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:  https://www.studentenwerk-halle.de/en/counseling-services/psychosoziale-beratung/psychological-counseling-services 

- Uni­ver­si­ty out­pa­tient clin­ic for psy­chother­a­py: https://www.psych.uni-halle.de/abteilungen/hochschulambulanz/?lang=en 

- IPP Train­ing Insti­tute for Behav­iour Ther­a­py Halle: https://www.ipp-halle.de/patienteninformation/ 

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