The shadow of social anxiety

Galen Eye Centre

Experiencing social anxiety on campus can be particularly difficult for students

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University is a time to study hard as well as meet new people, go out and have fun. 

Unfortunately, for those of us who experience social anxiety, venturing outside our houses with lots of people can be more stressful than coursework. 

Social anxiety is “a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others,” according to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

While I’m not clinically diagnosed with social anxiety, the DSM-5 criteria hits close to home. 

I’m able to function normally in my duties as a PhD in the History Department, at The Journal and in my part-time job. Instead I experience the brunt of my social anxiety in contexts where I’m less likely to have one-on-one interactions. 

Pub nights, functions through the department, even sometimes crowded buses can cause my throat to feel constricted, my hands to start shaking and bring on the feeling of being unable to breathe. 

In April, I experienced my first panic attack since I was in elementary school, which led to a period of time where I couldn’t even get through a grocery checkout without feeling like I was about to pass out. The only thing that helped me get through it was the unending support of my parents and significant other. 

While I haven’t had a full-fledged panic attack since the spring, the fear of them further restricts me from attending most social events. Even the thought of experiencing an anxiety attack in public is too much to bear.

What’s worse is that my experience isn’t unusual. 

According to a May article in The New York Times ‘Well’ blog, anxiety has now surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students. 

To get a better sense of how prevalent social anxiety is on campus, I reached out to Ashley Vanstone, the graduate student counsellor available through the School of Graduate Studies (SGS). 

Last year, I saw Vanstone on a regular basis, the need for counselling services unfortunately not presenting as unusual amongst those of us in graduate studies. 

“Having some level of social anxiety is fairly common for university students,” Vanstone wrote over email. “I would guess that most students interact on a regular basis with other students who are quite socially anxious, even if it’s not evident in the interaction.” 

While experiencing some level of social anxiety isn’t unusual, there’s a wide variation in how it affects students’ everyday lives. 

For some, it just means sweaty palms before a presentation. 

For others like myself, it means generally choosing not to attend social events due to both physical and mental discomfort, as well as struggling in class settings. 

As you can imagine, finding someone who has social anxiety to interview isn’t exactly an easy feat. 

One graduate student, who has asked to remain anonymous, said his social anxiety means that “walking down Princess St. can cause anything from mild to moderate discomfort.” 

Depending on how he’s feeling on a particular day, he said that even an everyday activity like getting groceries can be overwhelming. 

“Things like parties or get-togethers, faculty events or orientation meetings are enormously stressful to me, and as a result I just do not attend these unless I’m absolutely required to,” he said in his email. 

In those cases, he said he’s usually nervous to such an extent that he’s distracted for at least a of  couple days leading up to the event.

It’s one thing to struggle with these kinds of issues when you’re in the workforce, there you can generally keep to yourself and choose who you interact with. It’s a whole other can of worms when it comes to the university setting. 

When asked what his main issues were in university, the graduate student pointed to class participation as a core requirement. 

“Obviously at the graduate level discussion is a necessary element of the educative process, but I would strongly caution instructors against incorporating mandatory class participation or group work into their courses unless it is absolutely essential,” he wrote. “They need to understand that for some students, these are insurmountable obstacles.” 

“Mandatory orientation events, mandatory meet-and-greets, while being well-intentioned, can be horribly stressful for people with social phobia,” he said. 

As someone who avoided the majority of orientation events and tended to keep their opinions to themselves during seminars, I wholeheartedly agree. Having an entire class stare at you while you’re trying to formulate a thought or participating in ice breakers with a bunch of strangers can be trying for anyone, let alone those experiencing social anxiety. 

While class and orientation structure is likely to remain fairly static for the time being, there are changes being implemented to accommodate the needs of students experiencing both social anxiety and other mental health issues. 

A part of this has been the growth in mental health awareness on campus, both in and outside the classroom. 

“It has been gratifying to see the growth in awareness about mental health on campus, and along with that has come more consciousness about the role that academic accommodations play in ensuring equal access to post-secondary education,” Vanstone said.

He added that students can make arrangement through Queen’s Student Accessibility Services, as well as gain access to health and counselling staff on campus through Student Wellness Services (formerly HCDS). 

However, outside of academic and counselling settings, Vanstone says there are a few important things to keep in mind.

“First, know that social anxiety exists. And that maybe your friend is having a tough time because of it, but also that it’s often difficult to bring up things we find painful or embarrassing,” he wrote. “We need to be sensitive and realize that something completely innocuous to you could be terrifying to your friend, and that you have fears too, and that being afraid is painful.” 

One problem I’ve encountered both in my undergraduate and graduate careers was when I chose to stay in instead of go out with people I’d just met. They would invite me out a couple of times and then the invitations would peter out. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get to know them. It was that the way they wanted to interact didn’t leave me very much room to maneuver. All the invitations were to either go to pubs or attend house parties with large groups of people, neither of which I was comfortable with. 

What was more isolating, however, was that because I was unable to attend these functions, I was then excluded from any kind of socialization, even when I suggested one-on-one alternatives. 

If there’s one thing people should keep in mind when it comes to social anxiety it’s that just because someone struggles in social situations, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to make friends. They just need to be given the opportunity to do so in their own way. 

The student interviewed for this article put it best.

“We need to be given the space and time to move out of our comfort zone on our own terms, and in manageable ways. So I guess what I’m trying to say is ‘invite, don’t compel’.” 

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