Social anxiety at university

THIRTY THOUSAND students will arrive in Canterbury in September to study at the various universities in east Kent.

Quite a few of this youthful tsunami may not the happy-go-lucky socially confident people that we may assume they are. Some will be worried about meeting so many new people; some will socially anxious, avoid parties and shut themselves away in the library.

This is normal and many an icon had similar feelings. Canterbury’s Christopher Marlowe, in his writings about Dr Faustus, was such a worrier he was prepared to sell his soul to the devil. And Archbishop Thomas Beckett was murdered in the Cathedral for being coy around the King.

Colin Wilson’s famous work ‘The Outsider‘ (1956) has a slant on social alienation and ‘outsiderism’, which is often forgotten in these days of therapies and humanistic psychology and group hugs. Many forget that suffering from loneliness and isolation has been an aspect of human life since hunter-gatherers were wandering around nibbling berries and roasting elk.

He wrote it in the Reading Room of the British Museum while living in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath. He was a Leicester factory worker’s son who had left school at 16 and avoided National Service by claiming to be homosexual. He supported himself in odd jobs while reading seemingly every book ever written, and writing The Outsider, which was hailed as England’s answer to Albert Camus.

At East Kent Therapy, in Canterbury, I have new student clients coming for counselling. Some clearly have social phobia and avoid talking in seminars and striking up conversations. And like a philosophy lecturer dusting off biscuit crumbs from his beard, I have started an autumnal spring-clean of my understanding of social anxiety, phobia, panic and anxiety generally. I have to remind myself what a mountainous terrain a university can be.

A book worth reading before we discuss modern approaches to alienation and social anxiety, is a treatise on how some people in the world, adopt the persona or identity of being an ‘Outsider’.

On Christmas Day, 1954, alone in his room, Wilson sat down on his bed and began to write in his journal. He described his feelings as follows:

“It struck me that I was in the position of so many of my favourite characters in fiction: Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, the young writer in Hamsun’s Hunger: alone in my room, feeling totally cut off from the rest of society. It was not a position I relished…

“Yet an inner compulsion had forced me into this position of isolation. I began writing about it in my journal, trying to pin it down. And then, quite suddenly, I saw that I had the makings of a book. I turned to the back of my journal and wrote at the head of the page: ‘Notes for a book The Outsider in Literature’...”

The book remains extraordinary, more for its reach than its grasp. It was an attempt to map a single, negotiable path of mysticism from the span of recent western art and philosophy. Wilson looked for the path through case studies of the agonies and ecstasies of thinkers, artists and men of action including Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Vaslav Nijinsky, Vincent van Gogh, Hermann Hesse and Lawrence of Arabia. He condensed them into a single type, “the Outsider”, a questing spirit straddled between devastating experiences of nothingness and moments of the highest insight.

As a child he was so introverted, so uninterested in other people, he might have been diagnosed today with Asperger’s syndrome. As he told Lynn Barber (2004): ‘I wouldn’t be surprised. I wasn’t cut off from other people, but, as I keep saying in The Outsider, other people were the trouble. They kept intruding into my world whether I wanted them to or not, because what they did was to drag me away from the world of ideas and abstractions I wanted to be in. When I was a teenager I was a total romantic escapist. My world was books.”

Wilson died aged 82 in 2013, having lived most of his life in Cornwall. He had begun as an overnight sensation but, after publishing around 110 books, he became less fashionable and was, arguably, an Outsider himself.

Modern formulations

Firstly, let’s remember that these modern terms – social anxiety, phobia, panic attacks etc – didn’t really exist 30 years ago. Sociologists were more powerful than psychologists and we had terms such as alienation and Kierkegaard ‘dread’; and existential angst. A plethora of novels and psychoanalytic encounters, moreover, muddied the waters over what a straight forward phobia of public speaking was. For example, in my case, I thought that anxiety was a Freudian repressed sexual neurosis. It’s not. Anxiety originates in old-fashioned fight v flight behaviour and our ancestors really needed anxiety and fear to indicate when they were in danger.

Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) is a persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations. It’s one of the most common anxiety disorders.
Social anxiety disorder is much more than “shyness”. It can be intense fear of making an ass of yourself, suchwhen shopping or speaking on the phone. Many people sometimes worry about certain social situations, but someone with social anxiety disorder will worry excessively about them before, during and afterwards. They fear doing or saying something they think will be embarrassing or humiliating, such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent.

Social anxiety disorder is a type of complex phobia. This type of phobia has a disruptive or disabling impact on a person’s life. It can severely affect a person’s confidence and self-esteem, interfere with relationships and impair performance at work or school. Social anxiety disorder often starts during childhood or adolescence and tends to be more common in women. It’s a problem that can be effectively treated, so you should see your GP if you think you have it.

If you think you may have social anxiety disorder, shyness, social phobia, really intense fears of being in front of people, then counselling and brief therapy can be a massive way forward.

I offer one-to-one therapy mainly informed by cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) to gradually test and expose you gently to developing and improving your social skills in the university. Each week we explore your current progress and perhaps plan out some ‘graded exercises’ to develop your confidence and habituate you to your anxiety. This is a process of exploring your fantasies about being rejected, disliked, laughed at, checking what happens when you have these thoughts and persuading you not to avoid the situation, give up or drop out. There is nothing to be learnt from avoiding a social situation and everything to gain, particularly in the huge, exciting terrain of university life.

This process is known as ‘collaborative empiricism’ and originated in experimental and behavioural psychology where it was seen that exposure to anxiety is better than avoiding anxiety. Such that ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Now, it sounds easy but this is a gradual therapeutic process where a counsellor or therapist is there to take you on a process of guided discovery. It’s not about ignoring your genuine social anxiety and real fear of public speaking and potential humiliation. But it is also a process of saying ‘What is the worst that can happen in these situations?” And then: Did the ‘worst’ actually happen? Often the answer is a surprising – No – nothing bad happened and it was okay.

Gradually, over time, and with weekly sessions, where we can rehearse, practice and play out scenarios, the social anxiety reduces and real social skills begin to develop. You may have some negative thoughts and previous bad experiences to talk through. There is time enough to accept that sometimes situations don’t always go well. But with persistent engagement with these issues, you will feel stronger, more confident and more accepting of your vulnerability. You will be honest and genuine and a real person. Anxiety is not abnormal but a useful indicator that there is trouble ahead. Sometimes the anxiety ‘volume’ in your head is on too loud and with gradual exposure to your worries, your anxiety levels will reduce and your social skills will improve.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address from 1933 states:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Supported self-help

One of the most widely-used self-help therapies for people with anxiety or phobias is FearFighter, which is available on the NHS in some areas. You can also pay to do the course privately.

Learn more about self-help therapies.

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