Social anxiety—the extreme fear of being judged and evaluated by other people—can be crippling. And in a place like college or university, where you’re frequently put into new social situations, nerves can be particularly high. “I experience social anxiety on a regular basis,” says Christine*, a third-year student at the University of New Brunswick. “Whether it’s a classroom full of people, activities with extensive family or friends, or a packed waiting room at the doctor’s office, I constantly feel like I am being observed and judged.”
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.
Shyness and anxiety vs. social anxiety disorder
“Shyness affects most of us at one time or another, but social anxiety disorder is more intense, frequent, widespread, and impairing,” says Dr. Judith Laposa, Clinical Scientist and Psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario. With social anxiety disorder the fear is out of proportion to the threat level and interferes in life functions like school, work, friendships, and romantic relationships, she says.
Anxiety is sometimes diagnosed as a phobia or disorder, 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.
In other words, if you get nervous before a class presentation or tournament with your sports team, you probably don’t have social anxiety disorder. Dr. Laposa says that most people with social anxiety disorder will avoid social situations and others will “whiteknuckle” through them. For example, they may struggle with eating, drinking, or writing in front of people; going to parties; or entering a crowded room late.
Among Canadian students surveyed:
- Just over 8% of students say they almost always feel anxious around other people and/or have a hard time talking to them.
- Nearly 20% of students say they almost always worry about whether or not other people are judging them.
5 techniques for managing your anxiety in social situations
Picture this: It’s the first day of a new semester and you just sat down in class after running across campus trying to find the lecture hall. Suddenly, your professor asks everyone to take turns announcing their name and what drew them to the class. Your heart starts pounding out of your chest. Would anyone notice if you crawl under your desk to hide?
“It is important to try and keep yourself calm if you get nervous around people,” says Christine*. “Some controlled breathing helps for me: four seconds in, hold for four seconds, four seconds out.”
Turns out, this simple exercise is actually one of the best anxiety management techniques. Deep abdominal breathing, like the kind Christine* described, sends signals to slow down your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and slow down your body’s stress response.
Deep breathing can help with general stress management because “your heart rate and breathing are intimately linked,” says Dr. Laposa.
“Mindfulness- and acceptance-based techniques can also be helpful for some people,” says Dr. Meagan MacKenzie, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario. “The fundamental idea is not to suppress your feelings of anxiety, but to notice and accept them and at the same time try to commit to your values and goals. By accepting the feelings of anxiety you will no longer struggle against them.”
“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,” says Dr. Holly Rogers, Psychiatrist at Duke University and founder of the Center for Koru Mindfulness in Durham, North Carolina. 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.”
It sounds simple, but it’s not exactly second nature—especially when you’re shaking in your chair waiting for your turn to speak in front of the class. Next time that happens, try these steps to harness mindfulness and take those nerves down a notch:
- Genuinely pay attention to what’s happening around you. Who is talking? What are they saying, and what kind of emotions are they conveying?
- Every time your mind skips to a fearful thought of what could happen next (or possibly an embarrassing moment you’ve had before), stop and take 10 very slow and deep breaths, counting each breath. Feel your attention drifting? “When your mind wanders, patiently bring it back,” says Dr. Rogers. “Be aware of every changing sensation as your body breathes.”
- Really concentrate on your actions. If you’re writing notes, for instance, think about the movement of your hand against the paper and the shape of your writing. “Use your senses to help pull your attention back into the present moment,” says Dr. Rogers. “Count five things you can see. Then five things you can hear. Five things you can feel or touch. Bring your full awareness to carefully checking in with each of your senses.”
Therapists often recommend journaling as part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of treatment that has helped many people learn to manage anxiety.
With CBT, people address some fear-based thoughts and behaviours to take small gradual steps out of their comfort zone, says Dr. Laposa. They practice until it gets easier and starts to lower their anxiety.
Here are some journaling tips:
- Start by spending a few minutes writing how you feel, detailing all the things you feel concerned about in that moment.
- Next, write down what you think is causing all the things you’re anxious about. This might be things happening right now (like rehearsing for a class presentation) or something coming up in the future (like a big party where you’ll be around a lot of new people).
- For each concern, try to write down at least one way you could think about it differently. Instead of worrying about getting up in front of your class, for example, frame it as an opportunity to talk about something you’re really passionate about or worked really hard on.
Getting over your fear of judgment is a whole lot easier if you learn to accept your imperfections and quirks. A nervous laugh, a stutter, questionable dance moves? Just own it. Nobody is perfect.
“Negative self-talk has a profoundly bad effect. Break the cycle by giving yourself a pep talk,” says Dr. Laura Offutt, Physician and Founder of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt, a health and wellness website. “Pretend you are cheering up a stressed friend and talk to yourself with those words. There’s a lot of power in positive thinking.”
Imagine a friend coming to you and expressing the same fears that you’re having. What kind of advice or words of encouragement would you tell them? Chances are your instincts to help your friend would lead you to say things like:
“Everybody says awkward things sometimes.”
“People hardly pay attention to what other people are wearing.”
“Nobody will remember if you tell a bad joke.”
“Even if someone happens to dislike you, it doesn’t matter. Your friends like you.”
On that note, your own friends and family can make your anxiety more manageable. Don’t try to hide what you’re going through—tell them about what you’re experiencing, and share information about social anxiety with them to help them understand. That way, they’ll be more equipped to help you.
“Seek support from friends and family for perspective,” says Dr. Alvord, a Psychologist in Rockville, Maryland. “We often believe that other people are thinking terrible things, but we exaggerate what the reality is. Your loved ones can help reassure you.”
Seek support if the problems you’re experiencing with social anxiety bother you or interfere in any way with your lives at school, at work, in your relationships, or in your social lives in general, says Dr. David Moscovitch, Professor of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Ontario and Executive Director, Centre for Mental Health Research and Treatment. If you tend to avoid social situations because you feel nervous or afraid of them, that’s usually a good sign that you could use some help learning more effective ways to deal with and respond to your feelings of anxiety.
You can start with your on-campus counselling and support centre or family doctor. “If you are feeling nervous about making an appointment, consider asking a friend to come with you or sit next to you while you phone them,” says Dr. MacKenzie. “You may be able to make an appointment online on the centre’s website.”
Remember, there is treatment out there that research shows works effectively. “When you’re in university [and college] you have decades ahead of you—there are effective strategies that can help improve the quality of your life moving forward,” says Dr. Laposa.
Mary K. Alvord, PhD, Psychologist and Director of Alvord, Baker & Associates; Author of Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents, Rockville, Maryland.
Judith Laposa, PhD, Clinical Scientist and Psychologist, Mood and Anxiety Division, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Ontario.
Meagan B. MacKenzie, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario.
David A. Moscovitch, Ph.D., C.Psych., Professor of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Ontario Executive Director, Centre for Mental Health Research and Treatment (CMHRT).
Laura Offutt, MD, Internal Medicine Physician, Author, Founder of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Holly Rogers, MD, Psychiatrist at Duke University and Founder of the Center for Koru Mindfulness in Durham, North Carolina.
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April 2019 Student Health 101 higher education survey.