5 Lessons I’ve Learnt from Living with Social Anxiety at University
Living with a mental illness is something that makes life difficult at the best of times, and social anxiety is no exception to this. Feeling anxious can regularly affect you and your behaviour in what should be chilled situations with friends, at parties, or even in class. To top it all off, for me moving to university brought a host of potential triggers into sharp focus.
This happened in a way that made it strenuous for me to tackle any aspect of the hectic overstimulation that is uni life. As someone who has had their fair share of anxious experiences since starting university, I thought I’d compile five things – both positive and negative – that I’ve learnt from my attempts to overcome these challenges.
Things that should be fun become your worst nightmare.
Freshers’. Socialising. Making new friends. For many, these words conjure ideas of having the time of your life and being completely care-free. For those with unstable mental health, though, the first few weeks of any uni year can be taxing mentally and emotionally. It is difficult when the basic activities which are crucial to your happiness at university bring so much additional stress – all while everyone around you seems to be having fun effortlessly.
Being resilient is hard (but you can do it).
I’ve been guilty of underestimating just how tired it can make me to do things that mean a lot of mental energy and nervousness. With social anxiety, even simple daily activities such as going to the shop or asking for directions deplete your energy levels. This could be because this disorder often comes as a package deal with introversion and being a HSP (highly sensitive person) – triple whammy.
This can sometimes make you want to just give up and hide away from scary activities. But it is important to try to maintain a positive outlook, to keep trying and to have faith that the things you are anxious about will feel less daunting with time.
Having a solid support network helps with this mammoth task. If you are religious or spiritual, tapping into this side of your feelings has a wonderful impact – I remember that it was only after attending socials with the Christian Union and talking to likeminded people, even if it was as simple as hearing others tell me “it will get better”, that I felt my resilience strengthening.
Not everyone will understand you – and that’s okay.
There’ll always be that one person you go out with to Union who just doesn’t get why you aren’t comfortable in a certain social situation. There’s also nothing worse than seeing the disappointment on your favourite seminar leader’s face as you remain silent when they pose a question. Unlike many physical disabilities, having an invisible condition prevents others from understanding your behaviour immediately, or at all. If this is affecting your performance in your course, one remedy is to explain your situation to those concerned. Whether officially certified or self-diagnosed, giving someone a clear idea of what you’re going through adjusts their impression of you more accurately, and their ability to be accommodating to you takes a weight off your shoulders.
Not everyone is as judgmental as you think.
It is possible to train your brain to believe things you tell yourself. Following on from my previous point, one of these things should be that, in times when you become the centre of attention, for example when giving a presentation, people are not going to make judgements about you. Social anxiety is rough on our self-confidence, but the only person who picks apart your mannerisms and features is you. Not only will your peers not mind if you have a nervous tick or if your voice is shaking, but chances are, they won’t even notice. Remember that you are not your anxiety, and that one slip-up won’t account for someone’s entire impression of you.
Alone time is key.
No matter how hard we try to overcome the challenges of uni life, attending classes and socialising, if we want to overcome them we need to keep participating. This means there are times when everything can get too much, and the only thing that can solve this is to recharge. My favourite thing to do to wind down after an anxious day is to lie on my bed and listen to moody autumnal folk-pop playlists on Spotify or take a long, hot shower.
Of course, doing all this won’t mean you’ll never feel anxious again, but it has helped me. However, if you are struggling with social anxiety or another mental health issue, don’t forget that help is at hand. You can sign up for free counselling sessions at https://wellbeing.reading.ac.uk/registration, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, call the Berkshire NHS Crisis number at 0300 365 0300, or the Samaritans at 116 123 for 24/7 support. If you’d like help that doesn’t require the additional anxiety of direct vocal contact, you can sign up to Big White Wall online for free with your university email, or text Shout Text Line on 85258.
Written by Sabita Burke