When You Have Social Anxiety in the Classroom

When people talk about their high school experience, often they either say it was the best experience of their lives or a total nightmare. Mine was a total nightmare. While I certainly enjoyed some bits of it, the majority of those four years I spent utterly consumed by my own anxious thoughts. I experienced the worst of it while sitting in a classroom — which unfortunately was seven hours a day, five days a week. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was battling social anxiety.

Before even entering a classroom, I’d experience the physical symptoms of anxiety: the pounding heart, the stabbing pain in my stomach, and the lump in my throat, to name a few. I would anticipate the anxiety of sitting in a room with people I believed were smarter than me, better than me and out to get me. Once the bell rang, my anxious thoughts would intensify: What if my stomach makes a noise? What if I throw up? What if my legs shake too loudly? What if I have to leave the room and I can’t? What if the teacher calls on me unexpectedly? What if people think I’m not smart? It was impossible for me to focus when my mind was completely consumed by the fear. The teacher’s words were absolutely meaningless to me — just intermittent speech between my own internal dialogue.

While the worst of it was over after my last class of the day, I would still spiral into another bout of anxiety once I got home from school. I would spend hours making up for lost time by teaching myself the material I was too anxious to process during class. I would over-study for exams knowing I’d be too anxious to focus while taking them the next day. I would try to perfect every single homework assignment out of fear that my teachers would misinterpret my anxiety as laziness or a lack of understanding. It was exhausting.

Perhaps the worst part of this experience was that I felt misunderstood by the people around me. My peers would often mistake my anxiety for shyness. While there is nothing wrong with being shy, I didn’t particularly consider myself a shy person. I considered myself a lively and engaging person (in those moments when anxiety didn’t completely overtake me). I felt that the word “shy” didn’t accurately describe me as a person and undermined my experience with anxiety. To me, it simplified the constant battle I faced every day with my anxious thoughts and the physical symptoms that came with them.

While I never learned how to effectively cope with my anxiety throughout high school, I am proud to say that as a sophomore in college, I’ve been making big strides. With the help of a terrific counselor and the right medication, I’ve been able to sit calmly in classes, and at times even participate. I’ve come to realize there is nothing inherently wrong with me. I’ve also realized that the people around me are not “out to get me” or looking to ridicule me, as I once believed.

While sitting in a classroom and participating in group discussions will never come naturally to me, I believe the right resources will continue to help me cope. That being said, I encourage anyone struggling with any type of anxiety to seek out the resources and help they need to get better.

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