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For those with feelings of social anxiety, university can present unique challenges. Socially anxious students can face functional impairments such as interpersonal and academic deficits, as well as social maladjustment due to a shift in their social networks. Despite this, there is surprisingly little research exploring their experiences at university using qualitative designs. The present study set out to explore how a small sample of undergraduate students experienced feeling socially anxious at university. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with eight psychology undergraduates and interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to explore their experiences and interpret deeper meaning. Five main themes emerged, two of which are presented in the present study: 'persistent self-consciousness and 'avoiding reality'. Findings are discussed in relation to Clark and Wells' (1995) cognitive model of social anxiety as well as existing literature. Areas requiring further exploration are discussed, as well as how universities may support socially anxious students.
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The Qualitative Report The Qualitative Report
Volume 27 Number 4 Article 2
4-2-2022
Feeling Socially Anxious at University: An Interpretative Feeling Socially Anxious at University: An Interpretative
Phenomenological Analysis Phenomenological Analysis
Jennifer Lee
Coventry University
Daniel Waldeck
Coventry University
, ac8416@coventry.ac.uk
Andrew Holliman
UCL
Moitree Banerjee
University of Chichester
Ian Tyndall
University of Chichester
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Recommended APA Citation Recommended APA Citation
Lee, J., Waldeck, D., Holliman, A., Banerjee, M., & Tyndall, I. (2022). Feeling Socially Anxious at University:
An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.
The Qualitative Report
,
27
(4), 897-919. https://doi.org/
10.46743/2160-3715/2022.5270
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Feeling Socially Anxious at University: An Interpretative Phenomenological Feeling Socially Anxious at University: An Interpretative Phenomenological
Analysis Analysis
Abstract Abstract
For those with feelings of social anxiety, university can present unique challenges. Socially anxious
students can face functional impairments such as interpersonal and academic deGcits, as well as social
maladjustment due to a shift in their social networks. Despite this, there is surprisingly little research
exploring their experiences at university using qualitative designs. The present study set out to explore
how a small sample of undergraduate students experienced feeling socially anxious at university. Semi-
structured interviews were conducted with eight psychology undergraduates and interpretative
phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to explore their experiences and interpret deeper meaning.
Five main themes emerged, two of which are presented in the present study: “persistent self-
consciousness” and “avoiding reality.” Findings are discussed in relation to Clark and Wells’ (1995)
cognitive model of social anxiety as well as existing literature. Areas requiring further exploration are
discussed, as well as how universities may support socially anxious students.
Keywords Keywords
social anxiety, social phobia, university, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, qualitative research
methodology
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International
License.
This article is available in The Qualitative Report: https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol27/iss4/2
The Qualitative Report 2022 Volume 27, Number 4, 897-919
https://doi.org/10.46743/2160-3715/2022.5270
Feeling Socially Anxious at University:
An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis
Jennifer Lee1, Daniel Waldeck1, Andrew J. Holliman2, Moitree Banerjee3, and
Ian Tyndall3
1School of Psychological, Social and Behavioural Sciences, Coventry University, England
2Department of Psychology and Human Development, UCL Institute of Education, London,
England
3Department of Psychology, University of Chichester, England
For those with feelings of social anxiety, university can present unique
challenges. Socially anxious students can face functional impairments such as
interpersonal and academic deficits, as well as social maladjustment due to a
shift in their social networks. Despite this, there is surprisingly little research
exploring their experiences at university using qualitative designs. The present
study set out to explore how a small sample of undergraduate students
experienced feeling socially anxious at university. Semi-structured interviews
were conducted with eight psychology undergraduates and interpretative
phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to explore their experiences and
interpret deeper meaning. Five main themes emerged, two of which are
presented in the present study: persistent self-consciousness and avoiding
reality.” Findings are discussed in relation to Clark and Wells’ (1995) cognitive
model of social anxiety as well as existing literature. Areas requiring further
exploration are discussed, as well as how universities may support socially
anxious students.
Keywords: social anxiety, social phobia, university, Interpretative
Phenomenological Analysis, qualitative research methodology
Introduction
Formerly known as social phobia, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a marked and
consistent fear of social interaction that is non-proportional and accompanied by extreme
distress or functional impairment (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Although SAD is
reportedly the third most common psychiatric condition in America (see Kessler et al., 2005),
an estimated 50% of sufferers opt to never seek help (Wang et al., 2005). There are also
concerns regarding the so-called hidden population of sufferers (referred to as subthreshold
SA), who experience SA, yet do not meet the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of SAD. These
individuals, who constitute a far from negligible proportion of social anxiety sufferers (e.g.,
Fehm et al., 2008), may also encounter significant difficulties in their lives resulting from their
anxiety (e.g., Russell & Shaw, 2012). Therefore, further research is warranted that explores the
lived experiences of social anxiety among other (somewhat neglected) ‘non-clinical’
populations (i.e., those with subthreshold SA). The focus of the present paper is one such
population, university undergraduate students, where subthreshold SA appears to have a
negative impact on psychological wellbeing and academic success.
898 The Qualitative Report 2022
Social Anxiety among Student Populations
Data suggests a significant prevalence of SA among student populations worldwide.
The high-risk period for development of SA is 15-25 years old (Kessler, 2003). Clinically
significant levels of SA in university students have been reported as ranging between 10%
(Russell & Shaw, 2009) and 22% (Gordon et al., 2012). Yet Ahmad et al. (2017) suggested
possible prevalence rates of SA of up to 80% in undergraduates. However, a hidden population
of subthreshold social anxiety sufferers may also exist. Stewart and Mandrusiak (2007) tested
178 undergraduates and found clinical levels of SA in both the treatment-seeking students and
the remainder who did not seek treatment. In accounting for this finding, Stewart and
Mandrusiak (2007) suggested that SA is often de-pathologized as merely shyness or
introversion, resulting in fewer sufferers seeking help. Moreover, Russell and Topham (2012)
reported that their student sample felt their SA was unrecognised and invisible, and thus acted
as a barrier for seeking support. It is well documented that for the general population, SA brings
daily functional impairment (e.g., work, social life) which can impact overall quality of life
and wellbeing (e.g., Wersebe et al., 2018). However, studying at academic institutions can
represent specific challenges for those vulnerable to SA, and we will review some of these
now.
Interpersonal Difficulties
University involves a major shift to new social networks, which can result in social
maladjustment for those with SA (Campbell et al., 2016). Students often report feeling disabled
by their social phobia (e.g., Hakami et al., 2017). More specifically, interpersonal deficits
include loneliness (Fernandez-Castelao et al., 2015), fewer friends or low-quality friendships
(Soohinda & Sampath, 2016), unhealthy peer relationships (Tillfors & Furmark, 2007), and
difficulty making friends (Clarke & Fox, 2017). Undergraduate samples often poorly rate their
own behaviours during social interactions as compared to reports of these same behaviours
from their conversational partners (e.g., Thompson et al., 2019). This suggests that their own
high levels of self-consciousness led to harsher judgments of their own social performance than
noted or reported by their social partners in those contexts.
