A campus-hiker’s guide to anxiety

Offering advice on how to cope with those everyday pangs of unease.

by Allison Fingerett

Every few years I reevaluate my appreciation for JourneyâÄôs epic hit, âÄúDonâÄôt Stop BelievinâÄô.âÄù IâÄôve been listening to it non-stop for days while swilling coffee at midnight. ItâÄôs been the only thing keeping me going as I collapse under the weight of opportunity. It is a lifelong dream of mine to write professionally, but I never pursued it for what I thought was pragmatism until opportunity came knocking and I realized it was, instead, a fear of failure. Getting a column at the Minnesota Daily is both a great honor and a considerable fright. IâÄôm on my ninth cup of coffee today. I have bags under my eyes. The breaks IâÄôve taken from working on this column have only been to fulfill my basic human needs. And it is in this overtired, over caffeinated state that I am embarking on the thirteenth draft of my literary debut. Here I come, world, A-game in tow! Social anxiety is an oft-misunderstood and surprisingly common psychological disorder categorized by the DSM-IV as a persistent fear of performance in social situations, leading in some cases to chronic panic attacks and an unfortunate quality of life. According to the Social Phobia Association, social anxiety is the third most common psychological problem in the world today. And yet many have no idea what it is. A campus of thousands is not exactly a haven for those afflicted, especially in an era when professors are partial to small group activities. But itâÄôs important not to let a tendency to isolate interfere with your education. The most maddening aspect of social anxiety is the rationality of thought involved. I know that no one is looking at my feet, but that didnâÄôt stop me from obsessing over shoes for hours online, choosing the best option to represent the new me. Old acquaintances will surely be impressed when they catch me in these custom checkered Vans! But the old acquaintances arenâÄôt paying any mind. ItâÄôs all they can muster just to listen and speak while trying to remember the detailed structure of human DNA for the biology test in ten minutes. In order to see if social anxiety was as prevalent on campus as it is globally, I conducted a series of stumbling interviews on the topic. I learned quickly that thereâÄôs delicious irony in approaching people to ask them if they find it awkward to be approached. That morning there was an issue with my alarmâÄôs faulty AM/PM function, leaving un-showered and without makeup. But off I went wearing the mask of confidence made possible only by the guise of journalism. My main criteria for subject selection was a very scientific âÄúgut feelingâÄù that I wouldnâÄôt be judged harshly. Several times, however, I was surprised. One girl put up her hand like she feared for her safety, âÄúI have class!âÄù she barked, before IâÄôd had a chance to drop a word. Thirty minutes later, on another pass through, there she was, talking on her cell phone. And get this: I didnâÄôt die. She was rude and had obviously made a judgment based on my appearance, which stung a little, but I survived. DonâÄôt stop believinâÄô. Such perseverance guided me to those who welcomed the open dialogue. When I said I was writing an article about social anxiety on campus, many people laughed in nervous recognition. And even those who needed clarification and did not identify with the disorder still managed to take me seriously. I think. âÄúIf I get lost, IâÄôll pull out my cell phone, pretend to text, and then turn around like IâÄôm going the other way to meet the person who texted me,âÄù said one transferring Junior. Incredibly, IâÄôve employed the same ludicrous act. But why? What kinds of negative perceptions could possibly be visited upon someone who took a wrong turn on their way to Frasier Hall? Spoiler alert: none. And yet, these ridiculous fears are commonplace. Together, my peers and I discovered universal truths. We all need a sense of purpose to feel comfortable interacting with one another, and sometimes this is misinterpreted as a need to âÄúlook busy.âÄù Survey the scene next time youâÄôre waiting for the bus. Behold a sea of eyes entranced by tiny screens, their thumbs flying. Now guess how many are actually texting. The overarching theme of these interviews was a thirst for meaningful social interaction. I inquired about the obligatory âÄúwhatâÄôs up?âÄù question and learned that almost everyone is pleasantly surprised by an honest answer. âÄúSometimes I just like talking to people around campus to get their perspective on the world,âÄù said a Sophomore in his third semester at the U. DonâÄôt stop believing. Hold onto that feeling. Be invincible; what the hell? My mask of confidence proved to be more elegant than eye shadow, and you can wear it, too. Your purpose is mere existence. Self-perception is deceiving. Just like the same breakfast, day in day out, becomes loathsome, so too does your own face in the mirror. But itâÄôs all in your head. A negative self-image is a personal choice and a terrible waste of energy. While social anxiety is not curable, it is treatable through cognitive-behavioral therapies. If you think you may be affected, and would like to talk to someone, visit the U of MâÄôs Student Mental Health website at mentalhealth.umn.edu. In venturing outside my comfort zone, I realized that itâÄôs ludicrous to text imaginary friends when surrounded by potential real ones. My therapist told me to take risks, if only to gain experience in the lost art of gracious rejection. But I hope we can be friends. Allison Fingerett welcomes comments at [email protected].