mindfulness in Durham, North Carolina. “Mindfulness teaches you to keep your attention focused on each moment, carefully listening to what others are saying or keeping your mind on whatever task you are completing. It helps you to stay present in your body, feeling your breath and staying calmly anchored, rather than having your mind run off generating worries.”