I dread walking to class, but it’s not the mild foot pain waiting for me at the end of each trek that makes me anxious — it’s the people. While I’m aware no one is actively seeking to ruin my day, every glance in my direction feels intentional, as if I were being observed under a microscope. It’s an uncanny feeling. Each time I approach someone my heart rate spikes, and I begin to worry about my appearance, or whether everyone walking past secretly resents me.
And this is only the start of my day. By the end, I’m exhausted.
For students with social anxiety disorder like myself, attending a university with a massive student body poses a unique set of obstacles. Each day we’re forced to bury our discomfort in order to function — yet our symptoms are consistently glossed over in discussions of stress culture. In UT’s community, for instance, the most repeated cures for social anxiety are delivered through peppy slogans, such as “get out there and face your fears!”
If we want to help our peers cope with social anxiety disorder, however, we need to acknowledge social anxiety as a complex mental illness — a disorder distinct from nerves or generalized anxiety
disorder. In doing so, we can validate students’ symptoms and provide assurance they may need in seeking professional treatment.
In conversation, we tend to swap the words stress and anxiety interchangeably, but the two are distinct. Stress is a temporary state, while anxiety disorders are pathological and long-term. Although social anxiety falls under the umbrella of anxiety disorders — which, according to the National Institute on Mental Health, are characterized by an ever-present fear — it is also separate from generalized anxiety disorder.
“One of the core diagnostic criteria of social anxiety disorder is fear of negative evaluation, fear of being judged by other people,” said Michael Mullarkey, a researcher in UT’s Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders.
Given this distinction, conflating stress or anxiety with social anxiety flattens each into a singular experience, ignoring the disorders’ respective symptoms. With social anxiety, intense fear occurs in relation to a social setting or interaction: It has a source. But, similar to the confusion between generalized anxiety and stress, social anxiety cannot be mistaken for the occasional nerves one feels when meeting new people or going to a new place. This experience is largely manageable, whereas social anxiety is persistent and cannot be cured through repeated interactions. Regardless, exposure therapy seems like an obvious solution to many students.
“While I would never push someone with anxiety to do anything, I do think that stepping out of their comfort zone could help,” physics freshman Steven Padua said.
The prevalence of this belief likely stems from the popularity of exposure therapy, a treatment in which patients interact with their fears in a structured setting. In some cases, these sessions are proven to be highly effective. “Just get out there” quips, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect.
As a result, students with social anxiety may feel pressure to pursue this form of self-treatment.
“I used to stigmatize myself whenever I didn’t feel better after going outside or doing other common measures to alleviate my anxiety,” said Anna Lee Carothers, Plan II senior and UT’s National Alliance On Mental Illness president. “I was convinced that if I took medication it was indicative of failure.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are highly treatable — but only 36.9% of those afflicted seek help. We can reverse this trend on a small scale at UT by recognizing social anxiety disorders on our campus. It may not seem like a lot, but doing so will allow those with social anxiety to seek the treatment they deserve.
David is an advertising sophomore from Allen.