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Is it Only in My Head?

Campus | October 26, 2015

It’s 2:45—class has just ended and campus is abuzz. It’s a beautiful day on the Quad, but you can’t focus on the golden leaves and the freshly-cut grass  because you’re caught amidst a sea of faces passing by—some familiar, some not, all judging. There’s that kid you met during freshman orientation—do you say hi? You can’t tell if he sees you. He doesn’t wave. Yo u thought he never liked you. And there’s that guy that you met at a frat party last weekend. You’re having a bad hair day. He definitely thought you were awkward. Ugh, why were you so weird with him?

These are the types of negative thoughts that plague all of us. However, for people with social anxiety these thoughts become incessant and cause physical discomfort. And for many college students, particularly at Tufts,  this is their reality.

“It’s paralyzing,” says Will Hodge, a freshman who has overcome his social anxiety disorder through psychotherapy. “You overanalyze every single mannerism, every single body movement that someone does. You know it’s stupid, you have no concrete evidence, but you still think, ‘I know they hate me.’ It makes you feel distant. It makes you feel like you’re not really there.”

Judging by the numbers, anxiety  among college students is on the rise. Although it is true that this increase could be influenced by a rising awareness of mental health disorders and a  disappearing stigma, the numbers are concerning. NBC News r a 2010 study of 63,700 college students found that five times as many young adults are dealing with high levels of anxiety as they were in the late 1930s. The American College Health Association said   nearly one in six college students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety within the last 12 months. At Tufts, according to  Julie Jampel, Director of Training and Continuing Education Director at Tufts’ Counseling and Mental Health Service , about 30 percent of students who attend Counseling and Mental Health Services report experiencing anxiety.

Though the exact definition of social anxiety is debated, experts generally agree that the disorder is characterized by irrational negative thoughts surrounding social situations that interfere with one’s everyday life. It doesn’t discriminate; it can affect both the introvert who hides out in their  dorm room on Saturday nights and the social butterfly who seems to know everyone on campus. Coping mechanisms range from avoidance of social situations to surrounding oneself with people to counteract internal fears of being disliked.

“Even if I find other people that like the same thing,” says freshman Joseph Scott, “I find it difficult and somewhat draining to try and extend a conversation.”

“For me, it’s more of an obsession with social settings than a fear of them,” says sophomore Ian Malone. He mentions the “Tufts 500″ a term used by some to describe the portion of the Tufts population that consistently goes out to local bars and fraternities. “Some of these people mask their social anxiety—just because you see someone out all the time or they make themselves seem like they’re really cool on social media doesn’t mean they’re not internally anxious. Actually, as with me, it’s often this preoccupation with social spaces that promotes anxiety.”

Many students I spoke cited social media as another platform for their anxieties. With Facebook, Instagram, and the like defining our generation, there is an unparalleled  pressure on individuals to construct a n identity that not only reflects, but also, and more importantly exceeds who they really are. For students with social anxiety, this pressure can become overwhelming.

“College, I thought, is supposed to be all about being independent,” says sophomore Lorenza Ramirez. “Instead, for the past three semesters, especially after becoming part of a sorority, I’ve felt a significant amount of pressure to belong to just one social circle.”

Sophomore Sayaka Koga adds that social media heightens her anxiety surrounding socio-economic status. “I don’t have any glitzy vacation photos to post on Instagram. I don’t have these beautiful fancy new items to say, ‘look at what I have.’”

“Here at Tufts,” Koga continues, “people are way more privileged than the rest of the country. Coming here is really an eye-opener because you see so many people not worrying about money so much. I work to help put myself through college. I don’t have a credit card that I can just swipe whenever I need it. It’s so hard to admit that. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, I don’t want people to make assumptions about me based on my socio-economic class .”

Feelings of anxiety can be exacerbated in social spaces where money is necessary. When friends want to go out for dinner in Boston, get $8 drinks at a local bar, or use apps like Uber, t here is pressure to shell out money—if you have the means.

Given the student body at Tufts, social spaces are often predominantly white, which can worsen social anxiety of students of color. When students of color approach Tufts Counseling, they are presented with a staff containing only a few counselors of color. An important part of treating social anxiety is finding someone one can connect with, and working with someone of a similar identity can be vital.

These are trends affecting all college students; however, it is worth asking whether there is something deeper pervading Tufts’ campus culture. Tufts students are high achievers in and out of the classroom. Like most college campuses, the Tufts social scene is made up of groups that vary from fraternities to a cappella troupes, sports teams to culture clubs. Students often enter college with the desire to carve out their own niches and avoid the loneliness that can come with being on their own for the first time. However, at schools like Tufts, prominent club culture can create pressure for some who feel that they don’t fit into one particular clique.

For many students struggling with anxiety, the sheer amount of extracurricular activities that are available at Tufts—and the perception that everyone is hyper-involved—is enough to stimulate stress. Malone notes that the selective nature of popular groups like Tufts Dance Collective (TDC) and the Rez , where an extensive personality-based application process determines employment—adds  to a sense of campus-wide exclusivity, which can exacerbate anxieties.

However, these tight-knit groups can be a source of support for students in them. “For me, FOCUS really lowered my social anxiety coming into college because due to that concentrated week I already had a group of ten pretty good friends. I absolutely adore my FO-Fam, but I might have just gotten lucky with really good people.” Hodge now feels like he has people he can rely on, whether for a quick meal or a heart-to-heart.

Hodge found success with psychotherapy during high school using the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT ) model, designed to actively change negative thoughts in order to affect behavior. But are Tufts students who struggle with social anxiety finding similar relief on campus?

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to [treating] social anxiety,” says Jampel.

The Counseling and Mental Health Services at Tufts provides other methods of treating social anxiety, such as talk therapy for students, as well as a variety of support groups and workshops. Students can also be referred to meet with on-campus prescribers who advise students about medication. But due to resource constraints, the Counseling Center only provides therapy to students for one semester before referring them to costly off-campus mental health centers if needed, which can be a source of financial stress. This temporary support can present a challenge for students with anxiety, preventing them from fully opening up. So, too, can the lack of racial and other forms of diversity among counselors prevent some students from finding support from Tufts Counseling. Therapists also vary widely in approach, and shifting to new models may halt students’ progress.

While we may have many acquaintances listed in our phone contacts, we might feel like we only know a handful, or none at all. It may be especially difficult for students with social anxiety to avoid this sense of loneliness. Maybe once we as a campus begin to discuss the prevalence of social anxiety and how we as a student body contribute to it, we can begin to lessen the social pressures that haunt all of us.