Photo by Nick Stulga
By Nick Stulga, JRN 111 Student
As we emerge from our pandemic cocoons into more social interactions and face-to-face classes, many college students are facing a newfound mental health problem: social anxiety.
One Moraine Valley business student says his social anxiety is getting better, but that it was especially bad during the beginning of COVID.
“At the time I was pretty isolated from everybody,” he said. “I don’t really like the term social anxiety. I’m one of those people who have an issue with connecting with someone I just met, for example. It’s basically being vulnerable.”
That vulnerability can be especially daunting now that we have gotten out of practice with social interactions. Social anxiety and loneliness have been perpetuated by the pandemic, especially in younger people. Many factors, including Zoom calls, masks, and even social media, have played key roles in causing more stress than usual, especially with everyone stuck inside for such a long time. This has become such an issue that the CDC has even created a mental health page specifically for coping with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The business student says he has trouble making friends, but is great at continuing conversations. He says the hardest part about making friends is “the walking up to people” to initiate the conversation part. He’s in the middle of a book about dealing with social anxiety by Dr. Aziz Gazipura called “The Solution To Social Anxiety: Break Free From The Shyness That Holds You Back.”
Mia Heard, a current student at Moraine, transferred from Loyola during the beginning of the pandemic.
“I was ready to go on campus… and then they emailed us and we had to go get our stuff from our dorms, ” Heard said. “I didn’t have a chance to move in. I ended up doing all of them online. That was difficult, doing everything online.”
Soon after, she moved out of her mom’s house and in with her dad. When her mother got pregnant, she was excited to see her baby sister, but the unexpected happened. She got COVID.
“It was hard at first because before I had COVID I still couldn’t see her in the hospital,” Heard said. “We had to wait because only one other person was allowed in the delivery room and that was in December. Then eleven months later I caught COVID and we couldn’t see her for almost a month.”
Now, to stay social, she plays basketball at the FitRec. She has recently taken a job for work study at the Moraine library. She says it’s just her and occasionally her boyfriend at home.
“I think I spend most of my time on TikTok, and I don’t feel bad about it at all because if everything’s going to be virtual I might as well get some joy out of it,” Heard said.
The social isolation and anxiety that Heard faced when her mother was pregnant and that the business student continues to struggle with is not uncommon.
As we return from quarantine and get back to seeing people face-to-face, social anxiety is common. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it can be hard to even understand what our new social norms are, going from complete isolation from almost everyone to being back in public. Should we shake hands? Should we hug others?
Zoom, masks, social media amplify social anxiety
According to Laura Lauzen-Collins, social psychology professor at Moraine, loneliness can perpetuate physical symptoms that accompany social anxiety.
“If you’re the only one that’s lonely, that’s a terrible feeling to have,” Lauzen-Collins said. “But if you know that other people are experiencing it, I mean, that’s one of the reasons why support groups work so well. Knowing that other people are going through the same thing you are going through, just that knowledge can be helpful.”
Lauzen-Collins mentioned three things that have had a major impact on our feelings of social isolation and loneliness: Zoom, masks and social media.
“Zoom is kind of a double-edged sword,” Lauzen-Collins said. “You can definitely get some connection through Zoom, but it’s also emotionally exhausting. A lot of it has to do with seeing yourself. A day on Zoom is going to feel more exhausting than a day spent in class.”
The constant self-assessment that takes place within that little window you see yourself in can be detrimental to your emotional health, she said. It can wear you out more quickly than an in-person conversation.
Masks also play a huge role in social disconnect during the pandemic.
“When we are getting visual information from another person, it looks like we’re just looking straight ahead and not moving our eyes around, but actually the eyes are constantly moving,” Lauzen-Collins explained. “These movements are called saccades. So you might be looking at this person and it looks like you are just looking them straight in the eye. But, you’re actually constantly moving your eyes around their face.”
Lauzen-Collins explains that many scientists believe the whole reason we have a cerebral cortex is to work with others. But when the face is blocked, it hinders that part of the brain’s capacity. We miss those crucial gestures that help us interpret emotions correctly.
Social media also plays a role in how we view ourselves in relation to others. The aim to appear perfect online can make us feel like our friends are managing just fine, while we might be falling behind.
“People don’t generally put on Instagram, like their hair all messed up and dark circles under their eyes,” Lauzen-Collins said. “And you’re looking at all these other people your age and say, ‘You’re doing fine, what’s wrong with me?'”
Lauzen-Collins believes social media exacerbates loneliness as feeling like you’re the only one struggling makes the struggle much worse.
“We are a social species,” she says. “We need to feel connected. We need to feel like we are part of a group, and when we feel like other people are going through the same things we are going through, it makes that thing easier to deal with.”
Set routine, get outside, practice, practice, practice
Lauzen-Collins offered up plenty of options to help cope. Having a routine is a good way to start, she says.
“It’s easy to stay up late watching Netflix and sleeping till noon or 1 the next day and feeling like the day is lost,” she says. Instead, break your schoolwork up into chunks and manage it like it’s a work day. For example, if you have five hours of schoolwork for the day, get up at 10 and work a few hours. Then get up, stretch, maybe go for a walk around the block. Then go back to the schoolwork again.
Lauzen-Collins said the outdoors are a great place to start for your breaks. She notes that walking in the woods improves mood dramatically. Exercise is great, but Lauzen-Collins notes it doesn’t have to be an intense gym workout to help. Even a leisurely walk around the block can be helpful.
Lauzen-Collins says another great way to cope is to learn a new skill or pick up a new hobby: “There are classes you could do with others online, and that can help you find a connection.”
Lauzen-Collins and anxiety/OCD therapist Stacy Gronek both recommend taking that first step and reaching out to others to create connections instead of waiting for others to call or text.
According to the American Psychological Association last fall, around a third of psychologists are seeing more patients since the beginning of the pandemic. Even Gronek realizes the importance of routine for herself: “Many more people are looking to begin counseling, so I’ve had to work hard at keeping a healthy balance with work. By setting limits with work schedules and focusing on the basics (having a consistent sleep schedule, eating healthy meals, and scheduling in social time), it keeps my expectations realistic, and allows me to better manage stress.”
Her best advice for connecting with others? Practice makes perfect.
“The number one tip I have for overcoming social anxiety is consistent practice,” Gronek said. “By making it a priority to practice the situations that bring out anxiety, it creates opportunities to build tolerance for the anxiety and slowly build confidence through experiences.”
MV to offer class in healthy relationships
Moraine Valley is doing its part to help students who are struggling with social issues caused by the strain of the pandemic.
Scott Friedman, the dean of Student Engagement, says the college has made thousands of phone calls to check in on students, provided financial and technology support, and offered classes to engage students, including the development of the HDV-100 Healthy Relationships class.
According to MVConnect’s Course Catalog, the HDV-100 class introduces students to different types of communication styles and helps students “build and maintain meaningful social connections.” The class is two credit hours.
Teresa Hannon, a counselor and one of the developers of the course, said it will help students “review the most important relationship they will ever have, the relationship with themselves.” Students will also learn to improve their emotional and social intelligence, as well as learn about different types of relationships and the effects of gender roles in society.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Friedman notes that students seem to be coping well: “This fall semester has shown me how resilient our students are, and that many are excited to see friends and instructors on-campus.”