Students study in the library

Students fill seats in a computer room in the Pattee Library on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 in University Park, Pa.

When Penn State student Casey Diehl was a child, he said his parents noticed he would rarely look others in the eyes, and he struggled to hold a conversation.

As Diehl (senior-material science and engineering) grew up, he said the fear of engaging in conversation turned into constant worry of what people were saying or thinking about him.

During his freshman year of college, Diehl said he was diagnosed with social anxiety.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social anxiety disorder causes a person to fear either specific or all social interactions.

Similarly to how Diehl felt, social anxiety comes with possible feelings of humiliation, judgment and rejection, according to the NIMH.

“You can’t really turn it off,” Diehl said. “What I’ve been working on the past couple of months is just exposing myself to those situations and trying to tolerate the discomfort.”

Although social anxiety is common, it doesn’t have an exact proven cause, according to the NIMH, though it is thought to be caused by differing brain structures, inherited traits and environmental impacts.

When Diehl was first diagnosed with social anxiety, he said he didn’t know what it was until he started researching it.

“It’s not just shyness,” Diehl said. “There’s a lot more to it than that.”

Diehl said when the discomfort of social situations becomes too much, he experiences symptoms, such as blushing and increased heart rate.

Some other common symptoms include sweating, nausea, rigid posture, staying away from areas with people and constantly feeling self-conscious.

If someone were to notice another person struggling with a social interaction, Diehl said he urges students to take a step back and let the person find comfort in the interaction.

“Don’t point things out. Let them take their time talking to you,” Diehl said. “If they’re pacing around, let them pace around. If they are having trouble looking you in the eye, don’t force them to do anything.”

As Olivia Cavallaro transitioned into college life, she said it wasn’t her first time finding ways to cope with her anxiety.

Cavallaro (freshman-psychology) said because students normally live with only one roommate, putting yourself out there is necessary but hard.

“You have to create this whole new identity because you’re not with the people you were with for four years,” Cavallaro said.

Cavallaro said she’s been focusing on reinventing herself to ensure she’s authentic when she meets new people.

When Cavallaro goes to meet someone new, she said she notices her anxiety acting up when her hands start to shake, but it doesn’t stop her from being herself.

“I want to make sure that I’m not trying to be someone that I’m not — that way I can connect with other people better,” Cavallaro said.

Cavallaro said she relies on her small friend group and her therapist to help “guide the way” to coping with her anxiety.

“There are outlets everywhere,” Cavallaro said. “People just need to branch out and try to find the help they need.”

During her first in-person classes, Summer Clausen said she noticed one phrase triggering her anxiety — “turn to the person sitting next to you.”

When instructors tell Clausen (sophomore-health policy and administration) to participate in group work, she said her anxiety begins to act up because she hopes she doesn’t say the wrong thing to her classmate.

“The forced interaction is not fun,” Clausen said. “Sometimes, I just have to force myself to participate and go to classes.”

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Clausen said she wishes people would be “more open” with each other because she understands everyone is struggling in their own ways.

As a freshman, Chloe Kondracki said social interaction feels “weird,” and because of the pandemic, it’s gotten harder for students.

Kondracki (freshman-pharmacology and toxicology) said she’s from Maryland and knew no one when she arrived at Penn State.

“I know I’m not the only out-of-state student who doesn’t know anyone here, but for me, it’s so much harder to go out and meet people,” Kondracki said. “I look at all my friends from back home who go to the same university, and they don’t need to worry about this.”

Kondracki said she tries to avoid thinking about her family and friends because she becomes overwhelmed with homesickness.

“I constantly worry that if I don’t meet people, I will have to be by myself all the time,” Kondracki said. “I have to make myself go out — otherwise I won’t meet anybody.”

Since Penn State’s fall semester has been in session for less than a month, Kondracki said she isn’t worried about not finding many close friends yet because she was told in a normal year, it may take a few months to meet the right people.

Kondracki said she knows she’s not alone in struggling to socialize with others.

Because of the pandemic, Kondracki said students are coping with a “loss of social skills,” making it harder to interact with others.

After the first home football game on Saturday, Kondracki said her friends wanted to celebrate the win, but her “social battery was running low.”

Kondracki said she ended up staying in while her friends went out.

“Forcing yourself to be social when you don’t feel like being social will just make you feel worse,” Kondracki said.

Kondracki said she wants social anxiety to be normalized because it’s not something people can get rid of.

“It’s not your fault,” Kondracki said. “That’s how your mind is working, and you didn’t choose it.”

After traveling almost 8,000 miles from home, Shafa Siddiqua said she knew there would be a lot of adjustments, but her first fear was that everyone knew at least one other person.

Siddiqua (freshman-management information systems) said as an international student coming from Bangladesh, she was “mentally prepared” for being “underestimated” and “misunderstood.”

Siddiqua said there’s a certain “label” placed on international students — people are nice to her but rarely approach her.

Since talking to some of her international friends who attend West Virginia University, Siddiqua said they haven’t made a single friend there.

“My one friend was told, ‘F--- brown people. I f---ing hate brown people,’ and it scared me,” Siddiqua said. “In my country, I’m not a minority, but here, I am.”

Siddiqua said no one at Penn State has treated her like this, but there still seems to be some barriers when it comes to social interaction.

“I’ve met people to talk to and do things — like go to the gym with — I don’t feel alone all the time,” Siddiqua said. “I can blend in.”

When it comes to being an international student, Siddiqua said many feel “left out.”

“People are normally nice and respectful, but you can see on their faces that they don’t want to talk to you,” Siddiqua said.

Siddiqua said she doesn’t see it as students being “racist,” but she said she believes American students avoid communicating with international students.

“Everyone is very within themselves,” Siddiqua said. “Sometimes, even just a ‘hi’ would be great, but no one is interacting with anyone.”

If students feel as though no one is approaching them, Siddiqua said she would encourage the student to make the first move.

“People need to let go of their assumptions, so we can approach everyone — American or not,” Siddiqua said. “If people let go of their inherent bias, I think [we] would be better off.”

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