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Social Anxiety at University

Social anxiety is like having a nasty parrot on your shoulder. He's always clinging there, squawking about how everyone perceives you. For me, "You look terrible today," is a common line. "You don't fit in here," is another one.

When I was younger, I couldn't speak to anyone outside of my friend circle without feeling tears glittering in my eyes, or without my face blushing like I'd just ran a mile. I was, naturally, a shy kid, and enjoyed spending time by myself. The thought of talking to a random person - even a cashier, or a waiter - made me feel nauseous, and I wouldn't be able to make a phone call without an hour's worth of preparation.

I never anticipated my first year of university to go as it did, nor did I expect my anxiety to follow me to Edinburgh. I expected my life at university to be a smooth ride like a stereotypical American college movie. Everyone goes to parties, has a cheeky romance, and lives a lovely life. While I'm sure some people in my year did get this experience, I, for one, did not.

My social anxiety decided to burrow its claws into my heart. I didn't like to party because I was self-conscious of my body, and I wasn't good at making friends. I didn't get on with anyone in my courses, and everyone seemed so much more knowledgeable about Kant and Marx than I was. As far as I was concerned, I was the problem. I didn't act like the rest of them, so I was the alien. I believed I was unintelligent; that I didn't belong at this university, that it was some sort of mistake. I wasn't worth even speaking to.

To make matters worse, I was also involved in quite a toxic relationship. I was with someone who did not care about me, yet I relied upon them for my own self-esteem. Being in a relationship, for me, was a marker of worth. Losing them meant losing validation.

My second semester was the darkest time that I can recall within my whole time at university. I buried myself into my bed covers and consumed nothing but cheese (I'm not afraid to admit it), and only left my flat for one hour each day to attend a lecture. I'd wake up at 1pm and, because the sun would set at 3pm in winter, my life was almost perpetually cloaked in darkness. My grades were on the edge of being so low that they might've crashed down into the mantle of the Earth. I felt utterly worthless. I felt lonely, as if I deserved to be like this, as if everyone else was built right and I was wrong. Why couldn't I have been extroverted and confident? Why was no one else feeling the way I did?

I was determined to make a change. Enough was enough. I was going to shake this anxiety off my shoulders.

Summer was a fresh start. I broke things off with my partner, learned some new skills, and worked on myself. I was determined to make a difference in my second year. I started to look after myself physically, which meant going for more walks and eating healthier things other than just cheese. I put more effort into my studies and committed to the secondary reading. I wasn't afraid to ask questions or for advice. Even better, I joined a society that resonated with my own hobbies. I've met close friends that I naturally vibe with; individuals that I know I wouldn't have found on my course. I've developed more as a person and can speak to utter strangers on the street without a single care of how they may perceive me (why should I? They're never going to see me again). Even more astonishingly, I have a part-time retail job that involves speaking to many people. It's ironic, right?

Now that I am approaching the end of my degree, I'm enjoying reflecting on my journey with social anxiety. I've had some ups and downs, but that's how life is. One piece of advice that my dad always gives me is, "Don't bully yourself. Leave that to the real bullies." What's the point in pulling yourself down? If there's no one around to nurture you, be the one to nurture yourself. Love yourself.

Even now, the parrot isn't entirely gone. Sometimes, he flutters down onto my shoulder and tells me what I'm doing wrong, or what could go wrong, but it's only a matter of brushing him away. His feathers linger sometimes, but it's only natural. What is most important is to remember that you are worthy, and that you always will be.

Tenci Earnshaw - Fourth Year - English Literature

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