For students with Social Anxiety, life on campus is a living hell

Robin Withall

“I start dreading it days before. The negative thoughts associated with it creep into my mind. Just thinking about it makes my heart beat faster and my palms sweat. I try to push it to the back of my mind, but how can I when it’s all my friends seem to talk about? I wonder what new excuse I can use to get out of going to a party this weekend.”

It seems like everyone feels a bit shy at some point during his or her college years. Being in classes with people you don’t know or going to a party where virtually everyone is a stranger could make anyone clam up; but sometimes, there is something more going on than just feelings of shyness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Social Anxiety Disorder is a condition that affects approximately 3.7% of the U.S. population.

People with Social Phobia, as it is also called, are not just shy – they have a disorder that causes them to have intense fear of one or many public situations and can affect their ability to function not only socially, but academically as well.

“It’s not only that I didn’t want to go to parties and stuff,” says one sophomore. “I also didn’t want to go to class because I was scared that the professor would call on me or that something would happen, and I’d draw attention to myself.”

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, Social Phobia is characterized by an intense fear of social or performance situations, where embarrassment may occur. Individuals with the disorder are acutely aware of the physical signs of their anxiety and fear that others will notice, judge them and think poorly of them.

This fear often results in extreme anxiety in anticipation of an activity, in a panic attack when faced with an activity, or in the avoidance of an activity altogether. Most people with these feelings usually recognize that their fears are irrational and excessive, but are unable to control them even with this knowledge.

The biggest problem is that the situations that sufferers fear, including meeting new people, interacting at parties, writing or eating in front of others and initiating new relationships, are everyday situations that cannot be avoided, especially in a university setting.

“I tried everything to avoid having to meet new people or go to parties,” says the anonymous student. “If I couldn’t be with my boyfriend or my few close friends, I’d just stay in my dorm room alone, wondering why I couldn’t be as happy about going to a frat party as everyone around me.”

Luckily, Social Anxiety Disorder is a treatable condition. Once it is diagnosed by a professional, the first line of treatment is usually counseling. During treatment, the counselor and the patient will discuss his or her fears, explore reasons as to why they are unfounded and discuss ways to combat them so that he or she can socially interact more comfortably. Furthermore, the therapist and patient may delve deeper under the surface of the illness to find the possible source of the anxiety, if there is one.

“Sometimes I think my anxiety started in childhood,” says the sophomore. “I was really overweight when I was younger and kids always used to tease me and laugh if I were walking in front of them. Now, even though I know that I’m not overweight, every time someone I don’t know is walking behind me and laughs, I automatically assume that it is at my expense.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a number of medications that were originally approved for treatment of depression have been found to be effective for anxiety disorders. Anti-depressants that have the highest success rate on patients with anxiety disorders are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These medications act in the brain on a chemical messenger called serotonin, a chemical produced in the brain that creates a feeling of calm. Some examples of these include Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil.

For quick relief of the symptoms of anxiety, which include blushing, increased heart rate, profuse sweating, trembling and nausea, medications called benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, etc.) are used. These fast-acting medications are usually prescribed for only a short period of time because it is easy to build a tolerance or addiction to them.

Overcoming Social Anxiety Disorder is not easy, but with patience, determination and help from others, it can be done. Fearing social situations is no way for one to spend his or her college years, especially with the help and resources available to students right on campus. Help at Villanova is available at the counseling center. To make an appointment, stop by 206 Health Services Building or call 610-519-4050.