Fireside Chat with Asst Prof Caroline Lim: Living on Campus with Social Anxiety

Living on campus is often associated with its perks: reduced commute time to classes, getting a front-row seat to intense student life action and the opportunity to find like-minded friends for a lifetime. But are there downsides to living on campus – specifically, for our mental health?

In today’s article featuring Assistant Professor Caroline Lim from the Department of Social Work, we define what social anxiety is, address the notion of campus life being exclusively for extroverts, and discuss how to best care for our friends (or ourselves!) when we’re going through difficult periods in our lives. Asst Prof Caroline was one of the members on the NUS Advisory Panel for Mental Health and Wellness in November 2019, and here at Reslife, we’re so stoked to get this opportunity to speak to her.

1. Please introduce yourself and your job!

Hi, I am Caroline, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work. I started working in NUS in 2018 and I teach modules as well as do research. Prior to joining NUS, I was a social worker at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) where I specialised in handling schizophrenia. As a social worker, we look at the affected individuals’ environment and what could possibly trigger certain unfavourable circumstances. Then, we aim to provide solutions for them to improve the environment that they are in, and subsequently their lives as a whole.

2. What defines social anxiety?

Some of the defining characteristics of social anxiety is an exaggerated fear surrounding social situations and an inability to function normally when interacting with others. Ordinary activities like eating with someone else or presenting during class can become an insurmountable task for those dealing with social anxiety. While many of us do get anxious from time to time, perpetually socially anxious individuals experience such a heightened state of anxiousness that the mere thought of being in these situations may cripple them from being able to function. However, they may still be able to function well in tasks that do not require social interaction — like exams or individual assignments.

3. Do only introverts experience social anxiety?

I think that there is a huge misconception of extroversion and introversion where many believe that one would definitely be an extrovert if they are loud and sociable, and an introvert if they are quiet and reserved. However, the term ‘extrovert’ simply means that one draws energy from others, while introverts draw energy from being alone.  For example – I personally may come across as an extrovert in social situations because I can interact effectively with others, but I actually consider myself more of an introvert!

Source: Pinterest

People who develop social anxiety are not necessarily introverts. Many of them may crave and enjoy social interaction just like everyone else — it’s just that the fear that arises from being judged negatively inhibits them from wanting to interact with others. So, it’s not that only introverts experience social anxiety but rather, socially anxious individuals may come across as more introverted in our society.

4. Do you think that it’s true that introverts will have a harder time adjusting to residential life? Should introverts even stay on campus?

Categorising people as either introverted or extroverted is just one way of viewing different personality types. Just like mental health, these types of classifications lie on a spectrum — in that anyone can develop a mental disorder or experience a dip in the state of their mental health. I think the main learning point should be to find out how to manage ourselves and deal with the situations we are in, rather than focus on whether we are naturally geared to be extroverted or introverted, or not. While there does tend to be more social interaction while living on campus, if we are able to find healthy ways to deal with it, anyone can live a vibrant student life.

5. What would you say to a student who wants to take part in social situations but is held back by anxiety?

Coming from a background in social work, I’m biased towards treatment. I truly believe that if the level of anxiety that you are feeling is impacting your functionality — such that you are unable to participate fully in social activities, fulfil your responsibilities or make new friends — you should consider seeking professional help. For example, speaking to a counsellor can guide you through a process of discovering practical ways to tackle the issues you are facing.

6. When we live on campus, it’s sometimes hard to find our own space to rest and recharge.  This may create anxiety over time about having to partake in social situations even when we don’t really feel up to it. What can we do to cope with such feelings and/or self-regulate?

I think that we should all be more intentional about caring for our mental health as it is just as — if not more important — than our physical health. I know that for students, many unconsciously prioritise academics over taking care of themselves, especially when deadlines draw near. However, there isn’t a shortcut to taking care of yourself and your well-being. It is a necessity, and should be proactively made a priority. Plus, taking time off to reset your mind can actually help you focus better on your work too — so you don’t need to feel guilty about wanting to find some time for yourself!

