How to Handle Social Anxiety in College

Published on: 02 Feb 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
two students wearing masks walking together

Going to college with social anxiety is challenging for more students than you might think. Further, having social anxiety in college can be an early indication of social anxiety disorder, which can cause serious long-term conflicts throughout life. The first thing to know about going to college with social anxiety is this: You are not alone!

Research from one study indicates that 25.8% of college students struggle with social anxiety. Of those:

  • 47.2% had mild social anxiety symptoms
  • 42.3% had moderate social anxiety symptoms
  • 10.5% had severe or very severe social anxiety symptoms

To say that social anxiety in school is prevalent is an understatement. 

Without effective coping strategies, periodic social anxiety can progress into a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It can make getting through the college years painful and challenging. The good news is that while experiencing social anxiety in school is quite common, there are several effective methods for alleviating and coping with the symptoms. 

Read on to learn more about how social anxiety in college can impact you and where you can find help. We’re also giving you tips on how you can cope with overwhelming anxiety, both now and in the future. 

How Social Anxiety Can Impact You in College

Most people feel a bit uneasy when they’re scrutinized by or vulnerable to others. Engaging in a public speaking event, delivering a lecture or presentation, singing in a choir, or even going to a party can cause feelings of uncertainty and social anxiety in teens and young adults — and that’s OK. It’s natural to feel anxious sometimes.

However, true social anxiety involves a persistent, irrational fear of socialization in general. Just the thought of engaging socially might make you feel very uneasy. You might find it difficult to relax in social situations and have a constant fear of being embarrassed, humiliated, or rejected.

College students with social anxiety may even have a hard time accomplishing basic and necessary tasks like:

  • Speaking with professors about academic problems
  • Having fun and enjoying college nightlife
  • Delivering presentations to classmates
  • Striking up new friendships
  • Going out on dates

“Being in college can feel very stressful for various reasons. It’s a new environment and there is a lot of pressure to succeed. These expectations can cause a lot of anxiety for an individual who feels more vulnerable under these circumstances.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Social anxiety in school is challenging to handle because so much of college life is based on interacting with peers, professors, and others. Social anxiety can lead to problems in various areas.

Academics

Some college students with social anxiety find it hard to participate in the classroom, get assistance with homework assignments, ask questions, see professors during office hours, and join group study sessions. 

Class presentations can be tough for all students, even those who don’t struggle with social anxiety. Most students will find themselves nervous at first, but then relax as the presentation goes on, maybe even finding they’re able to have fun with it by the end.

This is not the case when a student with social anxiety gives a class presentation, though. Instead of relaxing as the presentation proceeds, the situation becomes more stressful and the student more nervous. As the situation progresses, a student may develop dry mouth, rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, blushing, and strong feelings of panic and dread.

If this sounds like you, consider the following the next time you have to make a presentation:

  • Choose a topic you know well and that you feel confident in sharing your knowledge about
  • Try to engage the audience early on by asking their opinions on your topic
  • Practice your presentation until it seems natural
  • Use positive affirmations throughout the days leading up to the presentation. Mentally repeat positive and encouraging phrases like, “I’ve got this presentation!”, or “I know my topic well and can deliver this presentation perfectly!”

Making friends

Socially anxious students have more difficulty approaching and befriending other students. Their fear of negative judgment or humiliation often causes them to remain socially isolated.

Attending social events

College students with social anxiety often find it difficult to participate in social activities, clubs, or sports. They tend to be less likely to initiate friendships and romantic relationships. Even an extrovert with social anxiety can experience this. They may also find themselves unable to be assertive in various social situations. Instead, they continue remaining quiet, unheard, and unrecognized.

Substance abuse risk

Students who have social anxiety in college are at higher risk for developing drug or alcohol abuse problems. Some students believe substances help them feel less stressed about social situations. The reality, though, is drug and alcohol used as a coping mechanism for overwhelming anxiety often leads to even more challenges in the future.

Finding Help for Social Anxiety Disorder

If you’re in college and you believe you may have a social anxiety disorder or another type of anxiety-based mental health condition, know that there are several ways you can reduce and manage your symptoms. Social anxiety is a highly treatable condition. Below are some options of how to overcome social anxiety.