It should be acknowledged that the current literature on interpersonal deficits is
predominantly quantitative in nature, relying heavily on self-report scales. Indeed, Kampmann
et al. (2018) concluded self-report studies were more effective than other research methods at
predicting everyday SA and emotional avoidance. However, responses to self-report
instruments are somewhat limited in scope, lack specificity, and do not allow for a more
detailed exploration into the nature of the impairments. As such, further investigations are
needed to explore how such individuals experience their social anxiety using qualitative
methodology.
Academic Difficulties
Several studies suggest that SA has a negative impact on academic achievement (e.g.,
Akram et al., 2016; Gren-Landell et al., 2009; Shah & Kataria, 2010). Students with social
anxiety (SAS) often achieve lower grades than their non-socially anxious peers (e.g., Soohinda
& Sampath, 2016) and are less likely to pass exams (Stein & Kean, 2000). Brook and
Willoughby (2015) found that those with social anxiety tend to struggle with the structure of
the university system, due to a constant cycle of approaching, interacting with and being
evaluated by others. Moreover, Gren-Landell et al. (2009) found 91% of SAS from a sample
of 2218 experienced academic impairments due to their social fears.
Jennifer Lee, Daniel Waldeck, Andrew J. Holliman, Moitree Banerjee, and Ian Tyndall 899
There is relatively little research studying the experience of SAS within academia (i.e.,
students) using qualitative approaches (Clarke & Fox, 2017; Russell & Topham, 2012). Russell
and Topham (2012) deduced that anticipatory anxiety was a key mediating factor in academic
engagement, as student’s feared failure and social embarrassment. Participants reported
frequent cognitive and physical impairments that forced them to leave learning environments
such as stuttering or thought blocking. As Russell and Topham (2012) suggested, it is both an
excessive attention to their anxiety and fear of negative evaluation that can impair students’
academic attainment. Their findings support Clark and Wells’ (1995) cognitive model of social
phobia that proposes that negative beliefs can materialise into avoidance behaviours.
Safety Behaviors
In line with Clark and Wells’ (1995) model assumptions, individuals with SA may
employ safety behaviors to reduce anxiety in social encounters at university. Qualitative
research has found avoidance is used as a primary coping method, such as self-isolating from
peers (Clarke & Fox, 2017) and avoiding lectures (Clarke & Fox, 2017; Russell & Topham,
2012). In group work, individuals with SA may sit with those more confident in doing
presentations and do extra preparation work for the presentation to avoid being required to
speak on behalf of the group (Russell & Topham, 2012). Moreover, Russell and Topham
reported that students would swap modules that included solo presentation assessments even if
this penalised their grade for that module or overall degree mark (Russell & Topham, 2012).
Those with SA may also focus extensive resources to try and promote a positive image of
themselves to others. Indeed, SA students tend to report heavy alcohol consumption (e.g.,
Villarosa-Hurlocker & Madson, 2020), with 43% displaying clinical levels of alcohol abuse in
one study (Richton et al., 2017). Buckner and Heimberg (2016) concluded that coping-
motivated alcohol consumption tends to be used to manage social impressions and reduce
feelings of anxiety in SAS. However, it is evident that more qualitative naturalistic research is
needed to explore everyday safety behaviors in the context of SA at university.
The Present Study
Previous literature has demonstrated that both clinical and subthreshold levels of SA
can impair students’ general wellbeing, social activities, and academic attainment. However,
the data are overwhelmingly quantitative, with methodology consisting mostly of self-report
scales. These bring limitations of lacking specificity, and do not allow for a richer
understanding of how those with SAS experience their time at university. Furthermore, the
limited qualitative research that exists among university students (Clarke & Fox 2017; Hjeltnes
et al., 2015; Russell & Topham, 2012) has focused on clinical SA (omitting the hidden
population of students who have subclinical levels which can also cause substantial
impairment). Moreover, existing qualitative studies have relied largely on thematic analyses,
which may not allow sufficient depth to explore lived experience and how SAS make sense of
their anxiety. Thus, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (Smith et al., 2009) was adopted
as a methodology for the present study. The research question of this study is ‘how do students
experience feelings of social anxiety whilst at university?’
Role of the Researchers
The research team comprised five researchers from different academic institutions in
the UK (J. Lee, D. Waldeck, A. Holliman, M. Banerjee, and I. Tyndall). The principal
researcher (J. Lee) was involved in all aspects of the research, including conceptualisation, data
900 The Qualitative Report 2022
collection and analysis, and writing up of the present manuscript. D. Waldeck collaborated on
the conceptualisation of the research and writing up of the present manuscript. A. Holliman
provided feedback on, and made a written contribution to, the present manuscript. M. Banerjee
provided added feedback and made a written contribution to the analysis section. I. Tyndall
provided feedback on, and made a written contribution to, the present manuscript. D. Waldeck,
Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Coventry University, with expertise in applied
psychology and psychological research methods. A. Holliman, Ph.D., is Senior Teaching
Fellow at UCL Institute of Education, with expertise in the psychology of education, teaching
and learning in higher education, and the development of children’s literacy. M. Banerjee,
Ph.D. is Head of Psychology at the University of Chichester, with expertise in qualitative
research methods and mindfulness. I. Tyndall, Ph.D. is a Reader in Cognitive Psychology at
the University of Chichester, with expertise in cognitive psychology and the Acceptance and
Commitment Therapy model. J. Lee has a postgraduate degree in Psychology and conducted
this research during their studies.
The present research was inspired by J. Lee’s lived experience of social anxiety
throughout her academic journey. Indeed, J. Lee wanted to explore whether their experience
with social anxiety was consistent with other students’ experiences. D. Waldeck was the
supervisor for J. Lee’s project. D. Waldeck’s research focuses on perceived rejection
(ostracism), of which social anxiety is known to be a significant moderator (e.g., Zadro et al.,
2006). D. Waldeck and A. Holliman have both supported students one-to-one with severe
social anxiety, so were interested in further exploring how social anxiety affects student’s
experience at university. This interest is coupled with the intention to tailor delivery or offer
additional support to students affected by such experiences in the future. I. Tyndall’s doctoral
research explored language and cognition processes that underpin the development and
maintenance of anxiety and has published work on general anxiety, public speaking anxiety,
and ostracism. M. Banerjee’s research focuses on mental health, particularly in university
population. M. Banerjee was involved in overlooking the analysis and write-up of the data.
To strengthen rigor and minimise bias, reflexivity was used. Authors noted and
discussed their reflections and awareness of constructs such as social anxiety and university
life and how these influenced analyses. The analysis was reviewed following the reading,
reflecting,” and questioning. Through actively and consciously constructing the meaning of
these concepts, researchers avoided unconscious biases (Smith et al., 2009).
Method
Methodology
The study adopted a critical realist epistemology. In the construction of knowledge,
critical realist epistemology admits that although data can reveal something about a
participants’ “real world, this is not always self-evident and requires subjective interpretation
(Willig, 2001, p. 17). Indeed, the participants’ subjective perception of the world through their
lens of social anxiety only provides part of the full story (or truth) behind their experience.
To better comprehend the meaning of what participants say requires the researcher to engage
in interpretative activity.
