Social anxiety disorder can make freshman year of college extra difficult.

“You want to die. Just like, for a short second you want to die. You want to not exist.”

For a typical college freshman encountering an unfamiliar group of people, thoughts that dark may seem a little blown out of proportion.

However, for those with social anxiety, that quote from Ohio University freshman Nick Dighero represents a harsh reality.

The condition, known as social anxiety disorder, is one of the most common mental health issues and affects 15 million American adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. However, it is often one of the least talked about.

Those with the condition can face challenges when entering potentially triggering situations, such as a new class on the first day of the semester or an informational club meeting.

Like many of the less-discernable disorders on the mental health spectrum, it’s easy to cover up actual symptoms with words that indicate a mere personality type, such as “shy,” “introverted” or “quiet.”

Despite that, the condition involves a great deal of real suffering often internalized by those who experience it. That makes it especially hard to cope when placed in an unfamiliar environment or being forced to connect with new people — two characteristics of the college freshman experience.

“College, I was done for,” Dighero said of his experience as a freshman. “I was still really good friends with my grade school friends. When I went to college, that’s not there anymore, obviously. So then I was, like … I died a little, you know?”

Another OU student, Maddi Rotunda, a freshman studying business, has had similar experiences with her social anxiety at college.

“I think once I make friends it’s great, but the idea of going to a completely different school and having to start over and make new friends (is) just a really terrifying feeling,” Rotunda said.

Rotunda said others would describe her as “an outgoing person on the surface,” but the thoughts and feelings she keeps bottled up as a result of her anxiety would suggest otherwise.

“I spent a lot of nights just staying up thinking ‘You really can’t get it together. You can’t make friends,’ ” she said “It was like thinking that I’m this very outgoing person, and then coming to college and realizing that I really don’t have that many friends and I’m really not good at making friends.”

The pressure put on students to instantly begin making friends and enjoying college can seem extremely daunting for the socially impaired and can worsen existing social anxiousness. For some students, being thrown into social situations with people one barely knows, a common experience during the first few weeks of college, can seem like an impossible challenge.

Dighero knows this kind of experience firsthand. On the first weekend of Fall Semester he tagged along with his roommate, whom he had just met that day, and some others from his floor.

“I was just not saying anything. I was just kind of there,” Dighero said. “I felt the awkwardness. I felt like it was awkward for them too. … I still sometimes think about how I just wouldn’t speak up. It still kind of hurts me.”

Those who suffer from the condition are able to find some comfort, however. Sometimes all students need is some common ground to start a conversation and eventually a full-fledged relationship.

Rotunda cited getting involved with campus organizations as something that’s helped her quite a bit.

“I joined a club. I know it’s super cliché … (but) joining that and meeting a lot of people who have similar interests, that was really nice,” she said.

As a business major interested in art and social activism, Rotunda said she struggled at first with relating to those within her area of study.

“But now (I’m) maybe starting to find some more people in my little niche,” she said.

Dighero pointed to his interest in music as a great starting point.

“Luckily, music saves me most of the time,” Dighero said. “I think it’s just the fact that, like, I don’t know anything about any of the people. Once I find something to connect with it’ll be OK. It’ll stem off from there.”

He said that though many of the good friendships he now maintains were started through one common interest, building off that one topic of conversation is very important in the long run.

“Obviously it’s not going to work if it’s just that one thing,” Dighero said. “You’re just going to have a bunch of mindless conversations.”

Dighero said his social anxiety has led him to believe certain things about how people connect with each other.

“I don’t believe in anything just like ‘clicking’ like that. … I feel like it should be awkward and stuff,” he said. “No matter who I meet, I feel like it could be my soul mate or whatever, or the best friend ever — I feel like those first couple encounters I’m going to be sitting there and hoping they notice me. There’s no way it’ll be easy. It never will be.”

Call him cynical and pessimistic, but he prefers the term “realist,” as someone who has faced an uphill social battle his entire life.

Rotunda, however, offers a slightly more hopeful perspective.

“I think one thing that’s important to recognize is that social anxiety is actually a very common thing,” she said. “You can’t let other people say ‘Oh, no, you don’t deal with anxiety because you’re a more vocal person than I am.’ I do deal with anxiety, and I’m learning to accept that and to work with it.”

That kind of optimism might sound a bit ridiculous from someone facing such a challenge, but in the social environment that is freshman year, sometimes the greatest ally a social anxiety sufferer can have is a positive attitude.

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There’s no cure for anxiety, and there’s certainly no cure for college — leaving students such as Dighero and Rotunda with no other option but to ignore the pounding in their chests and the shaking in their hands and to keep moving forward.

@elishively

ds967714@ohio.edu