Palpitations, dry mouth, ten­se pos­tu­re: the stu­dents Theresa and Judith are too fami­li­ar with the fee­ling of social anxie­ty. What some might only know through memes from the inter­net is a restric­ting rea­li­ty for others.

Theresa is a 20-year-old stu­dent. She has dif­fi­cul­ties tal­king on the pho­ne, ope­ning the door for the post­man, orde­ring food, visi­t­ing the doc­tor, intro­du­cing herself in lar­ge groups or tal­king to stran­gers. Even sen­ding offi­cial emails to tea­ching staff or messages to peop­le she is not clo­se to, she feels a cer­tain nervousness.

Our fear of being exclu­ded from groups is an evo­lu­tio­na­ry trait, sin­ce humans have always depen­ded on rela­ti­ons­hips with each other. The fear of rejec­tion which goes hand in hand with our need for attach­ment has deve­lo­ped into a fear of eva­lua­ti­on in many peop­le due to the deve­lo­p­ment of an achie­ve­ment-ori­en­ted socie­ty. It is less about the fear of social situa­tions per se, but more about the limi­t­ing fear of embarr­as­sing oneself in front of others and being rejec­ted by them.

Social anxie­ty should be unders­tood as a spec­trum and ran­ges from mild limi­ta­ti­ons to extre­me­ly dis­ab­ling fears. Shyness, intro­ver­si­on or social defi­ci­ts are often mista­ken for social anxie­ty, as the tran­si­ti­ons are dif­fi­cult to deter­mi­ne. Likewise, it can­not be ruled out that extra­ver­ted peop­le suf­fer from social anxie­ty, too.

The 21-year-old stu­dent Judith says about herself: “When peop­le know me well, I am extra­ver­ted, but when they don’t know me, I seem very intro­ver­ted.” She would like to join in more often ins­tead of having to hide all the time. At job inter­views in groups, she always seems real­ly shy and com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent from what she actual­ly is without the fear.

What is social anxiety?

Psychologists dis­tin­guish bet­ween gene­ra­li­zed and spe­ci­fic social anxie­ties. Generalized social anxie­ty rela­tes to many social situa­tions and is usual­ly refer­red to as ‘social anxie­ty dis­or­der’. Specific social fears, for examp­le, the dread to talk in front of others, can also be cap­tu­red by the term “social phobia”.

Illustration: Marlene Nötzhold

The psy­cho­the­ra­pist Hans Morschitzky wri­tes in his book “Angststörungen”: “If you have a spe­ci­fic social pho­bia, you can inde­ed get away with avoiding beha­vi­or more often without ris­king too much dis­ad­van­ta­ge.” Meanwhile, in gene­ra­li­zed forms, the very abi­li­ty to socia­li­se is impai­red. Some peop­le show sym­ptoms in all social situa­tions and others only in cer­tain ones.

“The dis­or­der occurs more often in youn­ger peop­le. Social pho­bia is the third most pre­va­lent men­tal dis­or­der after depres­si­on and alco­hol pro­blems and the most com­mon anxie­ty dis­or­der,” wri­tes Morschitzky.

“I would com­pa­re it to a stress­ful situa­ti­on whe­re I feel rest­less and extre­me­ly agi­ta­ted insi­de,” says Theresa. In extre­me cases, for examp­le when she could not pre­pa­re for the social inter­ac­tion, as in some semi­nars, whe­re stu­dents are cal­led on at ran­dom, her heart races. “My mouth gets dry, I sweat and I feel like my head is get­ting hot,” descri­bes Theresa. Sometimes she also starts to ten­se up and speak with a tremb­ling voice.

Judith can tell a simi­lar sto­ry of fee­ling extre­me­ly uncom­for­ta­ble being the cent­re of atten­ti­on in groups in which she doesn’t know all of the peop­le. “That’s why I almost always stay out of dis­cus­sions and con­ver­sa­ti­ons in online clas­ses — alt­hough I often have some­thing to con­tri­bu­te,” says Judith. Her anxie­ty occurs espe­cial­ly during pre­sen­ta­ti­ons in front of fel­low stu­dents or when she can’t adjust to being the cent­re of atten­ti­on. “Even when I meet my fami­ly or friends after a long time, I some­ti­mes feel ner­vous,” she says.

Performance and inter­ac­tion situa­tions in which one’s beha­viour can be obser­ved and eva­lua­ted can be extre­me­ly chal­len­ging for social­ly anxious people.

