Our mental health is a vital part of our functionality. Yet everyone keeps their problems to themselves. 80% of the mental health issues live amongst young people. One in three people has suffered from mental health issues at least once. Among mental health issues, there is also social anxiety.

Studying in a new country can sometimes be challenging. As an international student, you don’t always know what to do, where to go and how to manage your feelings. But Wellness Wednesday is here to help. Do you need a boost of energy, some quick tips on how to get your life together or are you in need of some good advice? Every Wednesday there will be a series of lifestyle articles posted on 21bis. Mindfulness, relaxation, food and exercise: we have it all. With our ideal tips and tricks, you will come a long way. Make sure to visit this website and follow us on our Instagram page: ‘weare21bis’ to stay up-to-date. Get ready to brighten up your day! And now onto the article: Social anxiety is real.

Viktor Vandenbroeck (20) studies psychology at the University of Ghent. She’s suffering from social anxiety. ‘For me, social anxiety is a mental anxiety disorder that affected me during my whole school career and beyond. You don’t actually live in the present, but you’re constantly thinking about the past or the future. It still is a big taboo to talk about it, but social media has eliminated a lot of prejudices.’ 

Tine Nelis, a student counsellor at Stuvo, explained that there are more and more initiatives, like Red Nose Day, that make sure that people talk about mental health issues. ‘It is not to be underestimated, that taboo is still big and difficult to talk about with the people who are close.’

‘There hasn’t passed a day where I didn’t go to school nervous.’

‘From second grade until sixth grade in high school, and still, sometimes, there hasn’t passed a day where I didn’t go to school nervous. It was exhausting and despite the fact that I kept reminding myself, the worst thing that could happen was that I couldn’t answer a question, but the stress remained,’ said Viktor.

‘There were a few teachers I talked to about my anxiety throughout the years, I’m still grateful for that. A few teachers didn’t completely understand what social anxiety is, but I don’t blame them. Nobody knows what you are feeling but yourself. I could, and still can talk to my parents. They know I get nervous very easily so they reassure me that everything’s going to be alright.’ 

’At first, I didn’t talk about it with my friends, because I was scared of what they would think of me, but now I don’t have any problems talking about my anxiety. They recognize certain situations immediately, and it’s also a sort of relief that I am not the only one with scenarios in my head that will never actually happen, but for which I have been stressed for a week.’

 

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Recognize the signs
Do you think you are suffering from social anxiety? Tine explained a few symptoms, this can be different per person. ’Things that go with social anxiety are physical signals when you are in contact with someone else. Turning red, your heart starts pounding, sweating, shaking, things like that. That you notice you’re very aware of your behaviour, you pay attention to your own, you notice your own symptoms and you also think that others see them while that may not be true.’

‘You also pay close attention to what the other person is doing and that means that sometimes you also act in a more clumsy way or you act differently than you are in reality in situations where you really feel comfortable. I think if you notice that in social situations and less if you are alone or with people you know very well.’

‘The first time talking is often very frightening.’

Taking the first step
‘The first time I was really aware of the anxiety was when I went to first grade in high school. Suddenly, you have a lot of deadlines and there are a lot of things changing, like the teachers, friends and classes. The following year, I sought help from my teachers and parents,’ said Viktor. 

Tine agrees that taking the first step is hard. ‘The first time talking is often very frightening because you don’t know what the counsellor is going to say or think. ‘What we often hear after our first conversation is that it is nice to notice that you can talk about your problems without being judged or rejected, that that is often a great relief.’

‘It had a big impact on how I felt at school. Every day, I was stressed to go to school because it could be that the teacher suddenly and unexpectedly asks me to answer the question, or that someone was going to say something I couldn’t answer. From second grade until sixth grade in high school, and still sometimes, there hasn’t passed a day where I didn’t go to school nervous. It was exhausting and despite the fact that I kept reminding myself, the worst thing that could happen was that I couldn’t answer a question, but the stress remained.’

‘I don’t worry so much about how I look anymore.’

Change
‘When I started getting panic attacks in the fifth year of high school I realized something had to change. The first time was during an unexpected French test, I started breathing very quickly and felt that I couldn’t breathe anymore. The teacher then said that maybe I should seek help, or at least talk about it with the CLB at school. I also talked to my parents about it that evening and they agreed,’ explained Viktor.

‘I still struggle with social anxiety right now. I can already say that it has become less than before, probably because I am at the university now, where it’s all a bit more anonymous. I don’t worry so much about how I look anymore, and teachers won’t approach you as easily as in high school. I still have trouble walking down the street or going to the store.’

‘I’ll think: ‘What will they think of me?’, ‘What if I come across someone I know?’ or ‘What if I say something very stupid?’ All thoughts that go through my head every day. But on the other hand, I can get rid of them, not always of course, but practice makes perfect.’

