With COVID-19 cases going down and vaccinations becoming more readily available worldwide, it feels as though we’re starting to turn a corner and (hopefully) enter a new chapter. But with this new world order also comes the emergence of a “new normal” — and with it, college students’ social anxiety will experience a new wave this fall.
According to the National Institute of Mental Heal, social anxiety (formally known as social anxiety disorder) can be defined as a mental health condition that encompasses an ongoing fear of being watched and judged by others. A person who struggles with social anxiety may feel symptoms of anxiety and fear while doing everyday activities and participating in normal social interactions, such as going to school or socializing with classmates, work colleagues, or even friends. Someone who experiences social anxiety may fear getting made fun of, judged, or even rejected in these types of social situations.
It is important to note that there are differences between social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and regular nervousness, and that these terms cannot be used interchangeably. Dr. Victor Schwartz, former chief medical officer of The Jed Foundation and the CEO and director of Mind Strategies, explains the differentiation. “Social anxiety is a fear or anxiety related to being among other people,” Dr. Schwartz tells Her Campus. “Just routine anxiety or nervousness is a feeling that is broader and more generic — not specific to particular circumstances. Generalized anxiety disorder implies consistent anxiety severe enough to cause significant distress and disruption of typical functioning.”
A person who struggles with social anxiety may feel symptoms of anxiety and fear while doing everyday activities and participating in normal social interactions.
For college students navigating this new normal, social anxiety is becoming a critical problem. New worries include going back to school in person, making new friends, becoming reacquainted with old friends and classmates, and interacting with staff and faculty — things that may have been considered normal a year and a half ago, but that now seem foreign. A whole slew of questions may be on the minds of college students, such as, Are my peers vaccinated? How do I even interact with people anymore? I’m vaccinated, but should I still be going to this gathering or party? Will there be a resurgence in cases, and if so, will we be sent back home? Moreover, for students who already have social anxiety, the transition can be even more difficult as their symptoms become heightened in these new and unfamiliar social situations.
It is no secret that COVID-19 has also greatly exacerbated mental health issues for college students, including social anxiety. Though there have not yet been any studies on specifically social anxiety among college students during the pandemic to date, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that of 195 college student participants, 71% of them reported increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic. However, despite the lack of research on the subject, Dr. Schwartz and other mental health experts predict that social anxiety will widely manifest on college campuses this upcoming year. “I think it is likely many students will be more anxious than usual about returning to campus after more than a year of largely being home or with very limited time socially,” Dr. Schwartz tells Her Campus. “We will all be needing to deal with what I have come to think of as ‘situational agoraphobia’ because of the year of anxiety associated with being outside among others and potentially some fear of social connections as well — both because of being ‘out of practice’ and also the extent to which we have come to see being close to others as potentially dangerous.”
“We will all be needing to deal with what I have come to think of as ‘situational agoraphobia.'”
Ria, 19, says that she is definitely more anxious going back to school in-person than she was in 2019, especially since she is transferring to a new university. “In fall of 2019, I had a really good friend group so I was reassured by the stability,” Ria tells Her Campus. “It was also my senior year of high school so there were a lot of exciting things to look forward to. This time around not only am I going to have to be more social, but it kind of feels like I’m starting at square one. However, I can say that I am very excited to get back to in-person learning, and while online school did have its pros, I felt very unmotivated and felt as though I wasn’t getting the most out of my first year at university.”
Although in-person learning has its perks, it is also a source of anxiety for some college students. Emily, 20, tells Her Campus, “I am nervous for my in-person classes because I have adjusted to online learning, so I’m a little bit worried about how taking a test in the classroom is going to be with timing and how I’m going to feel participating because it is much easier behind a screen. It’s easier for me to participate online because I feel like no one can actually see me so I don’t feel as anxious asking a question.”
For many college students who struggle with social anxiety, learning coping mechanisms is an ongoing undertaking — and especially amid these new and unprecedented circumstances.
Although in-person learning has its perks, it is also a source of anxiety for some college students.
“I’m not that great when dealing with social anxiety,” Emily tells Her Campus. “I overthink every situation before it even happens, [whether it is] meeting new people or talking to a professor or even ordering or buying something and having to talk to a waiter [or] worker.”
