Public speaking is generally not a favorite activity of most people—in fact many people seem to fear public speaking or at least avoid it when they can. But most people are also not crippled with embarrassment or anxiety when they have to present in front of a class or when they are called on to answer a question. For students with social anxiety, being put into the spotlight occasionally during class presentations or participation is enough to make them avoid those classes altogether.
New research from the University of Plymouth and University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol looked at the impact of social anxiety in higher education, and psychologist Phil Topham estimates that “10% of university students experience significant social anxiety,” according to a news release from UWE Bristol.
Social anxiety disorder or social phobia is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) as “a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur.” There are several other diagnostic criteria, including that “the social or performance situation is avoided, although it is sometimes endured with dread.” People are diagnosed with the disorder only if their life is significantly negatively impacted.
Out of more than 1,500 students who were surveyed, some students experienced “frequent anxiety in learning situations that involved interacting with students and staff.” To cope with this anxiety, students would not participate in lectures and presentations or would even skip class. Other students wouldn’t take any classes that involved presenting at some point, according to the news release.
The researchers conclude that students who experience social anxiety “could be missing out on learning opportunities and may be distracted from attending to academic information by excessively focusing on their anxieties.”
Although the researchers don’t believe students should be treated as potentially fragile and coddled, there needs to be more support available for students with social anxiety without further stigmatizing these students or making them feel like their “flaws” are exposed. The researchers even give some suggestions for support in the university, including “not singling out students for questioning in lectures or setting assessed presentations in their first term,” and “sensitive appreciation of the shame and conflict caused in students by the desire to succeed and the fear of failure.”
Basically, college professors need to take into consideration the styles of all college students—some love the spotlight, others have social anxiety, so it’s best to ease students into participating and presenting during class.
Mental health experts have some tips on how to succeed in high school and college despite having social anxiety.
Nerina Garcia-Arcement, a clinical assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine and a licensed clinical psychologist, gave one major suggestion in an email to help students who are experiencing social anxiety.
“Do not avoid what you fear,” Garcia-Arcement said. “The more you avoid, you are creating evidence that it is more comfortable to not do something. Instead, if you face what you fear you can slowly prove that your worst fears will not be realized.”
She also suggests that students follow these four steps to take control of their anxiety:
- Stop and evaluate what you are feeling (i.e., butterflies in your stomach, sweating, trouble breathing, heart racing).
- Stop and evaluate what are you thinking (i.e., “people will laugh at me,” “I will fail,” “I will look ridiculous.”)
- Practice activities that will reduce the physical symptoms, such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation exercises and imagining yourself in a safe place.
- Challenge your negative thoughts by stopping the critical belief and instead replace it with a positive thought such as “people have never laughed before,” “I can do this,” “looking silly is the point of this activity, and if I do look silly so what.”
There are effective treatment options for students who have access to a mental health professional.
“Talk therapy is extremely effective for social anxiety, especially cognitive behavioral therapy. Medication can be taken in severe cases, Garcia-Arcement said. “Learning to manage the physical anxiety symptoms and stopping and controlling the negative thoughts is essential to controlling social anxiety. Sometimes people can do it on their own, sometimes they need help with monitoring thoughts and feelings and figuring out what gets in the way of using these new skills.”
She has three other tips for students who are trying to decrease their social anxiety:
- Practice deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and exercise. These help manage and control anxiety.
- Ease into social activities, first with smaller groups and eventually, as you feel comfortable, with larger groups.
- Practice what you fear in a controlled environment. First practice the presentation or talking to a stranger in front of a mirror, later practice in front of someone you trust such as a friend or parent, then go into the real situation.
Scott Carroll, a child psychiatrist who works at the University of New Mexico, said that part of the problem can be that some students don’t realize they have an issue that needs to be worked on.
“Many people with social phobia … often just think they are shy and don’t realize they may have a treatable condition,” Carroll said. “Also, if someone has been anxious their whole life, they may not realize they are significantly more anxious than other people.”
Once students do realize they have an issue, they have a variety of treatment options available to them, including individual psychotherapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy), social skills therapy groups, and multiple types of medications.
Carroll has two other coping methods for college students who have social anxiety: positive self-talk, in which you reassure yourself that it’s OK to talk or say hello, can be helpful with milder forms; and repeated exposure, which leads to decreased anxiety, like joining Toastmasters to get comfortable with public speaking.
Jeffrey Gardere, a contributing psychologist at Healthguru.com, said in an email that it’s beneficial for students with social anxiety to have friends they can rely on to come along with them in situations that could cause more anxiety. Sometimes self-help books can be useful as well.
“The young person with social anxiety may also want to stay away from stimulants such as energy drinks and caffeine in order to avoid becoming even more nervous,” Gardere said. “And certainly [try] to avoid liquor, marijuana or any other chemical that is a self-medication in order to feel relaxed, simply because they may be more at risk for possible addiction.”
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