Effects of online classes

The pan­de­mic alo­ne has crea­ted new rea­sons to avoid social situa­tions. The thought of get­ting a coughing fit in a packed train, for examp­le, can be rea­son enough to limit oneself. The online uni­ver­si­ty, through which stu­dents are now stu­dy­ing in their third semes­ter this sum­mer, offers oppor­tu­nities for retreat.

Illustration: Marlene Nötzhold

“I have the fee­ling that my dis­com­fort in social situa­tions has incre­a­sed sin­ce the start of the online uni­ver­si­ty,” says Theresa. Now that she is no lon­ger for­ced to meet stran­gers on cam­pus and in lec­tures on a dai­ly basis, situa­tions which might not have evo­ked ner­vous­ness befo­re are trig­ge­ring a cer­tain une­a­si­ness in her. Since sen­ding emails and chat messages had alrea­dy sca­red her a litt­le even befo­re the pan­de­mic, she no lon­ger gets invol­ved in class. She pre­fers to work through the lec­tu­re mate­ri­al on her own, without kee­ping in touch with anyo­ne. “I even thought about no lon­ger going to my only semi­nar, becau­se peop­le are regu­lar­ly cal­led up the­re at ran­dom,” says Theresa.

However, digi­tal lear­ning for­mats also offer oppor­tu­nities for peol­pe affec­ted by social anxie­ty. It can be easier to get invol­ved in a class through the chat func­tion or the micro­pho­ne. This way, peop­le par­ti­ci­pa­te in semi­nars and lec­tures who would utter few to no words in the lec­tu­re hall or semi­nar room.

“Avoiding situations leads to the perpetuation of fears.”

Theresa says about herself: “I just avoid the situa­tions that might make me uncom­for­ta­ble. I have come to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to par­ti­ci­pa­te in some situa­tions becau­se of this.” She doesn’t real­ly feel exclu­ded, though.

However, she does feel like she is limi­t­ing herself becau­se of the fear. Theresa says she envies peop­le who can just make a pho­ne call or ask for help at the super­mar­ket without thin­king. “I think some­ti­mes ever­ything would be easier if I didn’t worry so much all the time.”

Mareike Thomas, a mem­ber of the Clinical Psychology Department at MLU and a psy­cho­the­ra­pist in trai­ning, recom­mends ins­tead of avoiding social situa­tions — which is of cour­se easier and more plea­sant — to prac­ti­ce spea­king free­ly during pho­ne calls, semi­nars or other drea­ded scenarios.

“Avoiding situa­tions leads to the per­pe­tua­ti­on of fears,” Thomas reports from her prac­ti­ce as a the­ra­pist. Currently, for examp­le, you can meet with a few fel­low stu­dents on Zoom, prac­ti­se pre­sen­ting and then ask how the others have actual­ly per­cei­ved you. Often the­re is a dis­tor­ted self-image, in the sen­se that you look ter­ri­ble or are going to turn red. “I have had the expe­ri­ence of peop­le cata­stro­phi­sing how they look to others and in all cases it was not as bad as they feared.”

Thomas exp­lains social pho­bics tend to focus too much on them­sel­ves. “I know from expe­ri­ence many peop­le are afraid of get­ting a shaky voice or having their hands shake becau­se they are so exci­ted.” Furthermore, social­ly anxious peop­le often mis­in­ter­pret neu­tral or ambi­guous sti­mu­li, such as an aver­ted gaze, and attri­bu­te sup­po­sed­ly nega­ti­ve reac­tions to their own per­for­mance. Asking others what they think of the situa­ti­on can be very hel­pful, becau­se you often come across dif­fer­ent­ly to others than you think. Thomas also recom­mends being awa­re of one’s own safe­ty beha­viour, such as grip­ping a glass becau­se you are afraid your hands might shake.

Confrontation is the­re­fo­re the method of choice. If the fear per­sists over a long peri­od of time, does not dimi­nish des­pi­te efforts and signi­fi­cant­ly restricts ever­y­day life, it is advi­s­able to seek pro­fes­sio­nal help. Thomas advi­ses see­king the­ra­py if one expe­ri­en­ces a high level of suf­fe­ring and impairment in dai­ly life.

Our university offers various services: 

- psy­cho­so­cial coun­sel­ling ser­vice of the stu­dent ser­vices orga­ni­sa­ti­on: 

- University out­pa­ti­ent cli­nic for psy­cho­the­ra­py: 

- IPP Training Institute for Behaviour Therapy Halle: 

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