The life of a socially-anxious student
by Olivia Kingsley
Life as a socially-anxious student can be challenging. There are so many study-related situations that have a social component – public speaking, being called on unexpectedly in class, introducing yourself to someone new, forming friendships and working relationships, talking to teachers and lecturers, and so on. These alone can cause discomfort, however for students with social anxiety, the discomfort is amplified to fear and dread. The fear of negative evaluation can be so overwhelming that they avoid situations altogether or endure them with high levels of distress. . Needless to say, experiencing a constant state of anxiety can hamper your studies by affecting your ability to focus on what your teachers and lecturers are saying, on learning the topic at hand. So, let’s dive deeper into what social anxiety is, and how students with social anxiety can go from enduring and surviving, to thriving at university.
Shyness vs. social anxiety in students: What’s the difference?
Let’s first clarify the distinction between shyness and social anxiety and how they manifest in students. Being shy and having social anxiety disorder are not the same thing, and yet the two are often used interchangeably. Unfortunately, even those who suffer from social anxiety disorder may dismiss their symptoms as extreme shyness. So what are some of the key symptoms of social anxiety, and how do they differ from shyness?
According to the DSM-5, social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of social situations where one feels like they are in danger of being negatively judged by others . Whilst interactions such as meeting new people, talking in meetings, going to work or school, or being seen in public can cause discomfort to someone who is shy, social anxiety features when the anxiety is disproportionate to the situation and interferes with the ability to function as a student (e.g. stops them from turning up to class or affects their marks because they won’t speak up in class) or simply the act of functioning as a student causes significant distress.
Let’s take a look at Matt and Alex’s situations:
Matt has just started university, and is nervous about attending his first tutorial and meeting new people. In the lead up to it he is concerned about not knowing what to say or how to act as he wants to make a good first impression. When it comes time for Matt’s first class, he notices his heart rate is a bit elevated and his palms feel sweaty. However, over time he notices others are like him and he feels more comfortable in class and even contributes to class discussion. He ends up having a 100% attendance rate, and fulfills his class participation requirement.
Alex has also just started university, and like Matt, is very nervous about going to tutorial classes and meeting new people. Alex has all of the same worries as Matt about knowing what to say or act, and also wants to make a good impression. However, Alex assumes that others will think negatively of him, and is constantly on the lookout for signs that others disapprove of what he says or does. Alex is also worried that because he feels anxious, others can see right through him. Due to the intense anxiety that he experiences, Alex avoids going to class and only gets 30% attendance, and fails his class participation mark.
Some of the key differences between Matt, who is shy, and Alex, who has social anxiety, are:
The ability to challenge negative thoughts and check in with what is happening in reality
The intensity of the distress/anxiety experienced
The level of avoidance
The negative impact the anxiety has on academic performance
In other words, Alex is focused on his inner experience (physical sensations, fear, thoughts) and not noticing what is actually happening around him. Both students share the same concerns about being in a new social situation, but Matt is able to evaluate the situation and manage his distress so that it does not interfere with his performance.
How is social anxiety maintained?
Social anxiety is maintained through various factors. Models of social anxiety suggest a central role for anxious cognitions, including unhelpful core beliefs and assumptions, interpretations, and thinking styles. Regarding unhelpful core beliefs and assumptions:
People with social anxiety have negative beliefs about themselves and their ability to handle social interactions. Examples include “I’m odd/weird”, “I’m different”, “I’m unattractive” or “I don’t have the skills to cope with giving a talk on my topic.”
People with social anxiety may have excessively high standards for their social performance, for example, “I must get everyone to like me”; “I must always be funny and witty”; “I must never let anyone see that I am anxious.” These unrealistic standards cause anxiety as they are often impossible to achieve, and lead to the perception of constantly failing in social situations.
Holding such core beliefs and assumptions, it’s easy to see how evaluative situations can trigger anxiety and its associated fight/flight response. The physical symptoms from the fight/flight response, in turn, can exacerbate social anxiety as the student worries their anxiety symptoms are visible (e.g. blushing, shaking voice, sweating, shaking) and that others can see they are losing control.
Unhelpful interpretations and unhelpful thinking styles may be also at play in social situations . These are inaccurate yet accepted as reality, and may include: 
Emotional reasoning wherein the student believes that because they feel embarrassed that they have embarrassed themselves (that is, believing that feelings reflect reality).
Mind reading in which the student assumes they know what others are thinking, for example, “Why did she look at me that way when I was talking about photosynthesis? She must think I’m an idiot.”
