Social anxiety—the extreme fear of being judged and evaluated by other people—can be crippling. And in a place like college, where you’re frequently put into new social situations, nerves can be particularly high. “I experience social anxiety on a regular basis,” says Charlotte V., a third-year student at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. “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.
Social anxiety vs. social anxiety disorder
“Social anxiety disorder is more than occasional shyness or social discomfort,” says Dr. Eli Lebowitz, assistant professor for the anxiety disorders program at Yale University. “If someone feels uncomfortable in new situations, or takes time to ‘warm up,’ or just prefers small groups, that’s not social anxiety disorder.”
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. “For those with social anxiety disorder, there will be many situations they avoid: conversations with other people, eating or drinking in public, answering the phone, or speaking in class,” says Dr. Lebowitz.
Among students surveyed:
- Just over 10% of students say they almost always feel anxious around other people and/or have a hard time talking to them.
- 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 Charlotte V. “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 Charlotte described, sends signals to slow down your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and slow down your body’s stress response.
“Try to moderate your own mood by ‘catching yourself’ [intervening] when you’re getting upset or panicked,” says Mary K. Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland. “Focus on deep abdominal breathing instead of shallow chest breathing.”
“Anxiety causes people to get lost in their heads, worrying about what others think about them,” says Holly Rogers, psychiatrist at Duke University and founder of the Center for Koru Mindfulness in Durham, North Carolina. “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. 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 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 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 behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of treatment that has helped many people learn to manage anxiety.
“In CBT, patients learn to identify their anxious thoughts and to challenge them,” says Dr. Lebowitz. “They practice gradually and systematically facing their fears. They usually start small, doing something that is only a little stressful, and practicing it until it becomes easy. Then they can move on to more difficult tasks, all the time practicing coping until they are no longer as anxious about social situations.”
- 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. “We often believe that other people are thinking terrible things, but we exaggerate what the reality is. Your loved ones can help reassure you.”
If you’re not feeling accepted by those around you, there are a lot of great online resources where you can share what you’re going through with other people who get it, like Social Anxiety Support’s message board.
Mary K. Alvord, PhD, psychologist and director of Alvord, Baker & Associates; author of Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents, Rockville, Maryland.
Eli Lebowitz, PhD, assistant professor for the Yale Child Study Center’s anxiety disorders program, New Haven, Connecticut.
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.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2015). Understand the facts: Social anxiety disorder. Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder
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Harvard Medical School. (2015). Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Harvard Family Health Guide. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
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National Institute of Mental Health. (2017, November). Prevalence of anxiety disorder among adults. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml#part_155096
National Institute of Mental Health. (2013). Social phobia (social anxiety disorder): Always embarrassed. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-phobia-social-anxiety-disorder-always-embarrassed/index.shtml
Scott, E. (2018, December 14). Journaling is a great tool for coping with anxiety. VeryWell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/journaling-a-great-tool-for-coping-with-anxiety-3144672
April 2019 Student Health 101 higher education survey.