Brock PhD candidate studies social anxiety

Tina Brook, a Psychology PHD student at Brock focusing on Lifespan Development, has been conducting research to examine the impacts of social anxiety on students, particularly in a university context.

Brook has been working on social anxiety at Brock University for several years under the supervision of Professor Teena Willoughby. Her initial study examined the impact of social anxiety on academics, and she is now preparing further research that looks more at groups of people with social anxiety, and their approaches to coping and adaptive behaviour. Both of these studies have contributed to knowledge about how social anxiety impacts university students.

“In the first study, I was looking at social anxiety and academics,” said Brook. “In this research, I am looking at groups of people with social anxiety. I found a group of socially anxious people who drank a lot less than another group that drank a lot more. I looked to see what was associated with these two groups.”

Brook’s first study has been published, and she is currently in the process of preparing the second study for submission to a journal. Both studies were informed by data collected during the Stressed @ Brock study conducted with Brock students in 2010. Brook briefly explained the conclusions that she drew from the initial study, which focused around academic performance.

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“Social anxiety did have a relationship with academics, with their actual year-end grades. The more social anxiety you have, the more likely you are to have low grades,” Brook said. “There is an indirect effect… if you are socially anxious, and you happen to have social ties, you will more likely do better than those who do not have social ties.”

Brook’s initial research demonstrates the struggles that people suffering from social anxiety face in an academic context. The research also shows the importance of having available resources and support systems to assist with these struggles. Brook explained that the implications of her research are particularly relevant to the Brock population.

“About 15 per cent of the people in our population of Brock students that we assessed are just below clinical levels of social anxiety” Brook said. “So they’re pretty socially anxious from my perspective.”
Considering the large presence of social anxiety amongst Brock students, Brook suggests that understanding the way that social anxiety works, and the struggles that come with it, is particularly important for members of the Brock community.

Expanding on her initial research, Brook’s more recent study is focused around different groups of socially anxious people, and challenges preconceptions of socially anxious people as a homogeneous group, or a group of identical types of people. Brook looked specifically at two groups of socially anxious people – one of which drank more a lot more alcohol than the other – in order to examine the differences between these two groups. Brook associated drinking behaviour with adaptive behaviour and coping mechanisms.

“Those that drank a lot less had a lot better adaptive behaviour. They did better in class, they were also participating in Brock clubs and clubs outside of Brock.” Brook said. “I found the other group was not adapting as well… when they feel, for instance, stressed or angry or numb, they tend to cope with that by self-medicating… they drink, or they smoke marijuana. The other thing they do, they also self-injure. This was a type of reaction that no other group I looked at did.”

Brook said that one of the key conclusions she drew from this second study was the implication that there is a lot of variance in terms of how different groups of socially anxious people cope and function with the challenges they face.

“There is some heterogeneity in people who have social anxiety” Brook said. “I’m not saying that anybody with social anxiety doesn’t still have to cope with all of the things that come out of it. It’s very hard for them to adapt… it’s very stressful for them. But people cope in different ways.”

Brook said that socially anxious people are sometimes treated as if they encounter a sort of universal experience and can all be looked at the same way. She said that, while there are a lot of similarities in terms of experiences and situation, her research demonstrates how there are also substantial differences between individual experiences of social anxiety, at least on the level of coping mechanisms.

One of the most concrete applications for Brook’s research is its relevance to counsellors with socially anxious patients.

“This group is not homogeneous […] counsellors need to be aware that, if somebody is socially anxious, you need understand how they are coping with that” she said. “I’m not a clinician, but I would assume that’s likely where that is heading.”

More information about Psychology graduate research at Brock is located on the Psychology department’s website.

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