Social anxiety is an inconvenient disorder in many situations in life, but for a student it can be especially difficult to deal with. School is a place where social interaction is not only expected but also required, where being judged and criticized by others is routine, and where struggling to cope with social situations and feedback can result in both psychological trauma and an endangerment of your future success in life.
This article will discuss the various challenges posed by school for students with social anxiety, and how to handle them.
Social Anxiety at School?
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Problems Associated With School Anxiety
Social anxiety disorder at school can be a serious problem, and often one that is self-sustaining. Below, we'll take a look at some of the reasons that people experience social anxiety at school. However, if you're looking to treat it, make sure you take my anxiety test now.
The following are some examples of both ways that people experience school anxiety and what happens if it goes untreated:
Going to Class/Absences
Having class means being in a room full of people for hours at a time, often every day. In most social situations, you are free to excuse yourself when anxiety becomes overwhelming. In school, there is generally no such allowance. Finding yourself in the position of having to lie to a teacher to escape the room and the embarrassment of publicly explaining the psychological reasons for your distress can cause even further stress and make it seem impossible to go to class the first place.
In a classroom setting an expectation of social interaction is present, whereas in most social environments where no-one knows anyone else (such as in a grocery store or at a library) the expectation of social interaction may present to a much lesser extent, if it is present at all. The stress of being around a large number of unfamiliar people actively trying to get to know one another can be intense, so much so that a person with anxiety disorder may avoid going to class whenever possible.
Not talking to anyone, avoiding class, and finding ways of leaving the room when you experience anxiety can lead to social stigmatization and not being able to keep up with the workload, which can, in turn, lead to additional stress, low grades, and even failed classes. On the other hand, going to class, staying in the room and trying to interact while you experience anxiety can lead to the same things, in addition to physical exhaustion caused by regularly experiencing the physical symptoms of stress for a prolonged period of time. That's why it's so important to reduce anxiety.
Seating in a classroom setting can be either chosen or assigned. People with anxiety may be tempted to sit in the back of the classroom in the hope of not being noticed by classmates or the center of the teacher's attention.
Unfortunately, the other people who do not wish to be noticed by the teacher and choose to sit in the back of the classroom often include people who are not committed to learning and would rather be somewhere else. Being aligned with these people in the eyes of other students can be socially damaging and make it hard to work with and learn from others who assume you don't want to work very hard.
Being aligned with them in the eyes of the teacher will make them suspicious of your commitment to learning and possibly encourage them to focus more attention on you rather than less. This can result in your being graded more harshly, and in the teacher actually trying to embarrass you in front of the class as an incentive to work harder two things that may actually drive you, as a person with an anxiety disorder, to avoid the class entirely, instead.
Going around the room for introductions at the beginning of class usually happens only once in a given class (unless a substitute teacher requires it). However, as anyone with anxiety disorder likely knows, it can be one of the most difficult of classroom experiences and can affect your comfort and participation levels not only on that day but also during the following days and perhaps for the duration of the class.
Waiting in dread as others introduce themselves for the moment when you are expected to speak and feeling your heart rate rise and your face flush as you struggle to prepare your own introduction is exceedingly uncomfortable and embarrassing, as physical symptoms of anxiety can have the effect of drawing attention to you and making it even more difficult to think or speak.
In addition, it usually means you are too distracted by your anxiety to learn others' names or backgrounds. This can lead to even more anxiety later on when you are expected to know others' names and find you can't remember a single one.
Once it is your turn to speak, the buildup of anxiety may mean that you are turning profusely red, sweating and even shaking out of nervousness. Visual symptoms of discomfort when you are trying to do a simple thing like tell others your name and where you are from, as well as being so nervous that you forget what you were going to say, stutter or mispronounce you words have the effect of marking you as different in others' eyes and making you feel alienated from the very beginning.
Overcoming your first impression may be difficult, but when have social anxiety it can be even harder to overcome your impression of others' first impression of you which may not have been as bad as it seemed to you at the time. All in all, class introductions often mean long term challenges for people with social anxiety.
Regular Class Participation
Regular class participation, usually defined by the act of raising your hand to offer opinions or answer questions, is difficult for people who suffer from social anxiety in that it involves both talking in front of others and thinking on your feet. Unfortunately it also counts for a large percentage of the final grade in most classes.