 

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Affected
‘I always tried not to let the social anxiety affect my life. I have always participated in school trips and trips that were not compulsory. Afterwards, I was proud of this and I was very happy that I didn’t stay home,’ said Viktor.

‘At the end of the sixth grade, my teachers advised against me going to university. They recommended going to college, not because I wasn’t able to manage, but because they were afraid that I would have too much stress for it. Up to this point, I am happy that I didn’t follow their advice, and still did what I wanted to do. My first year didn’t go according to the ideal course, I always need some time to adapt to new situations, but I would do it again.’

‘Why did I have so much stress for this? Nobody will remember.’

‘I did everything I could and wanted to do. The only thing is that I often have the thought about, for example, oral presentations in the class: ‘Why did I have so much stress for this? Nobody will remember, and what was the worst thing that could happen?’ I often tell myself that everyone is concerned with themselves and has forgotten your embarrassing action within five minutes.’

Stuvo
Tine talked about what she specifically does at Stuvo. ‘As student counsellors, we don’t work with a diagnosis because social anxiety comes in different gradations. It’s very different per person, some people have a mild form but with others, that extends much further to the point where many social situations are difficult. For some students, it’s only with that one teacher but for others, it can be for going outside, going to the library and ask an employee for something.’

‘They’ll avoid those situations which will make them feel relieved.’

At Stuvo, the counsellors are trained to provide psychosocial guidance. ‘Together with the students, we are going to look at what we can do together. If it’s necessary, we are also looking for external assistance and we are also looking at whether this step can take place.’

‘Often, people are afraid of a terrifying experience, they’ll avoid those situations which will make them feel relieved. The idea of something frightening is actually reinforced because they felt relieved. Besides that, they won’t get experience in doing something terrifying that led to something that was better than expected.’

If students feel like they’re dealing with something but can’t figure out exactly what it is, and if the step is too big to overcome, then they can use the tool, studerenzonderblokeren.be. It’s a digital tool that deals with the fear of failure, procrastination but also with uncertainty in social contacts and social relationships. It’s a place where you can take a look to find out if they recognize themselves in those uncertainties.

A few tips
‘The most important, and first, thing to do is talk about it. For me, this helped a lot, and you’ll see that a lot of people will want to help you. Everyone deals with difficult things in their own way, but talking about it is something that helps me a lot,’ explained Viktor.

‘I started talking with the student guidance at school. She recommended a psychologist, where I made my first appointment. I had monthly talk sessions there for two years. It was the start of a solution, but after two years I decided to stop and go to a child and adolescent psychiatrist. I still go there now and I notice that this is a better solution for me than a psychologist. She has prescribed medication that makes me a little calmer during the day, and I feel that this works.’

‘Working around mindfulness or relaxation exercises could help.’

Tine concluded that being called upon the fact you’re looking down could be difficult, but it’s important that people casually ask each other how they’re doing. ‘That fellow people interact with each other and be attentive without asking that they’re not feeling comfortable, but include that person in their plans.’

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‘How to find a solution for your social anxiety differs per person. Working around mindfulness or relaxation exercises could help. In mindfulness, you learn to look at the thoughts you have and try to distance yourself from them so that they feel less oppressive.’

’In counselling, you can look at situations that are difficult, but also in which situations it works. You can ask yourself if you can find those factors in difficult situations. If a social situation has happened, you can look back to at as a movie: what happened? What went through your mind?’

‘If those thoughts are threatening, you can look at why this is. Look at why you think that is, did something happen? ‘They can come to us for that.’

‘It gets better.’

‘Try to work around mindfulness and relaxation. try to look to yourself at what is so frightening in the situation but also look at what is going well, in which situations you feel at ease and also what you do there, what do you do to make it a good conversation? you probably do something good in those other social situations as well, what is it that you actually have to offer at the time that people actually appreciate it? but that depends on person to person.’

Apps like Headspace and Calm are really good to practice some relaxation at home, it’s easy to use and for most people it’s effective.

A message for everyone
‘It gets better. Really, even if it doesn’t look like it right now, and you’re feeling insecure or you are scared to do certain things, it gets better. Seek help, talk about it with a confident and try to work on it. Give yourself small assignments like calling your grandma, go to the store alone or approach someone. How big or small the task is, it could only help and if you succeed in anything, you can be proud of yourself,’ said Viktor.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with any mental health issues, please contact Stuvo, Suicide Prevention Lifeline or talk online with Turn2Me, Awel or Zelfmoordlijn.

If you like our Wellness Wednesday series, be sure to check out our previous article: Why do you care what other people think of you?

Text and photo: © Aram Van den Eynde