OPINION: Socializing can wait, your mental health can’t

Students chat and enjoy dinner in small groups under a beautiful lofty tree.
Shay Suresh CM ‘24 encourages students to prioritize their mental health above incessant social interactions. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

The idiom “one step forward, two steps back” never felt so real as when I first stepped on campus. I took mental snapshots of the hundreds of students milling about in established clusters. My anxiety-ridden thoughts raced ahead of all reasoning as I observed my peers who seemed familiar with the social life I hadn’t yet acclimated to.

It was distressing to think I was already backsliding with my start to college. I wish someone had told me that it was okay to take a time out and put myself first. Social burnout is real, and students should be allowed the time to recover from its side effects.

After one year — for others even longer — spent in places other than campus, many were buoyant with excitement about the return to in-person learning. But enthusiasm for some conflicted with feelings of anxiety for others. I was on campus for the first time as a sophomore, whereas many sophomores had lived in Claremont the year prior. Understandably so, myself and others felt overdue for friends, invitations and plans. Speaking with other first-timers on campus allowed me to see through the veil of social burnout, a deceivingly invisible struggle that poses a rather harsh reality.

With our return to campus, there has been an unspoken pressure to force yourself into interactions that unavoidably deplete your energy. Many are forced to choose between alone time or situations that send their anxiety soaring. More often than not, the pressure to catch up to already-formed relationships wins out over self-supporting efforts.

Social media is another trap. Watching your finger compulsively tap through lively Instagram stories leads to an inevitable bout of social anxiety and fear of missing out. Observing your fellow peers engage in what is considered to be typical college life makes you question whether you’ve been led astray. It’s hard to tell whether you should follow someone’s lead or stay true to your own.

Be that as it may, what works for others does not always have to work for you. We should not carry the burden of conforming to social norms that feel unnatural or uncomfortable to us. Sacrificing the time you would spend to recharge to instead push for relationships isn’t worth potentially compromising your mental health.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t advise anyone to perpetually isolate themselves. The emphasis here is on balance. Do away with the ideas that being social surmounts your mental health and that prioritizing your mental well-being makes you self-indulgent.There should be no shame in carving out time for yourself. Everyone deserves a space to breathe, separate from the restless panic of socializing. You are not responsible for single-handedly keeping relationships afloat, but you are responsible for the way you spend your energy.

Check-in with yourself when you’re feeling socially or emotionally overwhelmed. After all, making space for yourself permits you to make space for others. Your self-care can be an individual endeavor or involve an outside source. There are numerous 7C options if you’re seeking therapy, as well as media resources that offer problem-solving solutions.

For some, self-care is engaging in deep breathing exercises. It’s picking up that book that’s been gathering dust in the corner of your room. Maybe it’s hitting play on that endorphin-releasing Spotify playlist, or putting on those running shoes and abandoning your ceaseless thoughts for a bit. Self-care has no face, no right or wrong answers. You define what relieves your stress and what replenishes your empty social battery.

Also, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. You are not the only person who feels disoriented by the reality of social life post-online learning. There are going to be speed bumps, but you have the tools and the resources to sail over them smoothly.

The bottom line is that socializing is great, and finding people who understand you and cherish your company is a feeling like no other — but that experience is made better by strong mental, physical and emotional well-being. I can guarantee you that the people you’re meant to find will still be out there, even if you take some time to hit pause.

Shay Suresh CM ’24 is from San Jose, California. She loves literary fiction, folk-rock music and making Pinterest boards.

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