The transition to college — leaving home, living with a roommate and establishing a new social circle, all while navigating academic responsibilities — doesn’t have to be paralyzing for students with social anxiety.
The key is preparation, says Holly Scott, a licensed professional counselor whose Dallas private practice is a regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center. Counselors who are working with college-aged clients with social anxiety should talk through and create a plan for the client to navigate the many anxiety-provoking situations that may arise as they begin (or return to) school.
Try and anticipate daily challenges with the client, such as eating in the cafeteria with peers instead of taking food to go and eating it alone in their dorm room. Talk through healthy ways to negotiate shared space with a roommate who has a different lifestyle or sleeping schedule, Scott suggests. Help the client identify places on campus where they can study quietly as well as plan for ways to meet new friends, such as joining clubs on campus or finding volunteer or extracurricular activities.
“If I’m working with a client who is getting ready for college, we focus a lot on getting rid of avoidance behavior. People with social anxiety might rush back to their dorm room [after class] because it’s scary for them, which can lead to isolation … Their strongest coping skill is often avoidance,” Scott says.
Help the client identify what might be the most fearful experiences for them, and build a plan with healthy coping mechanisms and small goals they can work toward. Perhaps they’re anxious about the thought of having to share a bathroom and walk down the hall to take a shower. Talk that through with the client and get creative, Scott suggests. For someone with social anxiety, the best plan might be to schedule a daily shower in between classes during the day, when the dorms will be quieter.
“The first step is educating the client on what to expect at college. Some have a good idea but others don’t,” Scott says. “The more they can see what it will be like – what will their dorm room look like, where they will eat, what the classrooms look like – the better. Lower their level of uncertainty as best you can. Establish a daily plan. [Unmanaged] social anxiety can lead to depression so it’s good to equip clients with a routine.”
Scott recalls a college-aged client whose social anxiety would spike on weekends, when he didn’t have scheduled classes. She worked with him to set small goals and establish a plan for weekends, such as inviting someone to lunch or going to a sporting event on campus.
More than being shy, introverted or socially awkward, social anxiety is a diagnosable form of anxiety that is accompanied by a constant feeling of apprehension regarding social or performance situations and a fear of judgement from others.
Roughly 12% of U.S. adults will experience social anxiety disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In adolescents (ages 13-18), the lifetime prevalence is 9.1%.
In cases of severe social anxiety, a counselor can work with a college for special accommodations for the client, such as finding a single (unshared) dorm room, Scott notes.
While planning ahead for the college transition is important, it’s equally vital to ensure that clients with social anxiety continue to check in with a counselor throughout the semester, Scott says. It’s helpful for clients to debrief – and readjust, if needed – on the ways they’re managing their anxiety, as well as the goals they’ve set with a counselor.
If a client goes to college far from home, teletherapy or phone conversations with their existing counselor may be an option. But ideally, a client who needs regular sessions should find a local counselor to see while on campus, either at a college counseling center or in the community, Scott says. If granted permission by the client, a counselor can work in tandem with the client’s college counselor, sharing treatment plans and keeping in contact.
Read more on living with social anxiety in Counseling Today’s August 2019 cover story, “More than simply shy.”
Transitioning to college life: Tips for success
“Should I change my major?” “What should I do this weekend?” “Should I drop this class?” It’s easy to feel paralyzed by all the potential and possibilities that come with starting college. Decisions — even minor ones — often feel as if they will have an unchangeable and lasting impact on the direction your life will take.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that you’re not alone. University counseling centers across the country are seeing an increase of students looking for support as they face the academic and social challenges college can bring, says Richard Tyler-Walker, president of the American College Counseling Association. Social anxiety, social isolation, interpersonal and self-esteem issues are some of the most common issues that bring students to college counseling centers, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.
Setting small goals – and reaching out to your college counseling center for extra support – can help you find balance and manage anxiety as you start college, says Tyler-Walker, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and associate director of the College Counseling Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He suggests the following:
- Set realistic goals. A student who may not have had the social life they wished for in high school may view college as a fresh start or a “do-over.” College is a time to build new friendships and deepen existing ones. A person can set themselves up for success by setting goals that reflect who they are, not who they wish they were. It is unlikely that someone who is most comfortable with quiet conversation will feel content becoming the life of the party.
- Build a network. Many students report feeling socially isolated at college. As you walk across crowded lawns and through noisy hallways on campus, it can feel like everyone else has all the friends they need. Reach out to acquaintances who are going to the same college. Start a conversation with your roommate before you arrive on campus. Get to know your resident advisor (RA), teaching assistants, academic advisor and other helpful personnel. Join a group for people with similar interests. Identify a cultural center on campus that interests you. Most colleges have centers for groups that include women, African American, LGBTQ and multicultural students.
- Practice being friendly. Introduce yourself to a new person each day. Join clubs that focus on things of interest. Student involvement can help with getting a sense of the college or university and starting to build connections with others. Challenge yourself to go to meetings at least three times before deciding if it’s right for you. This will allow you to see the core group of people that attend and allows the members to become more familiar with you at the same time.
- Embrace orientation. Orientation is staffed by student affairs professionals and trained students who focus on creating a welcoming environment for all new students. It’s a time to learn about the ins and outs of the system and make connections with others. Everyone is new to the college, so orientation is a great level playing field.
- Pick a residence hall that suits you. “Where will I live?” It’s one of the first decisions a college student makes. Residence halls may be massive dormitories where there are shared rooms and bathrooms. In other cases, they’re set up with suite-style rooms or learning villages. Some students may enjoy the anonymity of a larger space while others may benefit from a smaller environment – especially where there might be common thread that connects. Learning villages at universities put students with common interests such as the arts, international studies, women in science, technology or other subjects together.
- Find a space to breathe. Colleges and universities range from massive to virtually pocket-sized. Whatever the size of your school, look for a quiet corner where you can get away when you need to have some quality alone time. You might have done this by your choice of residence, such as a single room. For those whose living quarters are not a solitary refuge, every library, student union, green space and building on a college campus can have a nice spot for sanctuary if you keep your eyes open.
- Reduce avoidance. No one likes the feeling of anxiety and we tend to avoid those situations that make us anxious. The more we do that, the more we create an endless loop of anxiety and avoidance. Your anxiety is trying to tell you that it is keeping you safe by not putting you into situations that will be scary. Once you put a name on fear it has much less power over you.
- Practice, practice, practice. No one is a virtuoso the first time they pick up an instrument. It takes practice and skill. Don’t get caught up in whether [social skills] seem easier for others than for yourself. This is a challenge that you can welcome with the right attitude. Practicing these skills isn’t a matter of standing in front of a mirror, it’s about incorporating small moments of opportunity throughout the day. Practice smiling at others, saying hello, accepting a compliment, telling a joke or even flirting.
- Ask for help if you need it. College counseling centers have trained staff that can help through counseling, either in group or individual formats. Counselors can build on the skills you’ve identified and help create harmony between your public and private selves.
Source: Richard Tyler-Walker, LPC-S, president of the American College Counseling Association, a division of the American Counseling Association.
Bethany Bray is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com
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