Participants and Recruitment
Eight psychology undergraduates were interviewed for this study (Female = 7, Males
= 1, average age = 20.25 years). There is no agreed sample size for IPA, although anywhere
between two and 25 is recommended (Alase, 2017). Participants were recruited through the
Jennifer Lee, Daniel Waldeck, Andrew J. Holliman, Moitree Banerjee, and Ian Tyndall 901
Institutional research participation scheme whereby research credits were offered for taking
part. Specifically, an advert was placed on the SONA system where participants could log-in
and opt-in to studies they chose to participate in. To enable a purposive and homogenous
sample, inclusion criteria required participants to have experienced anxiety in social situations
whilst at university, however they did not need to be diagnosed with SAD. Ethical approval for
this study was received by the Institutional Ethical Committee.
Data Collection
Prior to the interview commencing, participants were asked to read a participant
information sheet and sign an informed consent form. Semi-structured interviews took place in
interview rooms located within the University building and lasted between 20-40 minutes each.
An interview schedule was followed using open ended, non-directive questions with a focus
on getting participants to reflect on their experiences of social anxiety. Example questions
were: “Can you tell me about the situations at university that make you feel socially anxious?”
and “Could you tell me about what happens when you start feeling anxious around people?”
non-directive prompts for each question were included, for example, Could you tell me more
about that?, How did that make you feel? Upon completion of each interview, participants
were given a debriefing sheet. Interviews were audio recorded on a password protected phone
and transcribed verbatim. Demographic information was censored, and transcriptions were
anonymised using pseudonyms.
Analytical Process
This study adopted an experiential qualitative design using interpretative
phenomenological approach (IPA). IPA is a methodology that explores the perception of the
experiences of the participants. IPA is interpretative as this methodology acknowledges the
role of the analyst in making sense of these participants’ experiences. Hence, IPA is
underpinned by phenomenology, hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, and idiography to
focus on the meaning the participants assign to their experiences (Smith et al., 2009). Smith et
al. (2009), point out that IPA involves a double hermeneutic; the participant tries to make sense
of their personal and social world, and the researcher tries to make sense of the participants
trying to make sense of their personal and social experiences. Symbolic interactionism
concerns how meanings are constructed by individuals within both a personal and a social
world (Smith et al., 2009). Idiography focuses on understanding the particular and the unique
whilst maintaining the integrity of the person (Eatough & Smith, 2008).
The analysis in this study followed the techniques followed in the traditional IPA
(Smith et al., 2009). This included, reading the interview transcripts, identifying themes,
grouping these into superordinate themes and sub-themes. Multiple cases were integrated by
considering roles, relationships, organisational structures, and systems (Palmer et al., 2010).
This was done by exploring positionality and perspective, exploring roles and relationships
described and what meanings are attributed to these (Palmer et al., 2010). Care was taken to
approach each case with a clear mind so as not to let previous themes influence the analytical
process. This is deemed important in respecting the individuality participants’ unique
experience (Smith et al., 2009). Finally, the superordinate and subthemes for each case were
reviewed and edited before deciding on superordinate themes for all eight accounts. This
decision was based more on the richness of the data and relevance to the research question
rather than prevalence (Smith & Osborn, 2008).
902 The Qualitative Report 2022
Reliability of the Analysis
All the interviews and the initial analysis was conducted by Lee. Banerjee performed
credibility checks (i.e., acting as an additional analytic auditor, reviewing the data for
discrepancies, overstatements, or errors) on the data analysis following recommended best
practice guidelines (Elliott et al., 1999). Banerjee also checked whether the extracts supported
the developed themes. Banerjee subsequently added analytic commentary to the analysis and
included an additional theme identified within the dataset.
Results
Five superordinate themes of experience of SA at university were identified (see Table
1). Due to the vastness of the data only two themes will be presented: persistent self-
consciousness and avoiding reality.
Table 1
Superordinate and Subordinate Themes
Superordinate Themes
Subordinate themes
Persistent self-consciousness
Patterns of overthinking
Expecting and fearing judgement
Avoiding reality
Altered self-portrayal
Self-isolation
Alone in a crowd
Interpersonal Barriers
Social interaction as compulsory
Struggles to initiate friendships
Preference for online communication
Reliance on Familiarity
Perceived mechanisms of coping with university
Persistent Self-Consciousness
The superordinate theme persistent self-consciousness reflects the collective
experience of participants feeling hyper aware of themselves and their surroundings. These
feelings were persistent and present during most of their activities at university. Due to the
multitude of experiences, two subordinate themes were created: ‘patterns of overthinking’ and
expecting and fearing judgment.
Patterns of Overthinking
Overthinking of both past and future social interactions was closely linked to feelings
of self-consciousness in three participants. This typically involved negative thought biases in
interpreting their own behaviours during social interactions, and the behaviours of others
towards them. The patterns of overthinking displayed can be categorised into catastrophizing,
rumination, and personalisation. For Max, a lot of his overthinking was related to social
interactions with romantic interests at university.
...with girls I'm really bad. That's when the anxiety starts to kick in...
overthinking starts being like if I say this, she might say that if I say this am I
Jennifer Lee, Daniel Waldeck, Andrew J. Holliman, Moitree Banerjee, and Ian Tyndall 903
going to get rejected? So, Im just constantly in my head being like what if (...)
Yeah which is not good, thats what keeps me away... (Max / 20 / Male)
Max appears to struggle constantly with catastrophizing, always anticipating the worst
outcome. This appears linked to feelings of self-consciousness, anticipating rejection, and
ultimately avoiding romantic interactions. He describes how anxiety kicks in immediately,
his overthinking an automatic and uncontrollable force exemplifying the lack of control he
feels. Overthinking is inherent to his SA and is what keeps him away, a controlling agent
sabotaging potential romantic connection. This rumination of negative outcomes suggests a
lack of confidence in his interpersonal abilities. He runs through potential conversations with
pre-emptive replies that ultimately end in rejection, if I say this, she might say that if I say this
am I going to get rejected? This also exemplifies a great mental anguish for Max, his
overthinking spiralling him into further self-doubt. Overthinking conversational outcomes was
a major source of anxiety for Max. He described a recent interaction with a female friend that
he had developed romantic feelings for:
...there’s a girl I like here it’s really hard for me to say hey I like you either its
yes or no, but its really hard for me to say. I kept saying to myself Im going
to say today... we saw each other, and I didn’t say it because I really felt in the
moment, but I thought this is not the time. I keep postponing it, but it keeps
building up the anxiety I’m like whenever I see her I’m like I’m not being too
creepy or being (...) at the same time being socially anxious I am so worried
that is going to ruin our friendship... being like oh he likes me I know he likes
me but I dont like him. Everything is going to be really awkward. I dont want
to ruin my friendship but if I tell her that might be what is going to ruin the
friendship so I am hesitating saying what I want to say and keeping it to
myself... it is really hard… (Max / 20 / Male)
This quote is a good example of the patterns of overthinking Max displayed, constantly
repeating his fears of ruining the friendship. This is a further example of catastrophizing
which again prevents him from pursuing romantic interests, convincing himself that rejection
is inevitable. His self-consciousness is evident in his rumination of how he is perceived by
others, attempting to steer his image from being too creepy.” This suggests a battle to control
aspects of his SA, as overthinking controls much of his life at university. An interesting cycle
emerges, where Max’s catastrophizing and rumination play a role in building up the anxiety.
