Social Anxiety Among International Students
Packing, traveling to the local airport, saying goodbye to family and friends, taking off, landing, getting off the plane. The unfamiliar smell of Toronto Pearson Airport suddenly reminds you of a fact: You are in a different country now, far away from home. Besides the excitement of everything new, the anxiety of the unknown gradually starts to hit you.
On your first day of class, you realize that people speak much faster than the voices in the recording of your English textbook back in your home country, and they may have different accents, which makes it even harder for you to understand. You also start to feel more self-conscious about your own English and worry about making a fool of yourself. In order to feel more comfortable, you begin to avoid social situations that involve speaking in English.
During your break, you scroll through posts on social media and see some engineering graduates raising only their pinky finger to show the iron ring. You start to feel a bit uncomfortable as this gesture means something else in your culture. You exit social media and tell yourself: I will never be able to successfully integrate with this community.
That was me.
As an international student from mainland China, I developed social anxiety after coming to Canada due to homesickness, language barriers, and culture shock.
Being a student is hard, and being an international student is even harder. A survey from University of Alberta showed that a higher proportion of international students (25.4%) reported feeling socially isolated at the U of A in comparison to their Canadian counterparts (13.5%). Also, a study reported that international students in general rated issues such as language and social differences as much more difficult than the national students. Both of these results indicate a higher risk for international students to have social anxiety.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.
What are some common symptoms and signs of social anxiety?
- Physical (what you feel)
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Dry mouth
- Upset stomach
- Cognitive (what you think)
- Fear of embarrassment in front of others
- Wanting to make a good impression but doubting your ability to do so
- Worrying about events ahead of time
- False belief that you will be judged negatively
- Behavioural (what you do)
- Avoidance of uncomfortable situations
- Passive, withdrawn
- Apologizing excessively
- Asking for reassurance
How can I cope with social anxiety as an international student?
- Challenge your negative and anxious thoughts
For people with social anxiety, such as myself, our biggest enemy is most likely to be our inner critic. To challenge those criticisms made by ourselves, we can start by noticing the negative thoughts that automatically pop into our minds when we are at a social event, or even just thinking about one. Then, we can question the thought – where did it come from, and how do we know that it’s true? After some reflection, we will often find that most of our negative beliefs are not necessarily as true as we may assume, and we can work to replace them with kinder thoughts about ourselves. This is a long journey, but it is possible. Be patient with yourself!
- Try not to avoid social situations
Avoiding our fears may be helpful in the short run, but it can make our anxiety worse long term. In my opinion, the best way to overcome social anxiety is to be exposed to the stressor. This requires us to enter situations that may scare us, and that’s okay. Start small, with social settings that feel a bit scary but manageable for you. With more opportunities to develop our social skills we can build up confidence over time. Check out the resources section below to find some great events where you can practice your social skills!
- Change the I am a foreigner mindset
For me, most of my anxiety comes from lack of confidence in my English. In the back of my mind, I always remind myself that I am a foreigner, and my English is worse than the locals. To be less conscious about this, I also keep in mind that Canada is a country of immigrants. Speaking more than one language is an impressive skill to have, and coming from a different country brings diversity and fresh perspectives to the McMaster community. As global citizens, we should be proud of ourselves! Therefore, rather than telling myself I am a foreigner who doesn’t belong, I let myself know that I am different and that is okay.
What are some resources on campus?
- Student Wellness Centre
- SWC offers multiple modes of therapy for social anxiety, including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Research and clinical evidence have shown that CBT is an effective therapy to treat social anxiety.
- International Student Services
- International Student Services – Student Success Centre | McMaster University
- ISS offers social events specifically for international students throughout the school year. To check out the details, visit OSCARplus > Student Success Centre > Events.
- Meet your Neighbours
- International Students: Meet Your Neighbours – Student Wellness Centre (mcmaster.ca)
- SWC also offers a group for international students to virtually hang out with each other. Email the group facilitator, Zeinab, who grew up in the Kuwait and Pakistan, at email@example.com for the zoom link to join the group.
- What is Social Anxiety? | The Social Anxiety Institute
- 12 Powerful Ways to Help Overcome Social Anxiety | Psychology Today