On average in the UK, 1 in 6 adults will experience the symptoms of a mental health problem – with one of the most common problems being anxiety. It’s normal to feel shy or worried from time to time about going out and meeting new people or entering new environments, but how do we know when it’s more than just shyness and could actually be an anxiety disorder?
Social anxiety – A long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations.
People develop social anxiety for lots of different reasons, such as being bullied, something humiliating happening to them in public before, or genetics (anxiety and anxious traits can be inherited from our family members).
People with social anxiety will often dread ‘everyday activities’ such as ordering at a café, talking on the phone, doing a food shop or attending lectures and seminars, making it extremely difficult for them to adapt to having a normal university life.
Other signs of social anxiety include:
- Frequently worrying about attending social activities such as nights out and large gatherings, and also small group gatherings like meeting in the library or going for coffee or food with friends.
- Experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety, e.g. having a racing heart, nausea, excessive sweating, shaking or stuttering.
- Overthinking and worrying about things out of your control, or fearing you have embarrassed yourself or done something wrong.
- Having low self-esteem, in particular about how you look or act.
- A hatred for feeling like the centre of attention, so generally avoiding activities where you feel like others will be watching or noticing you.
If you think you might be suffering from social anxiety, here is some self-help advice for how to cope whilst at university …
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself
The first semester of university is a really busy time with lots going on, but in semester 2 there will be plenty of opportunities to join societies, sports and volunteering projects.
In my experience, it wasn’t until the end of second year that I felt like I had a really comfortable group of friends to hang around with. The people I met and went out with in my first few weeks, although they were really nice, definitely aren’t my friends for life. It might feel right now like you have to get involved with everybody and everything to make friends, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself to find your lifelong friends in Semester 1, there’s still plenty of time!
If you’re starting in-person lectures next week after a semester online and you’re anxious about getting lost or being late for things, find out where the rooms are in advance to your first lecture. If you’re like me, there’s nothing worse for you than getting lost or not knowing where you’re going, so familiarise yourself with your surroundings and find out where all the important buildings are like Rathbone and the libraries, and work out how you’ll get there from your accommodation.
Boost your confidence
Having social anxiety can be very damaging to your confidence and self-esteem, so try to challenge your negative thoughts with positive ones. You could write motivational and positive quotes on your mirror or around your bedroom as little reminders to yourself before you go out.
You could also try to join societies and activities that will boost your confidence and make you feel good. At the beginning of last year I really lacked self-confidence, so I started attending pole dancing classes at Pagan’s Pole Studio in Bangor. The class teachers were really amazing at teaching me a new skill which made me feel strong and empowered.
Smile at people
You might be feeling like it’s the really outgoing and confident people who make friends at university, however you don’t have to be like this to show that you’re making an effort and keen to make friends with people. A simple smile shows people that you are trying to engage with them and that you’re friendly.
Write your positives
Make a list on your phone listing your positive qualities and the things you like about yourself. If you’ve gone out and are feeling anxious, read the note to remind yourself of how brilliant you are.
You are brave
You are intelligent
You are strong
And most importantly, you are YOU and that is your superpower!
It is likely very out of your comfort zone already to be at university and living among new people, but every day try to set yourself a small goal of doing something that is outside of your comfort zone. It could be talking to a person in your flat, or eating lunch with a group of people from your course.
If you want to meet new people but you’re not sure how, then I would suggest trying one of the Campus Life events, or attending a society event in-person or online. Walk and Talk by Connect@Bangor is a fantastic opportunity to meet new people, make friends, and get outdoors.
Talk about it
Talking about your worries, fears and anxieties to others will help clear your mind. When you’re anxious and panicking your brain feels like it’s racing at 1,000 miles per hour, but talking about it can make things feel instantly more manageable. You could talk about how you’re feeling to your friends or family back home, or arrange to chat with one of the Halls Mentors. They’re really friendly and they’re there to chat with you about any worries or concerns you might have.
According to mentalhealth.org, in 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK. Lots of people have experienced anxiety, or know somebody who has, so sharing how you feel with others can really make you feel less alone.
Don’t be afraid to say no
People won’t think you’re rude if you decline going on a night out or to a social event with them. But rather than saying no to things and leaving it at that, perhaps you could thank them for thinking of you, and suggest you could do something else with them another time which is more in your comfort zone like going for a coffee or going on a walk.
Distraction is also one of the best methods in helping to control anxiety. Here is how I distract myself when I’m feeling anxious …
Walking and jogging – Going on a solo walk, hike or jog is a great distraction from the world and your worries. Fresh air and the outdoors encourage your brain to think about different things, and when you’re living in Bangor, there are so many beautiful places to go on a walk locally. Studies have also shown that unused energy in the body can lead to symptoms of anxiety, so doing general exercise and burning off energy during the day can reduce your anxiety symptoms. Walking and jogging also helps your body breathe more efficiently, and prevents symptoms of hyperventilation and chest pains which are physical symptoms of anxiety.
Films and TV – I have a selection of films and TV shows that I have probably seen a thousand times already, but they calm my nerves and bring my heart rate down to a normal rate when I’m anxious. It’s usually Friends or Gavin and Stacey.
Get lost in a book – Reading is the perfect distraction from the real world, and also helps me reduce my screen time. Scientific studies show that having a lot of screen time can increase the anxiety levels in our brains.
Mindfulness and meditation – I’ve done this for several years now and it’s really changed my life. Before bed I listen to Calm, which is a free app for sleep and meditation. I often find my anxiety and over thinking is exhausting (especially the physical symptoms), so a good night’s sleep is really important. More tips on how to sleep better at night can be found here.