By Linus Streckfus, MA, LPC Associate, NCC
Supervised by Travis Sebera, LPC-S
The very nature of going to college can be isolating. New college students face a number of emotional and physical hurdles—they’re often separated from friends and family for the first time, in an unfamiliar place, and forced into new routines that require steep learning curves. As a result, coping with isolation as a college student is a familiar topic for college aged clients in therapy.
Plus, college students are usually on restricted budgets, with tight schedules and academic deadlines, which doesn’t leave them with a whole lot of time or resources to go out and make new friends.
Add to these evergreen issues the current situation we all find ourselves in—a global pandemic—and the sense of restriction, isolation, and loneliness many college students experience can be nothing short of overwhelming.
There are some strategies college students can use to help manage their stress and anxiety, and we’ll get to those in a moment, but it’s just as important to talk about what behaviors they shouldn’t rely on.
Especially during the pandemic, social media has become not only an escape for many of us, but a way to cultivate a feeling of connectedness to others—or so we might think.
While social media may help us stay in touch with certain friends, family members, and other members of our extended social circle, it’s no replacement for in-person connection. Social researchers have found that social media can actually have the opposite effect.
When the digital world becomes the destination, social media is more likely, in fact, to cause misery.
Social media can set us up for self-judgment and social comparison, especially because it tends to create a skewed, idealistic presentation of people’s lives.
WHAT DOES SOCIAL ISOLATION LOOK LIKE?
The experience of social isolation is amply represented in world literature. For instance, in La mort d’Arthure, the French epic about Arthur and the Knight of the Round Table, when the king and queen hole themselves up in their castle and stop paying attention to their surroundings, the kingdom shrivels and dries up. These are metaphors for what happens within when we lose our social engagement.
But loneliness isn’t simply a result of not being around other people. You can be in a crowd and still feel alone. What matters most is a sense of connection to others.
Loneliness is often triggered as a result of anxiety, which is a feeling of threat or anticipation that influences your mind and physiological functioning.
A lonely student might begin isolating behavior to avoid uncomfortable, anxious feelings that arise around real-world social interactions and choices.
What’s happening is that the isolating behavior—whether classwork–related, like research, or recreational, like online gaming—becomes soothing and yet habit forming, even though completely escaping social engagement wasn’t the intention.
Such isolating behavior in college students can feel rewarding, almost like a sense of mastery. But on the other hand, interpersonal interactions can begin to trigger a sense of dread. That dread evolves into a belief that one isn’t good socially, which becomes a kind of cyclical, self-fulfilling prophecy. The result is that your experience of your social self narrows.
HOW TO MANAGE THE STRESS AND ANXIETY OF COLLEGE
If you or someone you know is struggling with social isolation, here are a few ways to ease anxiety and loneliness.
- Minimize screen time—especially social media time. That might look like scheduling time for outdoor walks, as well as scheduling time for being online. Decide how many minutes of online time you need for class meetings and schoolwork, and use that as a starting off point. Start with small changes and work your way up to spending longer amounts of time offline.
- When you’re lonely, the “friend or foe” detection part of your brain goes on high alert, making it harder to bridge the gap between stranger and acquaintance. But college students need to flex themselves socially to discover their own social sweet spot. Therefore, make a point of giving others a chance. Actively ask others about themselves, because getting people talking about their interests can be a great way to break the ice. Don’t get discouraged if bids for connection are turned down by others—stay positive and remind yourself there’s a lot going on.
- There’s one instance in which social media can truly ease loneliness, and that’s when it’s used as a kind of waystation—as a means to meeting up somewhere. Use social media to organize events and in-person get-togethers, which can lead to lower levels of loneliness.
And more than anything, be patient with yourself. It takes time, attention, and positivity to counteract what can be a hyper-vigilance for social threat. But if you stay open and continue to engage with new people, you will eventually find social connections and a sense of belonging.