When you have social anxiety, attempting to prepare yourself to speak in front of a large group of other people involves quelling intense concerns around sounding stupid, being wrong, and also about responding to the response your question or statement may provoke, which you may also be expected to address on the spot and which you therefore cannot prepare for. All of these worries in combination lead to the conviction that you cannot speak up because you just aren't prepared to face the stress involved, even when you do have something to add to the conversation.
At the same time, being unable to participate actively can lead people to draw the kinds of negative conclusions about you that you were worried about in the first place that you are unintelligent, or that you aren't working as hard as others. Being able to see this cycle and simultaneously not being able to stop yourself from thinking the way you do has the result of compounding your embarrassment, and causing you to draw negative conclusions about yourself that further increase your anxiety and self-doubt.
Furthermore, being distracted by the anxiety caused by the conflict between your perceived inability to speak up and the teacher's and other students' expectations of you can keep you from actually hearing or learning material covered in class, leading to even further problems participating as well as difficulty in completing homework or understanding assigned readings.
Repeatedly becoming embarrassed when forced to speak up in front of the class can strengthen your association of social situations and anxiety, which means that participating can actually make your social anxiety worse if you don't have any mechanisms in place for dealing with the anxiety or calming yourself down.
Taking Tests and Quizzes
People with social anxiety will often find it difficult to focus on test or quiz questions when surrounded by other people. Tests and quizzes, like participation, are worth large percentages of the final grade, which means that doing badly on them due to anxiety can also cause you to do badly in or fail the class, especially when combined with a low participation grade.
Taking tests and quizzes also requires indirectly speaking to another person, which can cause all of the worries about negative judgments and self-doubt that come with directly speaking to another person. As a result, your mind may go blank and you find that you can't remember the information you need even if you spent time studying it. This can seem to confirm the impression you give when too anxious to talk in class that you aren't even trying to succeed, which is bad news for your grades and ultimately for your ability to get a good job and live the life you want.
Presentations are in some ways better than regular participation and in some ways worse. On the one hand, you are allowed to thoroughly prepare your words, and oftentimes have slides or other visual aids to take the focus off of you.
On the other hand, you are being graded on how well you present, which usually means eye contact, fluid speech and a relaxed attitude, all of which are near impossible to produce in front of a large group of people if you are someone who has social anxiety.
You are required to be in front of the class and are therefore subject to everyone's scrutiny, rather than somewhere in the classroom where some people can see you and others can't. Additionally, you can see everyone's reactions and posture, which, if interpreted negatively, can cause you additional stress.
In some cases, the teacher may not allow you to bring notes, which means that you may find yourself forgetting what you had to say and experiencing severe embarrassment that makes you even more anxious in front of people during regular class time then you were before.
Signs of Social Anxiety?
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Meeting with Teachers
Though meeting with teachers should be an avenue for you to use to get extra help if, for example, you miss a class or are unable to concentrate during a class and miss out on important information, it can be much harder for a person with social anxiety than teachers imagine.
Teachers often stress the fact that they are available during office hours to answer any questions that may arise outside of class. This can be helpful for people with social anxiety in that it allows them to communicate one on one rather than having to face a large group. However, it usually also means having to be prepared to answer questions on the spot, and to face criticism of in-class anxiety-driven behaviors.
Having to apologize for physical and emotional reactions that are beyond your control and knowing that they shouldn't be is humiliating and emotionally challenging. Similarly, an inability to think quickly or clearly when confronted with criticisms or offhand questions due to overwhelming concerns about how the other person is perceiving you and the adverse effects that may have on your grades can keep you from communicating effectively with teachers and worsen rather than improve your existing relationship.
Receiving Grades and Feedback
Grades and feedback may be received privately or in public. In either case, they will often trigger anxiety due to the perceived confirmation of negative judgments by others and feelings of self doubt.
Teachers may give feedback such as You're very quiet or Let's hear from someone who doesn't speak up very often. How about (you)? in front of the class, which, if you are trying to build up confidence and convince yourself that other people aren't judging you negatively, can shatter that confidence and bring you immediately back to feeling unable to speak.
