Anxiety – that unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach, the rapid heartbeat, shallow, rapid breathing. It’s the result of your body’s response to threat with the “fight or flight (or freeze)” reaction. This response has helped humans survive for centuries, gearing our bodies up to attack, flee or hide from predators and other dangers. Yet, in current situations, threats aren’t just limited to our physical safety. They are increasingly to our self-esteem or self-concept. A particularly common form of anxiety among college students is social anxiety.
Anxiety can arise when we anticipate doing or saying something embarrassing. Or it can be triggered by the fear of evaluation and judgement by others. This type of anxiety, in and of itself, is not a problem. I suspect we can all remember times when we’ve gone to a party and felt awkward or a bit anxious when it became clear that we only knew one or two people there. Social anxiety, however, is when a student is unable or unwilling to interact with others to the point that it impairs their academic, social or work life. It’s important to note that social anxiety can sometimes be the result of trauma or other early negative “training”. In general, however, social anxiety develops when one’s primary way of coping with anxiety is by trying to avoid it.
How does avoiding anxiety lead to more anxiety? Imagine, for example, that dogs make me nervous, just seeing or hearing one is enough to form a knot in the pit of my stomach. Now imagine that my main way of coping is to avoid dogs as much as possible. As I walk through my neighborhood, I quickly learn to avoid streets that have dogs. Of course, since I’ve stopped visiting those streets, I don’t know when those families with dogs have moved away and the streets have become “safe” to walk down. In addition, as new dogs move into the neighborhood, I learn not to walk down those streets too. You can see how my comfort zone can only go in one direction — it gets smaller and smaller. Moreover, because I have fewer and fewer encounters with dogs, I become more and more sensitive to them. Thus, my anxiety gets stronger and stronger.
So what’s the alternative? In my example, the way to push back against the anxiety and to expand my comfort zone is to gradually expose myself to dogs. I probably wouldn’t go out and adopt a Rottweiler right away. But I might start by getting a stuffed animal — or watching YouTube videos of dogs — and then meeting my friend’s golden lab puppy and working from there.
In the same manner, students who are anxious in social situations may start to avoid gatherings, parties or other group situations. They may refrain from speaking in class, even if they have questions. As they restrict their social interactions, they feel even less comfortable and confident interacting with others and their social comfort zone gets smaller and smaller.
Similar to the dog example, the way to decrease social anxiety is to gradually, incrementally expose ourselves to more and different types of social interactions. This is how you can break the shackles of anxiety and expand your comfort zone and effectiveness in life.
It just so happens that one of the groups we offer at the Counseling & Testing Center is our Shyness and Social Anxiety Group. Admittedly, if you suffer from social anxiety, joining a group is probably one of the last things you’d want to consider. After reading the above, however, it should be clear that the best way to reduce social anxiety is with the supportive exposure to social situations that a group offers. In addition, since everyone in the group is shy or socially anxious, group members automatically know that they are not alone.
It can be hard to take that first step by coming in to the Counseling Center, particularly if going to new places and trying new things feels anxiety-provoking. That first step, however, could be the first of many that go toward improving your social confidence and enjoying a more rich and engaging life.
Ron Miyaguchi, Ph.D.