In this sense, his experiences of overthinking are heavily linked to self-consciousness through
a fear of rejection, and consequently a heightened sense of SA results. His definitive statement
of everything is going to be really awkward is suggestive that his overthinking has created a
reality in which negative social outcomes are inevitable. Max recalls a similar experience more
recently at a pub, where he was approached by a girl who appeared interested in him:
Another example of social anxiety whilst at university I went to a pub once I
went outside to smoke, a girl comes up to me and she complimented my jacket
and my outfit... and I couldn’t say anything…… I just stayed there... I said okay
thank you and that was it I couldn’t say anything back and she kept on saying
those things five or six times and I got scared like okay I get you Im not really,
urm, comfortable with this situation and I was like why have I done that. I could
have said the same thing to her like you have something and then move on with
the conversation, but it really frightens me. Then she left of course, and I was
904 The Qualitative Report 2022
like oh okay maybe I did something wrong, and I went back home and reflected
on it. (Max / 20 / Male)
Max seems unaware of the perils of his overthinking. Again, he becomes trapped in this
cycle of overthinking and is controlled by his SA, feeling he “couldn’t say anything.” His
mention of feeling scared and that conversing frightens me reflects the trepidation that
overthinking controls him with. His explicit mention of his overthinking as reflecting further
illustrates this control, as he fails to recognise the perils of this catastrophizing for his self-
esteem. Max faces this constant internal battle, continuously fearing the worst and preventing
him from further pursuing romantic interests.
For other participants, their overthinking was related to negatively interpreting others’
thoughts and behaviours towards them. Reema frequently expressed a heightened sense of
awareness to others’ perceptions of her:
I overthink a lot, like okay what do I talk about next you know all of them kind
of things also um if I feel like someone’s being a bit cold towards me it brings
down my mood (...) if its someone I socialise with and they’re being cold
towards me it just brings me down you know… (Reema / 19 / Female)
If I feel like someone is being cold towards me, I feel like I did something
wrong. (Reema / 19 / Female)
Yeah, sometimes so like in seminars I can feel like someone is a bit off with me
that sort of thing, that can make me feel socially anxious as well. (Reema / 19 /
Female)
Reema displays an awareness of her overthinking. Her constant concerns of people
being cold or off is evidently something she worries about frequently. This suggests a
personalisation bias, over analysing or misinterpreting others’ behaviours and relating them
back to herself. Similarly, this represents a lack of self-confidence. Her SA controls her to the
extent she lacks a sense of self and is dependent on others’ perceptions of her. This is especially
prevalent in her mentioning this brings me down. She uses others’ moods towards her as an
extension of herself. In this sense university may be a toxic environment for Reema, constantly
assessing her peers’ behaviours towards her and needing explicit acceptance from others to
ease her anxiety.
Isabelle discussed overthinking her verbal communication at university, specifically
presenting to the class in a seminar:
We kind of let the other groups go first and whilst they’re talking I’ll be
rehearsing the lines over and over again in my head so I won’t even be paying
attention to the other groups I’ll just be reading my sheet and what I’ve written
down for myself like okay well how can I say this and it actually gets to it and
someone else in my group will volunteer and I’m like okay well I’ve just spent
the last ten minutes stressing when I didn't need to cause I’m not even talking
now. (Isabelle / 18 / Female)
Isabelle seems distressed at the prospect of a group presentation, writing a script for
herself and rehearsing what she needs to say and how to say it. This is suggestive of extreme
self-consciousness, overthinking every aspect of her outward appearance. She retreats from the
seminar into her own isolated bubble, excessively focused on a presentation which is ultimately
Jennifer Lee, Daniel Waldeck, Andrew J. Holliman, Moitree Banerjee, and Ian Tyndall 905
a minor aspect of her day. This is further suggestive of catastrophizing, perhaps she ruminates
over the negative consequences of what would happen should she fail to rehearse, such as
judgment from others or embarrassment. To further this, she mentions a reliance on scripted
conversations again and overthinks what to say to her family and friends:
Again, with like art society before I walk in and Im like well what can I talk
about this week has something happened or like before a seminar Im talking to
a friend I’m like okay has anything important in my life happened has
anything… happened and even with like talking to my parents I’m like well
what can I say? Even with appointments I’m like hi my name’s [name] and I
need a doctor’s appointment like all scripted. *laughs* (Isabelle / 18 / Female)
As with her presentation, this overthinking of what she can talk about suggests a desire
to control her image. Her desire to discuss anything important is suggestive of not wanting
to be perceived as boring. Perhaps she is fighting against a lack of control she feels from her
SA, wanting to retain control over how she is perceived by others. Of particular interest is her
overthinking of social interactions with her family, suggesting her self-consciousness is deep
rooted. Clearly overthinking is inherent for Isabelle, from obsessively rehearsing presentations
to conversational topics with friends and family. She becomes an actor in her social world,
rehearsing her parts for different roles and scenes at university and beyond. Spontaneous
interaction is constrained by her overthinking because of deep-rooted SA.
Expecting and Fearing Judgment
Self-consciousness in participants also manifested itself in their fears related to social
interactions. In some cases, these fears made them reluctant to socialise with other students at
university, or even attend lectures and seminars. Max displayed these fears both in academic
and social environments at university:
I can be in small groups, two or three? That’s perfect I can talk I can be myself...
when its like hey lets meet up with other twenty guys its really hard for me
cause everybody’s gonna be like look at that weird guy, cause he doesnt talk
too much.’ (Max / 20 / Male)
Max is confident in his expectations. His use of “everybody’s gonna be like...” suggests
he has convinced himself of the negative judgments people have of him. He displays a
preference for socialising with fewer people at university, where he feels I can talk I can be
myself. This suggests that he puts on a mask around larger groups. This may be a defence
mechanism against judgment from peers. If he feels they are judging him, they are judging his
altered portrayal, so this acts as a barrier to protect his self-esteem. He homogenizes the
opinions of others, if everybody will think he is that weird guy. It may be that he sees large
crowds as a wall of fear, unable to recognise individual characters, emotions, or attitudes. He
becomes controlled by his anxiety, unable to expand his friendship circle at university for fears
of judgment. His fears are something that also hinders him academically. He describes his fear
of participating in seminars:
Like in the class when the teacher asks something I'm usually staring down even
if I know the answer, I am being judged by others like oh he’s... and everybody
looks at you and... I have times where I am just saying it. But if the teacher says
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yes and I knew it, I feel like yes, I knew it without making an embarrassment
of myself. (Max / 20 / Male)
Max overthinks his contributions, not wanting to give an answer due to a fear of
judgment or making an embarrassment of himself. These fears seem unrelated to being
wrong or right, as he admits that he avoids answering even if I know the answer. Max is
confirmatory in noting I am being judged as opposed to I feel judged, suggesting he not
only fears judgment, but is convinced of this and subsequently comes to expect it. His
avoidance of eye contact with the teacher and feeling everybody looks at you not only
suggests self-consciousness, but again a fear of judgment. As aforementioned, he feels I can
talk I can be myself when he is around fewer people and therefore may put on confdent facade
around larger groups of unfamiliar peers, such as in a seminar. Perhaps his fears of eye contact
and drawing attention to himself is that he fears people will see through this, leaving him
vulnerable to further judgment.
