Social Anxiety in College: 5 Things I Wish I Had Known

Looking back on my college life, I’m grateful for a few reasons…

a) I landed a promising career with an Inc. 30 Under 30 entrepreneur before graduating.

b) Various media outlets like Inc. Magazine featured me.

c) I have no student debt to repay (I got a full scholarship).  

Still, I have a few regrets. And the biggest is this: 

Not really understanding and managing my social anxiety. 

teen boy studying
I made a handful of friends in college, but the process was a struggle. (Twenty20 @ljbs)

I had social anxiety in college

While I made a handful of friends in college, much of the process was a struggle. I stumbled and fumbled in social interactions — I found it hard to even look someone in the eye! My anxiety-fuelled awkwardness was one reason I rarely got invited to parties and social events. 

While I’ve come to terms with all that — it’s not that I can pull a Back to the Future maneuver — I can’t help but think: “What if I knew what I know about social anxiety now? How would my college life be different?” 

If your teen is going to college, I thought I’d at least share what I’ve learned so that their “mental health and relationships” journey is a smoother one. 

5 things I wish I had known about social anxiety

1. Social anxiety is part of the college experience

College is when most people are trying to figure out who they are, what they care about, and what they want to do for a living. In other words, college is a phase of rapid identity development! 

As Sarah K. Lipson, a Boston University School of Public Health assistant professor said: 

College is a key developmental time; the age of onset for lifetime mental health problems also directly coincides with traditional college years — 75 percent of lifetime mental health problems will onset by age 24.

Professor Sarah Lipson

As I thought I was the rare student who experienced social anxiety, I often forced myself not to feel anxious, which only worsened things. 

Knowing what I know now, I’d say to myself: “You didn’t sign up for this social anxiety “course,” but it’s part of your university experience. Embrace it even if you don’t want to!”  

2. No matter how hard it feels, it will pass.

Social anxiety is challenging when it triggers a few emotions: the fear of not being liked, the sadness of not connecting with others, and the shame of having anxiety in the first place. And when you’re not self-assured — which is the case for many college students — the emotions feel much more agonizing.   

When overwhelmed by anxiety, I resorted to numbing myself with social media or other entertainment. I realize now that even the most intense of anxiety fades over time. All I have to do now is accept what I’m feeling. 

To cultivate acceptance, try meditating — Headspace is a great place to start. 

3. Don’t figure it out yourself.

You can solve many problems by watching Youtube and reading books. Social anxiety is not one of them, especially if it’s severe. 

Talk to a professional therapist or counselor to best cope with anxiety and other mental health conditions. It can feel awkward or uncomfortable initially, but that’s a small price to pay for a fulfilling social life. (Learning about social anxiety on your own can still help, but it shouldn’t be the only solution).

Back in college, I saw a therapist once but didn’t attend follow-up sessions — I never quite saw the importance of therapy back then. It was only last year when I attended therapy consistently, and having seen the impact, I believe in getting therapy as soon as you need it. 

It’s like seeing a doctor: do you want to wait for things to get worse, or do you want to nip things in the bud with a professional’s help? 

4. Strengthen your body to strengthen your mind. 

The mind is connected to the body in so many ways. Studies have shown that physical activity reduces anxiety and depression. Yet, researchers pointed out that “about 40% to 50% of college students are physically inactive.” I was no exception.

In college, I was no way near the fitness level I’m at now, as I was busy working on side projects… and finishing assignments last minute 🙂 Having worked out 4-5 times a week for the last three years, I’ve seen how exercise makes me more confident on good days and less anxious on bad days. 

5. It takes time to find your tribe.  

A big part of social anxiety in college comes from locating your tribe — or not. You might get lucky and find your lil’ community right away. Or, if you’re like me, you might be in a few different student groups but feel no sense of belonging to any of them. 

It’s easy to assume then that “there’s something wrong with me” — not true! It took me three years to find a group of peers I enjoy hanging out with, and up till then; I kept wondering if people didn’t like me. 

If I could give my younger self advice, I’d say: “Mingle around, take your time, and you will find your crowd sooner or later.” 

More Great Reading:

When Your Teen Has Social Anxiety, Every Day Is a Struggle for Them

About Ian Chew

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