They say that your college years are the best years of your life – and every movie or TV show centered on the life of a college student seems to confirm this belief. We expect college to be this incredible, new world of freedom of being able to make your own decisions, of having the time of your life exploring this new found independence.
For many, this experience that we grow up seeing on our TV screens becomes reality. But for many others, it does not.
I happen to be one of the latter. Despite my best efforts to enjoy the typical “college experience,” I soon found myself having an extremely hard time adjusting to this new life. When you’re in high school, you are more or less forced into friendship with many of your classmates, as you end up seeing most of them multiple times a week, if not, daily.
However, college is extremely different – because of the large class sizes and variety of courses offered, you can’t count on these situational factors to build friendships for you.
I’ve considered myself an introvert for my entire life. Despite this, it never really occurred to me that my discomfort in social situations might be more than just a personality trait–until I started college. Prior to coming to UGA, I had been able to keep up a decent amount of friendships through school. This worked great for me!
I had all of the benefits of engaging in friendships without most of the anxiety inducing “work” that came along with beginning them. But when I got here, I realized that I would no longer have this luxury. No, if I wanted to make friends in college, I needed to be proactive about it. And that terrified me.
What is so terrifying about making friends, you might ask? Well, not much, really–unless you have social anxiety. As my freshman year progressed and I found myself unable to start friendships, my awareness of this social anxiety became increasingly clear.
Despite this awareness, however, I continued to tell myself that it was not a real problem. I didn’t need help; I could handle this myself. Unfortunately, my way of “handling” it did not involve actually putting myself out there to make friends – this seemed impossible to me. Instead, I would simply avoid social situations, sit at home watching Netflix, and feel sorry for myself.
Not only did I begin to experience depression as a result of my perceived inability to be socially “normal,” but also, my anxiety got worse in multiple aspects of my life. It wasn’t just social anxiety–it was feeling the need for every detail of everything I did to be perfectly correct, and becoming anxious if it wasn’t. It was rearranging the belongings on my desk five times before I felt that they were in the “right” positions.
It was allowing fear to consume me as I began to ponder where my life was going, to be absolutely enveloped in anxiety over the uncertainty of my future. At this point, I was starting to understand that this was not something I could tackle by myself.
As terrified as I was to admit that there was something “wrong” with me that I couldn’t fix, I finally convinced myself to talk to my dad about beginning therapy. Even though I knew that he was (thankfully) very understanding about mental illness, I hated the thought of appearing “less strong” to him. I didn’t want to disappoint him. But somehow, I managed to bring it up, and I will forever be glad that I did.
Every worry that I had about asking for help was irrational–of course I wasn’t disappointing him. Of course this didn’t make me weak. In fact, it made me stronger. I was able to fight through that anxiety and do what I knew I needed to do for myself, and there is nothing weak about that.
After this, I finally began the treatment that I had been denying myself for so long. I developed an understanding of where my anxiety stems from, ways to deal with the irrational thoughts that caused it, and how to better communicate these feelings to others. In addition to the therapy I received, I began taking medication for the depression that my anxiety brought on.
Over the next few months, I saw a huge change in my mental health. I was learning to try putting myself out there in social situations, rather than avoiding them.
Just because everyone around me is exhibiting these extroverted behaviors does not mean that there’s something wrong with me if I don’t. The fact of the matter is, I’m perfectly happy sitting at home watching Netflix sometimes–but I had been letting social influences convince me otherwise.
Recognizing that this is a perfectly acceptable way to live my life has, perhaps counter-intuitively, allowed me to reach out to others for friendship. Because I no longer hold myself to a standard that I never truly wanted to reach in the first place, I don’t feel so much pressure when trying to make friends. If the friendship progresses into something, great! If it doesn’t, great!
Suddenly, what I had previously perceived as a failure to make lasting friendships became a success in tackling my social anxiety.
Today, about a year after my anxiety started to reach its breaking point, I am still constantly working to fend it off. Unfortunately, mental illness does not simply go away once we begin to treat it–it is an affliction that we must manage for the duration of our lives.
However, with treatment, we can live perfectly happy, healthy lives, despite our illnesses. Sure, my anxiety disorder has not become any less a part of me than it was when I was diagnosed, but I am a thousand times happier living with it now than I used to be.
No matter how mild or severe you think your mental health problem is, it won’t hurt to get help. You might be scared, just like I was, that those you reach out to will think less of you. But the ones who truly care about your happiness will completely understand, and they will do whatever they need to do to ensure that you get better.
You might think treatment is pointless, because a mental illness cannot be cured. But think about it this way–if you had a physical chronic illness, would you deny treatment that reduced the severity of its symptoms just because you knew it wouldn’t cure you?
So reach out. Be honest with yourself, and don’t try to write off your feelings as nothing. If something is negatively affecting your mental health, whether it has a small effect or a huge one, you deserve help. Just because your mental illness is not as severe or as debilitating as someone else’s does not mean that you should have to handle it yourself.
If you are ever feeling too discouraged to seek help, for whatever reason, just remember: nothing is as important as your own happiness.