The fear of judgment also manifested in the difficulty for asking for help in the sample.
Asking for help has often been referred as anxiety-provoking for university students. Becca
describes asking for help as the hardest thing to do.
Regarding anticipations of judgement from academic staff at the university, Holly
describes a preference for email communication. When asked why, she described her worries
about judgment from academic staff: “Just in case I embarrass myself I suppose or like… what
are they gonna think of me… yeah just that I guess” (Holly / 27 / Female).
Holly displays clear feelings of self-consciousness. Emailing may be a comfort in this
sense, acting as a barrier to protect her from the discomfort of face-to-face interaction. Perhaps
she attempts to regain control over how she is perceived, lessening her fear of being judged by
presenting a more refined and edited version of herself through email than face to face. It is
interesting that she assumes she will embarrass herself, as she mentions this again when
discussing how she interacts with academic staff: ...it's not too difficult cause even if you make
a fool of yourself, you're probably not gonna see that lecturer again *laughs*... (Holly / 27 /
Female).
It is almost as if she expects to embarrass or make a fool of herself, indicating self-
consciousness. Again, this reflects her worries about judgment from academic staff. This was
unique to Holly’s reflections, as other participants worried more about judgment from peers at
university. As a mature student, it may be that Holly relates more to academic staff than
younger students. She may see staff more as peers than younger undergraduates, as their
opinions of her seem valuable. Evidently, this fear of judgment from staff brings potential
academic disruption from a lack of engagement or experiencing high anxiety when she does
engage with staff.
For Reema, expecting and fearing judgment was her most consistent theme during her
interview. She too displayed a potential for academic disruption, as her fears of judgment
prevent her from interlining in seminars:
...when it comes to class presentations I don't like speaking I don't like putting
up my hand and speaking if it’s group work and you're talking to your peers I
will speak but I’m scared to say the wrong answer you feel like an idiot I never
put my hand up first if I see people debating or giving wrong answers I hate
being stupid so I just don’t put my hand up. (Reema / 19 / Female)
Reema gives an insight to her inner fears through admitting she is scared of saying
the wrong answer, feeling like an idiot and being stupid. Evidently, she lacks confidence
in her abilities to participate in seminars. But deeper than this, she displays a fear of failure.
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This fear may be related to judgment from others. She alludes to this earlier in the interview,
when she described her feelings during an experience of walking into the wrong seminar room:
“Just like everyone’s judging me thinking I’m stupid for being in the wrong place” (Reema /
19 / Female).
She describes a clear anticipation of negative judgement for being in the wrong place,
even though this was a simple mistake. Again, she mentions people seeing her as stupid,
suggesting she uses the behaviours of others to validate her fear of failure. This may re-affirm
Reema’s self-consciousness by convincing her to expect and fear judgment. This subsequently
controls her daily activities at university, her anxiety persuading her not to engage in seminars.
Self-consciousness was also evident in Becca, who had initial fears of judgment when
she first joined her dance society at university. Despite overcoming this, she still experiences
feelings of uncertainty:
...because I attend dance classes urm sometimes obviously you're supposed to
interact with your teacher excetera and I do feel anxious about bringing up my
ideas about moving like dancing when I'm not taught to dance? so sometimes I
feel like I have these ideas I want to show them but m like no I hate myself I
can't show anything to anyone urm so this is definitely kind of situation I feel
anxious in…(Becca / 23 / Female)
This self-consciousness surrounding her dancing suggests that she expects negative
opinions from the group. These fears restrict her creativity, as she feels anxious about bringing
up her ideas. Her interesting use of supposed to interact with her teacher suggests a desire
to fit in with norms and conventionality within her dance class. Similarly, to Reema, Becca
may experience fear of being wrong, specifically feeling unable to share her ideas as she has
not been taught to dance. This suggests a desire to fit in with norms and conventions as her
way of reducing anxiety, by reducing opportunity for judgment from her peers. She displays
an internal battle with her SA, wanting to express her true self but is restricted by self-hatred
and feeling she can’t show anything to anyone.” As well as dance classes at university, a lot
of her experiences with feeling judged are during seminars, which is where she socialises with
other psychology students the most:
No actually there were some people that I met that seemed really nice I liked
talking to them during seminars, but they all seemed to already been there
cliques in their own social groups and I was like aah I don’t belong here I don't
think they really care about talking to me outside of the seminar group… (Becca
/ 23 / Female)
Becca displays a strong desire to participate in seminars but is disabled by her SA. She
admits her fear that her peers “don’t care about talking” to her, suggesting a lack of confidence
in herself but also the need for validation from others. It seems Becca needs positive validation
for her to be able to speak in seminars. She expresses a desire to be part of a group at university,
not only through joining dance society but feeling everybody was in their own cliques that
she did feel she belonged to. Being part of a group may alleviate Becca’s fears of judgment,
feeling validated through a sense of belonging and finding people who cared about talking to
her. On the topic of seminars, Mei felt her English skills made her a target for negative
judgement from others:
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Yeah, and how to say I'm urm… I have to admit I am a sensitive person and
when I am trying to figure out something and if I can’t express this fluently, I
feel their emotions like Oh god don’t say please say it faster” like that. (Mei /
19 / Female)
She feels when she does participate in seminars, her peers are embarrassed of her for
her lack of fluency. Subsequently, this is something she worries about and causes her to
withdraw: Mmm, as I mentioned about in seminars it will influence me that not to exchange
my opinions with others (Mei / 19 / Female).
As this fear of judgment is something she frequently experiences during seminars, this
suggests she struggles with constant anxiety around not only what she says but saying it
fluently. Unlike other participants, Mei anticipates the literal thoughts of her peers such as
please say it faster. This literal interpretation of what others are thinking, as well as her
admittance of I feel their emotions suggests an over analysis of the self. She may put herself
in the shoes of her peers, looking at herself from an outsider perspective. In guessing their
thoughts and emotions towards her, she sees how they would judge her, and this subsequently
influences her not to exchange my opinions in seminars.
Shannon discussed her difficulties with making friends at the start of university I to her
fears of judgment:
...in freshers’ week I found it really hard to make friends cause like you speak
to people and you get really anxious and you’re like… like do they like me? It
just like all kind of goes through and I’d just like kind of be like oh no I don't
wanna o out with them again cause I don't ’now if they actually like me … it's
hard to like go out and like make friends when you feel anxious cause you’re
not really yourself cause you’re like reserved and tryna like… keep yourself
back a little bit cause you’re like conscious of like how they're gonna think of
you. (Shannon / 18 / Female)
Shannon displays a clear lack of confidence and an uncertainty of herself. Her constant
worries of do they like me and I don’t know if they actually like me suggests a desire for
acceptance from her peers is vital for her self-worth. This internal dialogue manifests itself into
reality, creating a world of isolation for Shannon as her anxiety convinces her that her fears are
true. When she does socialise, she portrays a more reserved version of herself, keeping
yourself back a little bit. This is due to a fear of judgment of her true self. Shannon’s fears
create a vicious cycle, avoiding social events at university through fears of judgment which
may ultimately make these fears more prominent as she sinks into self-isolation. In doing this,
it may have come across that she herself did not like her peers. In turn they may avoid asking
her to future social events. Her fear of judgment is isolating, and evidently damaging to her
social experience at university.