What I have found to be really useful is to start my day by meditating in a quiet space, to ground myself and clear my head. On campus, you can find a quiet space (Reslife: we have many options listed here!) to clear your head or even watch a few episodes of Netflix. Self-care looks a little different for everyone! Just find what works for you and listen to what your body needs, and then intentionally set aside some time to do it.

7. If we do have to attend compulsory social events (as part of our CCAs or classes, etc) although we might not be in the right headspace to, what can we do/say to others to help them understand us?

Speaking from the perspective of an instructor, I think most would really appreciate it if students come forward to let us know of their struggles and why they may behave in certain ways. If they do not share what they are going through, the people around them would be left to hypothesise and form conclusions based on the little information that they know. For example, if a student took a while to answer when posed a question in class, I might start to wonder if they are not feeling well or maybe even just disinterested in the learning material. It would be easier for those around to understand if one is transparent about their experiences. That said, I am all for honesty, but not for full disclosure. If you are struggling with mental health, you do not need to share fully but simply share what you are comfortable with sharing. This could be simply telling the event coordinator that you are struggling with certain issues that make it difficult for you to attend or politely turning down friends who may ask you out.

8. The level of social anxiety I feel is crippling. Where can I seek professional help from?

Other than the University Counselling Services offered in NUS, there are also some other typically unexplored options. You could seek peer support at Pitstop at YIH or look at subsidised options outside of school. There is the NUS Care Unit, set up to monitor and advocate for our students’ wellbeing. You could also approach your faculty’s Dean’s Office and ask for support from a Student Support Manager (SSM).

Source: Pitstop at NUS

9. If I’m seeking support now, and my social circle finds out about it, what can I say to manage the perceived stigma that they may start to develop about me?

I think you should be very intentional in communicating your needs to others. Once again, you don’t have to share everything or tell them exactly what you are facing — just what you are comfortable sharing will do! You can say something like, “I can see that you are concerned but I don’t feel comfortable sharing right now. I will tell you more when things get better.” You can then turn the conversation towards telling your friends what they can do for you instead. If it is time and space that you need or for them to constantly text you, let them know!

10. I want to help my friends who are living with social anxiety, or other conditions. What can I do?

The best way to approach the situation is with empathy and understanding. Sometimes, when people are dealing with issues of mental health, they may not want to reach out or interact with others at the level that they did before. As a friend, what you can do to care for them is to reach out in a non-aggressive manner, and not be discouraged or misunderstand if you do not get a response. For example, over text, you could reach out a few times and express your worry and concern, making sure to remind them that you will always be there for them regardless. You can let them know that they do not have to reply if they do not feel like they are able to, but you will still check up on them from time to time.

You can also find creative ways to reach out to them! Dropping a follow-up text telling them about your day or what you are doing can help them feel more connected with you even from a distance. Sometimes all it takes is a little effort and some time.

11. Finally, tell us something you’d like to share directly with anyone who may be reading this right now, who is experiencing social anxiety, or other mental health concerns.

If you are someone who is working through any issues with your mental health, I hope that you do not feel that you are lesser as a person or that you are undeserving in any way. Just because you’re going through a rough patch, doesn’t mean that you will never get better. The storm will eventually pass, you just need to find ways to keep yourself going — day by day, one step at a time. Do not be afraid to share your struggles with your faculty professors and friends. Know that people do want to support you and be here for you! Take proactive steps towards getting better, but take care of yourself and take all the time you need to heal.

Assistant Professor Caroline and some of her lovely Honours Thesis students!

If you would like to seek professional help, and are unsure of what to expect, here are some resources that can provide you more information. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with the way that you’re feeling and everyone goes through difficult periods. Our emotions sit on a spectrum and are not an absolute definition of the person that you are. When we acknowledge our feelings – social anxiety or others – we are taking the first step towards overcoming it, and living our fullest life. You got this!

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Chloe Low

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