Starting university

How to navigate starting university if you suffer from social anxiety

If you suffer from social anxiety – a fear or dread of social situations – then starting university might feel like the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Likely, Fresher’s Week, the idea that everyone is meeting the best friends they’ll ever have might be your own personal hell if you’re anxious about what others may think of you, worried you’ll say the wrong thing or do something embarrassing.

If that’s you then it’s perfectly normal. Ninety percent of the people you meet will likely be feeling the same. A 2022 survey revealed how nine out of 10 UK students said they struggled with feelings of anxiety. Here’s AIME’s advice on how to navigate this potentially stressful time.

Imagine the scene. You’ve steeled yourself to attend the welcome drinks in your halls of residence. You walk into a room full of people, some that appear to be the life and soul, others stumbling through stilted conversations drinking (probably) warm white wine. You look around the room, your brain is racing telling you that these people here before you are all future entrepreneurs, professional successes, industry captains, artists, creatives – highly successful people and then there’s you, little old you. Your eyes take in a girl with achingly cool clothes, a boy you can instantly see is the ‘popular’ one and you want to press yourself against the wall and pretend you’re invisible, because why on earth would these people be interested in you?

STOP!

You’re projecting.  You’re making assumptions on what people think, rather than what they are actually saying. You’re allowing yourself to withdraw, because it’s easier – safer – that way. But right there in that room are conversations to be had that will create comfort. Connections to be made, common interests to be established. Maybe there’s someone who likes to run like you do, someone you can group up with on GTA, someone who’s starting a reading group – whatever it is, that room offers you connection. And the likelihood is, they’re all feeling the same as you; overwhelmed, under pressure and anxious to make friends, to find their tribe. And the things is, they’re not going to accomplish it alone with their thoughts. Alright, your best friends may not be in that room but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not worth your effort to smooth the ride in.

What can you do to make it easier? Breathe. Focus – not on your inner negative self-talk but on the person in front of you. Compliment them on something they’re wearing. It’s ok to be honest, to tell people you’re nervous. Listen to their response.

Maybe later you go back to your room and look up their social media handles. They might not chime with the person you met in that room. On social media you’re connecting with a story, an ideal. But in that room you engaged with this world, the real world and that’s something to be proud of. And you won’t be the only one. A new wave of social media apps are encouraging us to connect more authentically, freeing us from the damaging psychological effects of filters and staged reality. BeReal asks you to capture and share a photo within two minutes at a set time of day – showing life, your life, as it is in that moment. Maybe some of the people in that room are on it? You could navigate Freshers Week together, warts and all.

Remember that you made the choice to be there at your university and by owning our choices we can find great empowerment – and opportunity. Seek out the support you need; universities are all over pastoral care now with support services designed to nurture the mental health of their students be it counsellors, trained therapists, CBT classes, meditation and yoga groups. It’s all there for you to access.