Getting bad grades, like being absent, can cause a student's friends and family to pressure them to do better in school. A failure to do better in school due to anxiety despite this pressure can distance you from the people you are most comfortable with and whose support you need most. Unlike pressure from a teacher, which is difficult enough, even though they don't know you personally, pressure from friends and family feels like a negative and perhaps deserved judgment of you as a person and can lead to depression and even suicidal tendencies.
Connecting With Other Students
Feeling unable to connect to other students, such as roommates, or class members within the classroom setting can result in social isolation even outside of the classroom.
Outside of the classroom, your concerns about getting bad grades, being misunderstood by faculty, students, friends or family members, and being so challenged by activities and situations that other people don't think twice about and knowing what you are doing wrong without being able to consciously change your behavior can cause a great deal of anxiety and sadness, which is made all the worse by having no-one to talk to about these feelings or to distract you from them.
Social isolation is psychologically damaging. Even when you tell yourself you prefer to be alone, spending time with others helps you feel connected to other human beings, promote empathy and provide you with a sense of purpose in life. Without these things, cynicism, anger, sadness and defeat can overwhelm you and make it even less likely for you to succeed in school or in life in general.
Review of Possible Results of Untreated Anxiety for Students
To summarize, untreated anxiety in students can lead to:
- Unexcused absences
- Inability to follow class discussions
- Lowering of grades
- Failing classes
- Pressure from relatives and friends to behave differently
- Social isolation
- Difficulty relating to other students
- Low self-esteem
- Physical exhaustion
- Suicidal tendencies
Any one of these is crippling for a person without social anxiety, but for someone with social anxiety they can take a toll that the mind and body can't afford. For this reason, it is important to know how to avoid school related anxiety.
Tactics for Avoiding School-Related Anxiety
- Talk to a Professional Talking to a professional will help you to handle any and all of your classroom anxieties, and should be sought so that absences due to anxiety do not result in failed classes. Ideally you should seek help before taking a class if you are worried that even attending may be too much for you, in order to find a therapist or counselor who meets your needs and to give you the tools you will need when first starting out in a class.
- Talk to your Teacher(s) in Private Talking to your teachers in private, and/or or bringing them a note signed by your doctor or therapist as early on as possible will help them to understand your behavior and not simply label you as lazy or incompetent. Preparing what you have to say to them in advance may help you to be clear and ensure that you have the confidence to talk to them-- you could even print out this article to help explain your experiences. It should be noted that they may not be able to excuse a certain number of absences, which is why you should seek professional help especially if you are finding yourself having to skip or leave class.
- Get to Know People Outside of Class Challenge yourself to ask someone who has class with you to study with you. Even if you know the material, this can be a great excuse to get to know someone, especially if you are sure to take study breaks to go get a coffee and just talk a little bit with the person in a more private setting than the classroom. Even if you don't end up liking the person, you at least get some practice in conversing comfortably. If you are able to get comfortable with that person, you will probably have the opportunity to meet people they know through them, which will help to broaden your social circle, give you people to talk to and increase your sense of self worth.
- Join a Club Joining a club can help you find the people who have interests in common with you without having to go through the difficult and unstructured process of getting to know people informally. Finding these people and working towards goals or engaging in activities you enjoy can make you feel better in general, as well as giving you the opportunity to feel relaxed in a social situation, knowing that the people around you at least respect you for having an interest that they share. This will help train your brain to stop panicking around people, and teach it that people are more likely to be like you than to be your enemies.
- Prepare with Notes in Advance Writing down and practicing your self-introduction as well as what you know and want to bring to class discussions prior to class time can help you to access and focus on information in class when your mind starts drawing blanks due to anxiety. When you are alone, take time to vividly imagine being in class and saying the things you want to say. When you're in class, try and use the notes as little as possible, as the more you practice participating on the fly, the more comfortable you will feel in the classroom.
Defeating social anxiety and succeeding in school, one of the least friendly environments for social anxiety-sufferers, is heavily and ironically dependent on your decision to face your self-doubts and to speak up for yourself. Finding someone professional and non-judgmental to talk to is a great place to start. From there, having validated the psychological nature of your struggles, you can actively work towards changing your habits and improving your life as a student with social anxiety disorder.
You should also consider taking my free 7 minute anxiety test now. This test is a great tool for learning more about your social anxiety and how to control it.