Avoiding Reality
The second superordinate theme identified was Avoiding Reality. Participants
discussed a wide variety of coping strategies, most of which involved avoiding the reality of
their SA. These were behaviours or patterns of thinking that enabled participants to deal with
their anxiety to an extent where they felt more able to function in social environments. Two
subordinate themes emerged; self-isolation and altered self-portrayal.
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Self-Isolation
Self-isolation was distinct from the theme loneliness in the midst of plenty, as five
participants discussed experiences of deliberate self-isolation related to coping with their
anxieties. For Max, this was heavily influenced by feelings of rejection from his peers. This
stemmed from an early experience of rejection from a friendship group, which resulted in him
learning to accept and feel comfortable with being alone. This has followed him to university,
as he isolates himself upon sensing rejection from others, such as his housemates:
I try to talk with them when we are in the kitchen like small talk… but... I find
it difficult to start opening like hey how was your day,” maybe he is kind of
like good,” and that’s it there is no connection being like I want to talk with
you longer (...) I can see that and I'm like okay if he doesn't want to talk then
that's okay but when I see that he wants to talk... I’m... being passive aggressive
sometimes? And try to be like I don't want to talk with you...I'm not saying that,
I'm just showing that I don't want to talk I don't know how to talk about this
subject or today. (Max / 20 / Male)
Max presents juxtaposing behaviours. Although he makes attempts at small talk, he
seems content with the lack of reciprocity shown by his flatmate, becoming anxious and
defensive when this changes. In this sense, initiating conversations may be an attempt to control
his image and alleviate his anxiety. If he is seen to try to socialise, it reduces his fears f being
perceived as that weird guy who doesn't talk too much as he mentions later in the interview.
Furthermore, his use of passive aggression in his responses may be a defence mechanism. If he
isolates himself then he cannot be hurt by potential social rejection that he often feels, for
example, from his flatmates as he mentions feeling they do not want to talk to him. An
experience unique to Max was his use of substances to mitigate his anxiety. He goes outside to
designated smoking areas as a strategy for self-isolation when he feels anxious in social
situations:
Usually I’m smoking not everybody smokes in my group of friends so if we are
inside and I feel nervous or anything I’m going outside like I'm going for a
smoke and then I’m trying to relax and breathe like okay let's calm down take
it easy you're not going to die so that’s like... either one or two cigarettes back
to back thats a bad thing I know but like that’s what helps me. It's not a good
thing but it helps me. So, smoking. (Max / 20 / Male)
Ironically, smoking allows him some ‘breathing space’ when he begins to feel socially
anxious. It is interesting that Max feels he needs to smoke to be alone, as this suggests he uses
this as a cover, so others do not perceive him as socially anxious. Again, he attempts to take
back control from his SA. This may be the case particularly as he has a fear of judgment from
his peers. He displays an awareness of the negative effects this coping mechanism can have,
suggesting in his desperation to control his anxiety he is willing to risk his health.
This physical escapism was also utilised by Shannon. However, for her this often
resulted in total avoidance rather than just a few minutes of isolation. She describes avoidance
of social situations, both recreational and her university lectures:
... I just kind of like for me I'm just like I just wanna get out of that situation so
I’ll just leave normally… so like… if like if I’m out with people and I’m like
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not really feeling it and I start to feel anxious I’ll just go home… cause it’s like
I just don't wanna deal with this right now. (Shannon / 18 / Female)
So, I won't… I'll feel anxious about a situation but I won’t like act on it whereas
once a month I'd probably be like oh I feel anxious Im just not gonna do this
I'm not going into the next lecture I'm gonna go home um… (Shannon / 18 /
Female)
Shannon displays not only physical but emotional avoidance to cope with her SA, not
wanting to deal with it. She may feel that by physically avoiding the issue, such as an
uncomfortable social setting or lecture, she avoids the emotional stress inherent to SA. This is
suggestive of avoidance coping, avoiding any thoughts or feelings that might make her
uncomfortable or worsen her anxiety. Perhaps her SA is not something she is ready to face,
subsequently avoiding reality.
For Mei, self-isolation was the largest theme from her interview. She describes her self-
isolation as a defence mechanism from the negativity of others:
Yeah urm… like I don’t know studying abroad sometimes you will have
homesick? And sometimes you can when you feel like another's feelings if… if
someone is unkind for you want to how to say reject outside and reject to go
out of your room reject to have a chat with others… like isolate… it sounds like
a way of protecting yourself. (Mei / 19 / Female)
Self-isolation is a way of rejecting the realities of her SA by retreating to her room as a
safe space. It may be that due to her SA, Mei is particularly sensitive to the behaviours of others
and self isolates rather than addressing her sensitivities, again avoiding reality. Mei’s behaviour
contrasts from other participants in that self-isolation is her only coping strategy for her SA.
This self-isolation could also be a result of loneliness, as she notes that studying abroad can
make her homesick. If she feels cut off from the familiarity of her friends and family, this
may result in further self-isolation:
Mmm as I mentioned about in seminars it will influence me that not to
exchange my opinions with others and I know… how to say like in my past
study experience in my home country… it… my teachers they just encourage
students to do your own work your own coursework to finish by yourself don’t
communicate with others so when I come here it's a new system I need to
familiar? Familiarise myself… Learn how to cooperate with others and practise
the skill that… cooperate with others. (Mei / 19 / Female)
Mei seems to have a strong subconscious desire for familiarity. As she experiences
homesickness and her schooling experience encouraged her not to communicate with
others, self-isolation is her only coping mechanism as it allows her to avoid her new reality.
Isolating herself may be an attempt to find a sense of familiarity in an unfamiliar world.
When asked about how she copes with her SA at university, Isabelle also displayed
tendencies to self-isolate:
Erm… I try to stay in my room a lot but also… if there’s something on TV I’ll
try and watch it downstairs with everyone and kind of force myself to cook with
everyone force myself to watch TV with everyone erm… I try not to stay in my
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room for activities like that but also, we’re kind of in the same boat and we all
appreciate that we need our own time so. (Isabelle / 18 / Female)
She admits that she likes to be in her room a lot and must force herself to socialise
with her flatmates, suggesting a preference for being alone rather than feeling lonely. The use
of force before every social activity suggests an attempt to overcome her SA, conforming to
the role of a university student by appearing social and outgoing. Joining the art society at
university is described as another attempt to push herself out of self-isolation, however this is
often in vain:
Like societies and things I've been trying to push myself trying to go to art
society every week doesn't really work out cause I kind of just go sit on my own
do my own thing… (Isabelle / 18 / Female)
Similarly, to Max, Isabelle displays conflicting behaviours of joining an art club as an
attempt to socialise, but also wanting to sit alone. She gravitates towards her comfort zone of
self-isolation, as this is presumably what lessens her anxiety. Again, this seems a form of
emotional as well as physical escapism. As aforementioned, this may also be the result of her
feeling like an outsider in her society. If she isolates herself, she does not have to deal with
painful rejection from others or feelings of extreme anxiety. For Isabelle, isolation is the easiest
coping strategy and avoids her dealing with reality.