For Ria, dealing with social anxiety is something to keep working on. “In many ways I still think I’m finding out how to handle my social anxiety better; it’s definitely a process,” Ria tells Her Campus. “My weakness is long, awkward silences, so if that happens and I’m feeling anxious, I really try to spark conversation. Whether it be asking other people questions, talking about my day, or giving a compliment, breaking the silence is a necessity. I also try to remember that I’m not the only person who has social anxiety, and especially after a year like 2020, a lot more people are in the same boat as I am.”
Emily is trying to expose herself to more social interaction so that it becomes less foreign and anxiety-inducing. “I don’t really cope with my social anxiety well but the main thing I do is try to put myself in situations where I do have to have some social interaction rather than avoiding them,” Emily says. “I also try to think that whatever you do or say and you think you’re going to get embarrassed is only in your head and no one actually cares. I try to turn my negative thoughts into positive ones — even though it’s really hard — but it encourages me to put myself into social situations where I have to talk and introduce myself to others or carry long conversations with people.”
“I try to remember that after a year like 2020, a lot more people are in the same boat as I am.”
According to Dr. Schwartz, it is important to not be too hard on yourself and to take your time reentering society this year. “Recognize that it is very common to have a hard time being with others when you have not been for a while and that it is likely lots of your friends are experiencing similar things,” Dr. Schwartz says. “Take your time. Start out with smaller groups in quieter settings if you are uneasy and try to be in a place or situation where it is easy to leave if you start to feel very uneasy — but try to stay if you can.”
Dr. Kurt Michael, a professor of psychology at Appalachian State University, agrees with Dr. Schwartz and highlights that gradual exposure is a crucial step in treatment for those with social anxiety, whether it be through professionally-led treatment or self care. “By exposure, I mean ‘in life’ exposure to the things you avoid or are afraid of, as the best ‘teacher’ that helps to extinguish the anticipation that the bad thing will happen,” Dr. Michael tells Her Campus. “Professional versions of this are often referred to as ‘cognitive-behavioral therapy’ or ‘behavior therapy,’ whereas self care versions are when individuals challenge themselves to deal with uncertainty where they learn new ways to not necessarily rid themselves of anxiety, but to cope with it effectively. That is, they learn new ways of responding to perceived threats to health or social status by ‘leaning in’ to the daily challenges of life. A COVID-19 example would be going out in public or doing social things where the threat to health is not zero, but tolerable at the same time. That is, confronting fears directly, in life, without taking excessive risks.”
“Start out with smaller groups in quieter settings and try to be in a place or situation where it is easy to leave if you start to feel very uneasy.”
In addition to taking small steps and gradual exposure, Dr. Schwartz also advises to be wary of a potential dependence on alcohol. “Try not to depend on alcohol or other substances to make it easier to deal with the anxiety — it increases the chances of you doing something you might later regret and when it wears off you will likely feel more anxious or depressed,” he says. There is also evidence that social anxiety may play a role in excessive alcohol consumption and harmful drinking habits, so this is something to be especially mindful of if you experience social anxiety.
Dr. Nance Roy, psychologist and clinical director at the Jed Foundation, notes that moderating social media use can also be a helpful tool in combating social anxiety. While social media can trigger social anxiety for some people and even worsen their symptoms, it can also be beneficial for others. “For people who have social anxiety that really is triggered in face-to-face interactions, it may be less threatening to interact via social media and make connections digitally,” Dr. Roy tells Her Campus. “On the other hand, social anxiety can also be exacerbated by social media — you’re comparing yourself to everyone who puts their best face on their page, and [this increases] social anxiety in terms of comparison. Be mindful of your use of social media. If it seems to be a helpful platform for you, great! But if it begins to transition over into something that is causing you more stress and anxiety, moderate that.”
Therapy can also be a beneficial tool if you struggle with social anxiety or just need someone to talk to. Many college campuses also have free student psychological services — though limited in number, these resources are nonetheless worth checking out. Practicing self-care can also help soften the effects of social anxiety — examples of self care may include joining a social anxiety support group, practicing yoga or meditation, or engaging in exercise that you enjoy.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Kurt Michael, BA, MS, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Appalachian State University
Dr. Nance Roy, Ed.D., Psychologist and Clinical Director at the Jed Foundation
Dr. Victor Schwartz, MD, CEO and Director of Mind Strategies
Burke, Randy S. and Stephens, Robert S. (1999). Social Anxiety and Drinking in College Students: A Social Cognitive Theory Analysis. Clinical Psychology Review.
Son, Changwon, BS, MS, et al. (2020). Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study. Journal of Internet Medical Research.