Therapy

The first line of treatment typically involves online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which uses various techniques to decrease symptom frequency and severity. Talkspace offers online therapy that’s affordable, convenient, and effective. Therapists trained in helping college students manage social anxiety are available to help you when you need it, how you need it, in the privacy and comfort of the space you choose. 

Mental health center on campus

Check your campus for a mental health center or wellness or medical center. They can offer several resources to help you learn more about how to prevent and cope with the symptoms associated with social anxiety. Therapy for students is typically short-term and can be fee-based or free.

Prescription medications

Some medications including SSRIs and benzodiazepines are used to treat social anxiety in certain people. Your doctor may recommend them if your symptoms are severe and frequent enough.

Support groups

Finding a support group can be helpful for college students who are trying to cope with social anxiety. Small groups, led by licensed therapists and made up of people who understand what you’re going through, can be very effective and beneficial. 

6 Tips for Coping with Social Anxiety in College

While CBT for social anxiety, medication, and group therapy can be helpful for some college students with social anxiety, it’s always good to know about other techniques you can practice and use on your own to minimize symptoms of social anxiety.

1. Build new friendships

Smile, nod, and say hello to new people. Make eye contact and comment about homework assignments to nearby classmates. Bring up the idea of forming a study group. Reach out, without pressure, and dedicate some effort to forging new friendships. 

It will be challenging, but just take baby steps and go at your own pace. Make 1 small goal each week to start — say hi to the person who sits next to you in your English class. Ask someone in your psychology class if they want to meet for coffee and study. 

2. Attend social functions

Even if you’re apprehensive about it, make it a point to attend some social functions. Take a close friend with you to help you keep calm. It’s important to socialize and have fun to balance your responsibilities as a student.

“Being socially active is an important part of the college experience; it doesn’t have to be stressful; it ideally is enjoyable. Some healthy coping strategies to help with social anxiety include journal writing, meditation, exercise, and socializing with a few people at a time so it’s not as overwhelming as it might feel in larger group settings.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

3. Be ready for conversation

Have compliments ready and research current events that people are buzzing about. Be a quiet and curious listener. Ask open-ended questions that don’t force answers or show disapproval of any opinion. Keep your responses and input brief and thoughtful.

4. Exercise, daily if possible

Exercise is well known to offer numerous health benefits, but it’s also a good way to meet new friends and socialize. Choose an activity that you enjoy and get involved in your school’s programs. If you can find anything that immediately interests you, try something new. Weightlifting, yoga, frisbee, rock climbing, even skateboarding all qualify.

5. Eat healthy 

The average college student’s diet is far from ideal. Ensuring proper nutrition may not do a lot to make you new friends in college, but a healthy diet certainly can help you reduce stress, think more clearly, perform better on exams, and live a healthier life in general.  

6. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being completely present and in the moment. It is becoming aware of your place and purpose and resisting the urge to become reactive or overwhelmed by your situation. You can practice mindfulness through meditation, which can help you control your mind and emotions, even in stressful situations. Download a guided app for mindfulness meditation and make a commitment to meditating every morning or evening.

Having social anxiety in college can be difficult to deal with, but treatment is available and often highly successful. There are also various ways to combat the effects of social anxiety on your own. With a proper diagnosis, effective therapy, medicinal treatment if necessary, and strong coping strategies, your chances of having a fulfilling student experience are quite high. 

If you’re looking for online therapy options, Talkspace makes finding a therapist easy. You can be working on yourself and your social anxiety from home. Above all, during your college years, remember to live in the moment and be aware of your thoughts and feelings. Focus on your goals of superior academic performance, making new friends, and growing as the individual you are born to be. Your entire life is in front of you. You don’t have to miss out. 

Sources:

1. Hakami R, Mahfouz M, Adawi A et al. Social anxiety disorder and its impact in undergraduate students at Jazan University, Saudi Arabia. Ment Illn. 2018;9(2). doi:10.4081/mi.2017.7274. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5768085/. Accessed December 29, 2021.2.

2. Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/index.shtml. Accessed December 29, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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