Escapism was frequently used as a coping mechanism for SA around university for
Becca. Becca’s social avoidance strategies were unique, in that they are solely
emotional/mental rather than physical:
And also, I guess that's why I'm also an escapist person so I would have whole
world in my head and stuff so I would always think about those things when
trying to ignore the upsetting parts so that would be my escape. (Becca / 23 /
Female)
I was anxious just completely shut myself off from the real life and I just escape
to movies and games and stuff… (Becca / 23 / Female)
Urm… so escapism is one I started to think about like stories I like characters I
like games I like…and just kind of not think about the situation that is
happening around me… (Becca / 23 / Female)
Arguably, this presents a more extreme form of social avoidance. Becca’s mental
escapism represents an avoidance of emotional processing of her anxiety. She does show an
awareness of this, ignore the upsetting parts’ and ‘not think about the situation. This is
suggestive that even though SA is something she experienced since early adolescence; it is not
something she is ready to deal with. Perhaps Becca’s world in her head involves a version of
herself without SA, who can be confident and sociable. The characters I like may be alternate
versions of herself or represent a self she desires to be. Like Mei, this isolation gives her a sense
of familiarity that she finds comfort in, as she has been an escapist person since early
adolescence. This mental escapism represents for her an idealised world, alleviating her SA
through not dealing with her SA in the real world.
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Altered Self-Portrayal
All participants described methods of coping with and alleviating their SA. For those
who did not utilise physical or emotional avoidance behaviours, altering their demeanour
seemed vital in facilitating a sense of normality and coping with university. For Alesha, she
described using a confident facade in social situations at university:
I think that’s like… how do I say it… like a barrier? Like I said I’m still waiting
for that day when I can wake up and it’s like I don’t care anymore super
confident you know but I think it’s just my way of not letting things get to me.
(Alesha / 18 / Female)
So, like people looking at me they might be judging me but if I put on this
confidence, it helps me not be as bothered by what they might think… yeah.
(Alesha / 18 / Female)
In this sense, she is hiding her SA by using a feigned confidence to help cope with her
life at university. This is furthered by her still waiting for when she can “wake up and it’s like
I don’t care anymore,” suggesting she cares deeply about others’ judgments of her and uses
confidence to combat this anxiety. It is interesting that this contrasts with other physical and
emotional avoidance, as she uses a confident facade as a barrier to face her anxiety head on.
This act of confidence may be her way of creating an alternate sense of self who absorbs her
fears and anxieties, protecting her true self from emotional trauma and hence avoiding reality:
Holly alters her self-portrayal to hide her SA when communicating with others.
Yeah so I just sort of try to stay as calm as I can and I probably talk a little bit
more or go off topic when I'm trying to emphasise or I struggle with eye contact
as well that makes me feel nervous so if I am feeling nervous I’ll over emphasise
making eye contact to make the person think I'm not nervous but yeah I think
that's about it really. (Holly / 27 / Female)
Like Alesha, these subtle changes in her behaviour seem to be a way of her portraying
confidence, Holly will overemphasise making eye contact and talk a little bit more.
However, this does not seem to be with a goal of creating a barrier or blocking her anxiety.
This suggests an attempt to manipulate the perceptions of others, to make the person think
I’m not nervous.” Holly can avoid the reality of her SA by presenting an alternate version of
herself, controlling how her peers at university see her.
Similarly, when asked how he copes with his anxiety at university, Max described using
humour to put on a confident façade: I don't know making jokes and sarcasm. That's the best
defence mechanism when it comes to social anxiety. Jokes and sarcasm. Just that (Max / 20 /
Male). He uses humour as a defence mechanism to portray a more confident self. As with
Alesha, this confident demeanour may act as a barrier or defence to the negative opinions of
others. This may also be a further attempt by Max to regain control of his SA, to fit in with his
university peers and control their perceptions of him. It is interesting that he mentions ‘jokes
and sarcasm’ twice and ends with “just that, suggesting humour is something he heavily relies
on when creating this altered self-portrayal. As with Alesha and Holly, he avoids the reality of
his anxiety by putting on an act of a more confident and socially competent Max. This is further
evidenced in his use of alcohol in social environments, which he needs to be able to open up to
people:
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Yeah in certain situations if I'm with my friends from [country in Europe] I
know how to be the talkative guy if it's in [town in England] in some instances
I need alcohol to say some things so like Hey...I really appreciate you talking
with me and being my friend, otherwise I can't say that… (Max / 20 / Male)
That’s with alcohol everything is with alcohol because in a social environment
that’s what brings people together to a certain point. (Max / 20 / Male)
Like humor, Max appears to use alcohol as a tool to portray an altered self. As he claims
alcohol brings people together, he may use this not only to become more confident and open,
but to fit in at university. This is made evident by him becoming dependent on it in certain
situations when he is not with his friends from home. Interestingly he alludes to having two
versions of himself, the talkative guy when he is around his friends from home but becoming
shy and less confident at university. His suggestion that he needs alcohol “otherwise I can’t
say that suggests a heavy dependence to socially interact. This fits with his dependence on
humour, painting a picture of Max being dependent on humour and alcohol to facilitate his
confident university persona.
Discussion
The present study set out to explore how a small sample of undergraduates experienced
feelings of SA whilst at university. Analysis revealed five superordinate themes capturing the
widespread and varied experiences of participants, two of which were presented in the results
section: Persistent self-consciousness (comprising patterns of overthinking and expecting
and fearing judgment) and Avoiding Reality (including altered self-portrayal and self-
isolation). These findings will now be discussed in turn.
Persistent Self-Consciousness
Patterns of Overthinking
The subordinate theme patterns of overthinking exemplified the anticipatory and
post-event processing experienced by participants. Specifically, these patterns of overthinking
included catastrophizing, rumination, and personalization. This is consistent with Clark and
Wells’ (1995) model of SA, as these cognitive biases maintain the cycle of SA. Participants
poor self-image kick-started this process, leading to increased perceptions of social danger
and heightened self-consciousness. These social dangers included interpersonal rejection as
well as negative opinions and attitudes from others.
The most prominent effect of overthinking appeared to be the impact on interpersonal
relationships, with most participants forming very few or no meaningful relationships at
university. Anticipatory and post-event processing prevented participants from conversing or
made social interactions difficult, as well as their sociometer creating false positive social
threats. Participants’ frequent post-event processing of social interactions reflects findings of
poor self-performance ratings following social interaction (e.g., Thompson et al., 2019).
Subsequently, it may be that this excessive rumination of past interactions can damage future
relationships by reinstating their social fears, as well as contributing to a negative self-image.
More specifically, Max’s inability to form romantic connections due to his catastrophizing is
not uncommon amongst SAS (Juretić, 2018). His fears of rejection from admitting his romantic
feelings to a girl at university ultimately resulted in emotional suppression, consistent with
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Juretić (2018). As this was unique to Max, more qualitative research into the effects of SA on
romantic relationships in student populations is needed.
