How to help students handle social anxiety

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Almost everyone experiences social anxiety on occasion, but for some, it’s a disorder that manifests itself as an extreme fear—one that can be a hindrance to overall happiness. There’s a difference between feeling nervous in a crowd and having social anxiety disorder. For some students, the idea of meeting new people and speaking up in class can be paralyzing.

“If someone feels uncomfortable in new situations, or takes time to ‘warm up,’ or just prefers small groups, that’s not social anxiety disorder,” says Dr. Eli Lebowitz, assistant professor for the anxiety disorders program at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “Social anxiety disorder is more than occasional shyness or social discomfort.”

Anxiety is sometimes diagnosed as a phobia, but only when it really puts a damper on your life, every day (or almost), even in situations that most people wouldn’t be uncomfortable in.

“For those with social anxiety disorder, there will be many situations they avoid: conversations with other people, eating or drinking in public, answering the phone, or speaking in class,” says Dr. Lebowitz. “Also, a disorder will only be diagnosed if the condition has lasted for at least six months.”

Students may be dealing with severe social anxiety if they:

  • Become emotional (crying, irritable, or angry) when discussing a new social situation.
  • Rarely attend social events, or say they will attend and consistently don’t.
  • Speak in a very low voice and avoid eye contact during conversation.
  • Express low self-esteem or consistently voice fears about being unattractive, boring, embarrassing, or unintelligent.
  • Have had these symptoms for longer than six months.

Here’s what you can do to help:

teacher and student talking

Make anxiety an accessible topic on campus

Whether it’s through student-led programming or materials provided by the counseling office that help destigmatize the topic.

Educate students on the difference between normal anxiety and anxiety that’s become problematic.

When it’s the latter, make sure students know how they can get support through school counseling staff and/or community resources.

Include deep breathing exercises in student wellness curriculum.

Deep abdominal breathing (vs. shallow chest breathing) can help alleviate anxiety, says Mary K. Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland.

Offer meditation or mindfulness classes and clubs on campus.

“Anxiety causes people to get lost in their heads, worrying about what others think about them,” says Holly Rogers, a psychiatrist at Duke University and founder of the Center for Koru Mindfulness in Durham, North Carolina. “Mindfulness teaches you to keep your attention focused on each moment, carefully listening to what others are saying or keeping your mind on whatever task you are completing. It helps you to stay present in your body, feeling your breath and staying calmly anchored, rather than having your mind run off generating worries.”

Provide resources for students to find local therapy options outside of school.

You can find a therapist in your area here.

Simpson Resources
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Article sources

Mary K. Alvord, PhD, psychologist and director of Alvord, Baker & Associates; author of Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents, Rockville, Maryland.

Eli Lebowitz, PhD, assistant professor for the Yale Child Study Center’s anxiety disorders program, New Haven, Connecticut.

Laura Offutt, MD, internal medicine physician, author, founder of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Holly Rogers, MD, psychiatrist at Duke University and founder of the Center for Koru Mindfulness in Durham, North Carolina.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2015). Understand the facts: Social anxiety disorder. Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder

Goldin, P. R., Ziv, M., Jazaieri, H., Hahn, K., et al. (2013). Impact of cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder on the neural dynamics of cognitive reappraisal of negative self-beliefs: Randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(10), 1048–1056. Retrieved from http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1727438

Harvard Medical School. (2015). Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Harvard Family Health Guide. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response

National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK). (2013). Social anxiety disorder: Recognition, assessment and treatment. Leicester, UK: British Psychological Society.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2017, November). Prevalence of anxiety disorder among adults. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml#part_155096

National Institute of Mental Health. (2013). Social phobia (social anxiety disorder): Always embarrassed. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-phobia-social-anxiety-disorder-always-embarrassed/index.shtml

Scott, E. (2018, December 14). Journaling is a great tool for coping with anxiety. VeryWell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/journaling-a-great-tool-for-coping-with-anxiety-3144672

April 2019 Student Health 101 higher education survey.

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Renée Morrison completed her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Concordia University in Montreal and works as a freelance writer covering travel, health, and wellness topics.

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Macaela Mackenzie is a graduate of Northwestern University and a freelance journalist for Self, Shape, Women's Health, and Allure, among others.