The socially anxious student

By Danae Gordon

The concept of university has always frightened me.

Coming out of high school, I felt perpetually afraid of what was to come. My mind was constantly brimming with worries and doubts. In retrospect, I did have exaggerated expectations about university life, basing most of my presumptions around American cinema. Consequently, I expected an extremely socially-oriented atmosphere involving plenty of drinking and partying, teamed with the occasional desperate, last-minute group study session. I now know that many of these expectations were naïve, although some still unquestionably ring true. Students in Australia also seem to thrive, at least to some extent, on socialisation, drinking and partying; three things that, as a social anxiety sufferer, are terrifying to me.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) exists on a spectrum. Each sufferer experiences different symptoms to different extremes, but the basic defining factor of SAD is the unrelenting fear of socialisation. Personally, my Social Anxiety Disorder manifests itself as a constant feeling of foreboding and dread whenever any sort of social situation is looming. Once said social situation is afoot, however, I’m usually fine—‘usually’ being the key word. For others, the anxiety can continue through the build-up and into the occasion itself. Either way, SAD inexorably affects the student experience.

I used to think it was normal. Sitting up all night in bed, panicking, not wanting to sleep, not wanting the next day to come. Don’t get me wrong; I love learning. I love meeting new people and being in the company of others. The concept of university life is very appealing to me. Only, it’s not that SAD sufferers don’t want to socialise, it’s that they can’t—or at least, not easily.

Unfortunately, I’ve come to realise that social anxiety is a disorder that goes largely unnoticed. It’s something that affects huge numbers of students, and yet, we very seldom hear about it. This is an immense shame because SAD sufferers really need support. Sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of encouragement from a friend or loved one to get that SAD sufferer up and going in the morning. Even though it may seem like we don’t want to make friends with others, we really do. I for one will be eternally grateful for the few friends I have in my life.

The university experience is largely based around social experiences and making friends. We sit in classes surrounded by dozens of people. We’re occasionally forced to work in groups even though it terrifies us. We’re encouraged to attend social events, to talk to people, to ‘network’. In my experience, I’ve been called ‘rude’ and ‘boring’ by people who I’ve struggled to talk to due to SAD. I certainly never meant to come across as rude at all, and it really saddened me to know that I had made someone feel that way. That’s why awareness needs to be raised. More people need to know what social anxiety is, or we may be doomed to be forever seen as ‘rude’ and ‘boring’.

I want all SAD sufferers at university to know that they’re not alone, and that there is help out there. Sometimes, for SAD sufferers, asking for help can be tremendously frightening—I know, I’ve experienced it myself—but in the long run, it’s more than worth it. If you’re reading this and you have social anxiety, please know that it doesn’t define you. You can get better. You can achieve everything you want to achieve; SAD isn’t always going to hold you back.

If you’re reading this and you’re not a sufferer of SAD, you may know somebody who is. You might not even realise it. The invisible nature of SAD is what makes it so unrecognised; we often suffer in silence. It’s not necessarily something that shows outwardly. Finding treatment can be hard. For many, the mere thought of revealing what we suffer from triggers massive anxiety. That’s why sufferers need help from others. A tiny bit of encouragement and support is often all we need to get through the day.

All in all, university life can be hell for social anxiety sufferers. But it doesn’t have to be that way; if we all band together to end the demonisation of mental illness and pledge to help raise awareness and build support services, we could really change things. UniSA’s own student counselling unit is a great example of the kind of support services that SAD sufferers need, but there can never be too much. Always remember: a little goes a long way.

Visit the Learning and Teaching Unit for more information on UniSA’s student counselling services.

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