Expecting and Fearing Judgment
Expecting and fearing judgement was experienced by all participants. Again,
experiences were consistent with Clark and Wells’ (1995) cognitive model, as participants’
self-image created fears of judgment and devaluation. This theme also reflects Leary and
Jongman-Sereno’s (2014) sociometer, as participants’ fears of judgment were persistent and
often unfounded. As a major contributor to self-consciousness in most participants, these fears
were consistent with literature on commonly feared situations for students. This included
attending social events, interactions with strangers and class participation as they all involve
potential social evaluation from others. Indeed, asking for support from staff for some
participants was difficult due to these fears, consistent with Mesa et al.’s (2014) findings. Both
participants’ fears of judgment during class participations and of interacting with academic
staff appeared to create a toxic situation whereby potential academic failure became more
likely. This is in line with Brook and Willoughby’s (2015) conclusion that SA students struggle
with the constant cycle of interaction and evaluation.
Interestingly, participants displayed conflicting attitudes towards seminars. For some,
these were often more intimidating due to close group work where they felt judged. Brook and
Willoughby (2015) noted that SAS struggle with the structure of university which is consistent
with participant experiences of fearing both crowded environments such as lectures, but also
more intimate settings such as seminars where approaching, interacting, and being evaluated
by others is more likely. Again, participants displayed potential for academic disengagement.
This apprehension of judgment in lectures and seminars materialized into a preoccupation with
these feelings, causing withdrawal. The negative implication is that participants’ social fears
have the potential to cause impairments in capacity to succeed academically at university
through their fears of participating in academic activities (e.g., Gren-Landell et al., 2009).
Avoiding Reality
Altered Self-Portrayal
Altered self-portrayal fits into Clark and Wells’ (1995) outline of safety behaviours
to combat perceived social danger, specifically impression management. Alcohol use was
mentioned by Max to reduce his anxiety and to portray an alternate version of himself, more
confident and talkative. Although sparse in the present study, this is consistent with prior
findings into SAS and alcohol (e.g., Buckner & Heimberg, 2016; Villarosa-Hurlocker et al.,
2020).
Self-Isolation
Self-isolation is consistent with Clark and Wells’ (1995) outline of safety behaviours
but specifically operates as a behavioural avoidance strategy (Clark & Wells, 1995; Picirillo et
al., 2016), with both academic and interpersonal repercussions for participants. Participants
described having few or no meaningful relationships at university, consistent with avoidance
strategies resulting in fewer friendships in SAS. Like Chow et al. (2017), self-isolation often
resulted from negative social experiences such as rejection, a safety behaviour to
simultaneously reduce anxiety and avoid further negative encounters.
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A key underlying issue of potential academic disengagement was apparent.
Participants’ self-isolation caused reductions in academic engagement on days when their SA
worsened. Their avoidance of crowded environments such as lectures may also increase the
likelihood of poor academic achievement (e.g., Akram et al., 2016). Again, participants’
experiences support both Clarke and Fox’s (2017) findings that social avoidance is a primary
coping method in students, and Russell and Topham (2012)’s description of students leaving
academic environments as the social anxiety becomes overwhelming. Interestingly, Becca was
the only participant to mention mental escapism as a coping strategy through retreating to her
own world with movies and video games (e.g., Kardefelt-Winther, 2014). Such coping
strategies (i.e., experiential avoidance; Hayes et al., 2006) have been shown ironically to
increase levels of social anxiety, leading to more avoidance, and then higher social anxiety and
so on (e.g., Asher et al., 2021).
Implications
The present study has some important implications. Firstly, these findings are important
within the discussion of how SA is recognised within universities. Russell and Topham (2012)
found students were reluctant to seek help as SA was unrecognised and invisible. It seems that
Universities can become “toxic environments” (Russell & Shaw, 2009, p. 205), where students
experience distress from the conflict of a desire to experience university and achieve success
but find the environment distressing due to the overarching focus on social activities,
particularly on large campuses (Shah & Kataria, 2010). Effective strategies for supporting
undergraduates with SA could include support groups or peer mentoring to create a community
who can share their experiences and worries.
Limitations and Future Directions
There are some limitations of the present study. First, the sample, while homogenous
(as appropriate, for IPA), did not adequately represent males (n = 1, in the present study): this
is problematic given the documented sex differences that have been observed when it comes
to the expression of social anxiety (e.g., Jalnapurkar et al., 2018). Relatedly, the findings may
not capture adequately, the SA experiences of other student groups. For example, discussions
of the association between alcohol consumption and social anxiety in the present paper, may
be less applicable to students who are not permitted to consume alcohol for religious or other
moral beliefs. It is important, therefore, for future research to explore SA among other
demographic groups that may not have been adequately captured in the present paper, to further
explore possible idiographic gender, social, cultural, economic, and sexual orientation nuances
in how SA is experienced, and the impact of SA, at university. Finally, one construct ripe for
exploration with an IPA approach is the potential role of social comparison in negative
emotions and the lived experience of those who struggle with social anxiety daily. Indeed,
Goodman et al. (2021, p. 485) found, in one of two experiential sampling studies, that students
with SA who reported higher levels of negative emotions “…draw potentially problematic
social comparisons throughout their daily lives, characterized by relatively unfavorable and
unstable self-views” and that when they do this “…they are especially fearful of others’ social
evaluations”.
Overall, the present study found participants experienced feelings of SA that were
persistent and disruptive to their lives at university. Their social fears created difficulty in social
and academic contexts, often resulting in negative self-concepts and generally poor emotional
experiences. Findings are largely consistent with previous theory and research, not only in
student populations but with SA generally. This includes interpersonal deficits, potential
916 The Qualitative Report 2022
academic disruption, safety behaviours to reduce anxiety, and excessive anticipatory and post-
event processing. It is interesting that even though participants were not screened for clinical
levels of SA, their self-reported experiences still largely mirrored Clark and Wells’ (1995)
cognitive model of SA. This suggests that subclinical, undiagnosed, or even moderate feelings
of social anxiety can result in functional impairments for students at university. However,
further research is required to address the gap in qualitative research into SAS. Additionally,
the nature and detail of safety behaviours employed by those with SA require further
investigation not only in student populations, but those with SA generally.
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Jennifer Lee, Daniel Waldeck, Andrew J. Holliman, Moitree Banerjee, and Ian Tyndall 919
Author Note
Jennifer Lee has a postgraduate degree in Psychology and conducted this research
during their studies.
Daniel Waldeck, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Coventry University,
with expertise in applied psychology and psychological research methods. Please direct
correspondence to ac8416@coventry.ac.uk.
Andrew Holliman, Ph.D., is Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL Institute of Education,
with expertise in the psychology of education, teaching and learning in higher education, and
the development of children’s literacy.
Moitree Banerjee, Ph.D., is Head of Psychology at the University of Chichester, with
expertise in qualitative research methods and mindfulness.
Ian Tyndall, Ph.D., is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Chichester, with
expertise in cognitive psychology and the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model.
Copyright 2022: Jennifer Lee, Daniel Waldeck, Andrew J. Holliman, Moitree Banerjee,
Ian Tyndall, and Nova Southeastern University.
Article Citation
Lee, J., Waldeck, D., Holliman, A. J., Banerjee, M., & Tyndall, I. (2022). Feeling socially
anxious at university: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. The Qualitative
Report, 27(4), 897-919. https://doi.org/10.46743/2160-3715/2022.5270
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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