Less than an hour after stepping foot onto my university campus for the first time, I was expected to remember the names of the thirty-or-so other freshman I’d been grouped with for a tour. I’d never see any of them again after orientation, but knowing names- and hopefully the people behind them- was the most important key to surviving and enjoying the first year of college, or so I was told.
From the moment I graduated high school, friends and family drilled into my head that college would be the best four years of my life. I’d go to parties, make tons of friends, and get started on a career, all while pursuing a degree. This seemed to be the kind of life all of the other students were living. Between lectures and group projects I scheduled date nights, coffee meetups, and weekend trips home to visit my family and have a bedroom to myself. This was the first time in my life having a roommate, which was required for all freshman living in the dorms. We shared our suite with six other girls and our hallway with another 50. The dining commons was packed at all hours with students grabbing a bite to eat with friends. Living on a college campus meant that I was never- never- alone.
Having time to myself was a privilege I had taken for granted. Suddenly I was surrounded by voices from all sides- some being friends, but most were not. Instead, they were opinions, judgements, and comparisons that I didn’t need to pay attention to. They were a useless chatter that caused more unnecessary anxiety than I care to admit. The extra stress made me irritable and fatigued, making the smallest tasks harder and harder each day. Between making friends, joining clubs, and all of the other social activities I thought I was supposed to do, my mental capacity for school diminished. Luckily, I was able to recover my grades by the end of the semester, but not without increased anxiety, stress, and fatigue.
Being around others for the majority of every day was especially draining for an ambivert like myself. An ambivert is someone who falls in the middle of the spectrum between introversion and extroversion. They need a balance of time with others and by themselves to thrive. I wasn’t giving myself that time alone that I knew I needed, which made the rest of my time with others not nearly as enjoyable as it could be. Since the social aspect of college is what makes it such a fun time in one’s life, I knew I was missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To gain back the inner peace I had lost through the stress, I took out my calendar and penciled in some time for myself.
Child development researcher and author Kenneth H. Rubin, acknowledges that while solitude is an important tool for finding peace and self-exploration, it is only effective as a part of one’s life, not the entirety of it. He uses a checklist of “ifs” to determine when solitude is a healthy addition to a person’s life: if one voluntarily chooses to spend time alone, if one can join a social group when they want to, if one can regulate their own emotions effectively (knowing several coping mechanisms, for example), and if one can maintain positive relationships with others, solitude can be an enlightening experience of creativity and peace (Rubin, 2013).
Knowing that I was safe to seek solitude, I tried to get away from the crowds on campus. I sought out little known study spots and cozy corners of the dining commons. Even though I quickly got comfortable with doing things by myself, I didn’t feel the peace that should come from solitude. I just felt alone in a crowd. It wasn’t enough to do activities alone, I needed to be around no people whatsoever. That included anyone who could contact me, including those on my phone or my Facebook page. Whatever I needed to do, I needed to do it completely alone.
Having time alone is especially valuable for those like me who struggle with mental illnesses such as anxiety. According to psychologist and professor Peter Suedfeld (1982), psychologists have known for decades that solitude is one of the best protectors against overstimulation. In today’s busy world it’s easier than ever to get overwhelmed between updating countless social media accounts and still being social in person. Technology has connected the world and given us many shortcuts in communication, “but it is also taking away our ability to be alone” (Deresiewicz, 2009).
This time, I put away the phone. I cut contact with any and all people for about an hour, and for the first time since entering college, I felt at peace. There was no one telling me what to do or how to think and I was completely free from judgements and opinions that weren’t my own. I could finally spend time the way I needed to in order to help myself stay grounded and that it greatly helped with calming my anxiety. Not only was I avoiding overstimulation, but I was escaping from everyone else’s efforts to “stop” my anxiety, as if it could simply be stopped. While they often meant well, friends and acquaintances who tried to calm me often just made the situation worse. They would tell me a thousand times to stop worrying or ask every two minutes if I was feeling better yet. The constant pressure of being watched when under severe stress did not help in the slightest way, but telling them this only made them want to try harder to make me feel okay again.
When I was completely alone, however, there was no pressure to feel a certain way. I could cry, panic, or scream if I needed to, or I could take my time trying to find out what would actually help me feel calm. I did not need to listen to other people’s stories about times when they were stressed or go through the motions of trying to convince them that I’m okay. I could just be me, however I am in that moment.
Deresiewicz, W. (2009). The End of Solitude. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Rubin, K. H. (2013). The handbook of solitude: psychological perspectives on social isolation, social withdrawal, and being alone. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell.
Suedfeld, P. (1982). Aloneness as a healing experience. In L.A.Peplau and D.Perlman (eds), Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research, and therapy. New York: Wiley and Sons, pp. 54–67.