Catastrophic thinking, or assuming the worst case scenario will occur, for example, “Going to this class will be a disaster because I won’t be able to get my words out, and others will laugh at me”.
As a result of unhelpful thoughts and thinking styles, people with social anxiety can then behave in ways that maintain their anxiety about social situations. For example, they may:
Avoid social situations (and the possibility of negative evaluation). Avoidance is a key factor maintaining social anxiety. While avoidance brings immediate relief, it removes any opportunity to test if negative beliefs are real, nor to experience positive social interactions.
Engage in safety behaviours. ‘Safety behaviours’ help reduce distress temporarily during feared social situations, but the person then comes to rely on these safety behaviours to endure subsequent social situations (thereby worsening anxiety in the longer term). These may include avoiding eye contact, not speaking up, speaking quickly, wearing headphones to avoid initialling conversation, ‘hiding behind’ more sociable friends during conversations, or using alcohol to reduce anxiety.
How social anxiety AFFECTS student life (and beyond)
Student life is full of social requirements - speaking up in classes and lectures, working with others in group projects, making small talk with other students, making new friends, and planning for the futures by organising work experience and job interviews. Given that most of these student situations involve an evaluative component, and that social anxiety is characterised by a fear of negative evaluation, social anxiety can indeed make thriving as a student extremely difficult. Here are some of the negative impacts of social anxiety on student life (and beyond):
Social anxiety and academic performance
Excessive social anxiety can negatively impact academic achievement.. Being involved and engaged in social and academic activities is considered to be a key contributor to academic achievement, but this can be really challenging for someone with social anxiety  Ways in which social anxiety can affect academic performance include:
Not asking for help from tutors or lecturers when they don’t understand something, instead trying to figure it out for themselves
Avoiding asking someone to proofread their work
Avoiding sharing ideas in group projects
Avoiding study or peer support groups
Not contributing to class discussions (and thus missing out on participation marks) or avoiding classes entirely.
Purposefully avoiding units containing public speaking assessments or group work, despite being interested in the content.
Social anxiety, health and wellbeing
Students with social anxiety can often experience loneliness and isolation, and report lower levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing compared to those without social anxiety.. Late teens/early twenties is also a time where many students may begin to experiment with alcohol, and this can be a slippery slope for those with social anxiety who might use alcohol to calm nerves. Indeed, research has shown that social anxiety is associated with problematic alcohol use.
Social anxiety and life beyond your studies
Another important part of university life is setting yourself up for when you finish your studies. Establishing your career often means stepping outside of your comfort zone by attending networking events, going to job interviews, gaining work experience, and talking to people in your chosen profession. Students with social anxiety often find it difficult to take these first steps, and even if they are given the opportunity to do so, they may turn it down altogether. In fact, research has found that around 20% of people with social anxiety disorder report declining a job offer or promotion because of social fears.
Tips to manage social anxiety as a student
Despite the availability of effective treatments, only about 50% of individuals with social anxiety disorder ever seek treatment, and those who do end up seeking treatment only do so after 15- 20 years.  Sadly, it is a very long time to live with discomfort every day, when there are effective treatments that can help. Grab our tip sheet on 7 tips for Living with Social Anxiety below, and here’s a sneak peek of what helps:
1. Seek help from a mental health professional
Treatments such a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been shown to be effective in the treatment of social anxiety  and at The Skill Collective it’s something we help students with on a regular basis. Things we can help with include:
Becoming more comfortable speaking up in class and being the focus of attention
Learning how to better manage public speaking anxiety (see also our public speaking anxiety program, Speaking Volumes)
Making small talk in a variety of situations (speaking to teachers/lecturers, other students)
Managing anxiety when it comes to job interviews
2. Challenge your avoidance
Avoiding social situations may provide temporary relief, however it actually increases anxiety in the longer term. While it may seem like the last thing you want to do, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and putting yourself in social situations that seem scary is the best way to realise these situations aren’t as daunting as you think!
What might challenging avoidance look like? It could be turning up to lectures in person instead of watching them online, leaving your camera on if meeting up online, attending study groups, or even saying hello to another student where you normally would stay silent - pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is an effective way to challenge your fears and to help you learn that you can cope with the discomfort. Remember, practice makes progress, so don’t expect to feel comfortable straight away.
3. Take Action NOW
Please don’t be a social anxiety statistic and suffer in silence for 15-20 years before taking action.  That is a very long time to live in fear every single day, particularly when effective treatments for are available. Get a handle on social anxiety NOW so that its impact on your studies, social life, and future career are minimised, and you can go from surviving to thriving. Your future self will thank you for it.
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