College may amplify social anxiety for some

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By Krystalle Pinilla

College is suppose to be a time of self-growth; late nights studying, hanging out with friends and learning things about yourself that you could have never guessed. But for many, it isn’t what they expected— or what they saw in the movies.

For many, this time of group projects, public speaking, and dorm rooms, is the perfect recipe to heighten social anxiety.

“Coming to college is an anxiety provoking transition for a lot of students, even if they’re excited about it and it’s under the best circumstances,” says Amy Hock, Psy.D., associate director of counseling and psychological services at Rowan University.

Social anxiety is defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America as a person having the extreme fear of being scrutinized and being judged by others in social or performance situations.

Hock says that these feelings can lead to panic attacks, nausea, and lightheadedness.

“[It can feel] like your heart is going to beat outside your chest,” she says.  “It can usually mean you avoid social situations. So the anxiety gets so high it feels like you can’t stand that feeling so you just take yourself out of it.”

For a student on a college campus, ‘taking yourself out of it’ may mean not wanting to go to classes that involve group projects, labs, presentations; not wanting to leaving your dorm room; not wanting to speak to a professor one-on-one; not wanting to meet people whether at the dining hall, a party or a date.

About 15 million Americans cope with this condition each year. But it’s a unique experience to have feelings of social anxiety in college— one of the most social times in many people’s lives.

University of Florida student Andrea Miranda defines her feelings of social anxiety as feeling panicky in large crowds, not wanting to go out for fear of socializing and especially not wanting to talk to strangers.

She says that while she had these feelings before college, being a student at a university away from her hometown, has forced her to be surrounded by more new people than she is used to.

“My roommates are so social and every time I go out with them, they know a lot of people,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like I literally have to drown myself in alcohol to feel comfortable.”

Hock says that this is a coping method many turn to while experiencing these feelings and it’s important to address it considering that socializing doesn’t end after college. Although nowadays, it seems many people can get away with only being social online by tweeting, Instagramming, and posting on various social media sites.

“If you think about how we function in society, there’s lots of situations where we still have to often leave our house, where we have to interact,” she says. “We are social organisms, so with anxiety, especially social anxiety, people tend to limit themselves and avoid or turn to things like drugs and alcohol, or cutting, you know other things that might manage their anxiety if it gets to a point so high that it seems they can’t manage it themselves and they haven’t learned any other way to do that.”

But there are other ways to deal with this, like mindfulness, yoga, working out, speaking to friends about these feelings, therapy and/or medication.   

Hock explains that at the Winan’s Wellness Center at Rowan, they teach dialectal behavior techniques for calming yourself out of a state of panic.

If you’re feeling like you may be experiencing feelings of anxiety, like a panic attack, some options you have include filling your sink with water, putting your face in and holding your breath for 20 seconds— bringing your heart rate down.

If you do not have access to a sink, you can bend over and while holding your breath, put some cold, wet paper towels under your eyes— the sensors under your eyes are very sensitive to cold temperatures, bringing your heart rate down. Another method is paced breathing, which simply means taking a breath in and pacing out an exhale—the exhale should eventually be longer than the inhale.

“Anxiety is a part of life— we’re never ever going to get rid of all anxiety,” Hock says. “We’re going to [have to] actually create a different relationship with anxiety and hopefully not be afraid of it or need to avoid it or get rid of it totally because sometimes anxiety is helpful to us.”  

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