“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”
Dalai Lama XIV summed up the essential nature of social interactions with this statement. He believes that humans need each other to progress and develop in life, and without co-dependence, it is difficult to further oneself in life. Stronger together, he urged. College is a time where people invest in the future they’ve always dreamed of, it can be a demanding and trying period in a student’s life. The support of fellow students and professors can be key to success, and reaching out for help may make messy situations drastically easier. However, if students are being hindered by anxiety about social interactions, college can become more difficult.
Social anxiety is defined by the DSM-V as the “fear or anxiety about social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.” For example, social situations involving a conversation with someone, or meeting an unfamiliar person, or being observed (for example while eating or drinking), and/or performing in front of others, can almost always produce anxiety in people who suffer from social anxiety (DSM-V). The prevalence of social anxiety on college campuses has increased tremendously, however, have the resources to accommodate this disorder grown parallel (Weaver 2012)? How can a person with social anxiety navigate the plethora of social situations a student can be exposed to, such as: on-campus employment, group projects, class presentations, attending professor office hours or even writing emails, during their time at college?
An individual’s living condition can either provide stability or break the peace of mind of that individual. For people with social anxiety, a place where they are comfortable is a place where they can escape to after a long day of socializing. This location is crucial for their health. A thread on a website called ‘Social Anxiety Support’ discusses people’s experiences of living in a college dorm could be like. A user called CaptainRoommate said, “I’m sure everyone in my hall thought I was a complete jerk because I didn’t talk to them. Some of the more outgoing people made an effort but I was dismissive. They left me alone most of the time, and the last three years I lived in an apartment.” Another user called Dead Leaves states, “ I lived with three roommates my freshman year of college. I tend to be a pretty open guy, so details about my social anxiety and depression were known to them after a few months. I began to withdraw when I started to worry I was boring them.” These stories share a common theme: avoidance from the fear that they were being negatively evaluated. Negative evaluation is the hallmark of social anxiety– the fear of being rejected, humiliated or even offensive can lead people to withdraw from their social situations (DSM-V). In a post in the HuffPost, Jessica G. gave insight into what goes on inside the head of someone suffering from social anxiety: “I actually find myself talking a lot when I am with my friends… in my mind I’m telling myself, be quiet, you’re talking too much, no one cares, everyone is judging you.”
While the residential setup of college campuses can be distressing for people who suffer from social anxiety, achieving the academic expectations in a social environment can also be extremely challenging. ‘Social Anxiety Support’ discusses a user named SArainadash’s academic struggle: “I get tense when a class is about to start. I’m too anxious to eat in the dining halls. I haven’t made a single friend. I looked through every of my college classes’ syllabus, there is just no way I can cope with all those presentations, interviews, speeches, etc. My biggest nightmare right now is not being able to drop out… I know it sounds crazy but I just can’t do these things without shaking in embarrassment. I do not want to attend college until my social anxiety subsides.” A user named ‘gthopia94’ responded to him saying, “I barely made it through 2 months of college a couple of years ago. Don’t even know why I even bothered in the first place.” The narration of such incidents brings to light that surely, dropping out cannot be the only solution for people who suffer from social anxiety in college. Between facing extreme discomfort and dropping out there must be a middle ground, an area of compromise where they can receive accommodations for their comfortability. A 10-year summary report done by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health in 2015 showed that the overall growth in enrollment at universities was responsible for an increased usage of psychological counseling services, and the rise in demand for such services outpace that of enrollment growth by five times as much, thus making them available to fewer people (Kwai 2016).
While more effort to increase psychological counseling facilities on college campuses is imperative, perhaps an action for bigger change is also appropriate and necessary for all people who have to silently struggle with social anxiety. In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission defined the “ability to interact with others” as a major life activity, bringing social anxiety disorder under the protection afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Cubbage 2015). While the world is growing and developing exponentially, and all of us are running our rat races, it is important to look back and ensure that we’re providing support and equal opportunities to everyone. Social anxiety affects 7 to 13 percent of the population on the western hemisphere, depending on the diagnostic threshold (Furmark, 2002). Having the ability to access resources provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one step towards making college a less stressful experience, but we can surely do more to accommodate the needs of those with social anxiety.
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