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What It's Like to Have Social Anxiety in a Foreign Country

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When people told me I couldn’t go to France, that it would be a bad idea, I felt angry. Angry because although they believed they were looking out for me, they were also telling me I couldn’t do something. My social anxiety has and does control a big part of my life. It has for the past three years, and meeting new people makes my heart thump in my chest. But even knowing that, I didn’t want to let it win, to let it control all of my life, instead of a part.

Here, in a foreign country, there can even be advantages with my social anxiety. The ability to not understand, to not speak because I can’t string the words together, can give a legitimate practical reason to something even I still don’t understand.

Standing in front of a class of French children, talking to them, public speaking as their teacher, does make me panic sometimes. The teacher watching me and the class, expecting me to lead and to do something can be terrifying. But it can also be exhilarating. To not shake and blush, to not want to run away, being judged but being able to rise above it. It makes me feel free in a world that has always trapped me.

But it can take its toll, and there are days when it takes everything I have to go outside, to talk and interact as if I’m “a normal person.” And there is still a lack of understanding. With my anxiety, eating lunch with teachers or trying to chat with them can put a damper on my whole week, and my body tenses up thinking about it. This is when the ability to not understand makes it worse instead of better. And people can’t understand this fear. Even across different cultures, the problem is the same, and people like me are still misunderstood.

When I was younger, it was less severe, and I could reach out to people more easily. After a few years in university it got worse due to bullying and feeling overcrowded. Here, I am trying to fight against the world that has become like a cage to me. The panic I feel even walking down a street, an irrational fear of being attacked when a group comes towards me. Living in a high school is a massive challenge with young loud people coming up to me in groups, sometimes trying to talk to me. But little by little, I’m learning to live with it.

Living in close proximity to another young American girl, the two of us alone in a little town, has presented its own challenges and success. I fought with depression before coming here, and hiding was my best form of protection against other people. I can’t hide here. I have to come out of my room and learn about another person. Even when the other teachers come into the kitchen, I fight the urge to run and decide to talk and try to be what I want to be. But I don’t overdo it. If I feel like I can’t handle it, if there are too many people, I retreat. But it’s OK. I’m allowed to do that. I think the most important thing I have learned about my anxiety here is that although I can’t banish it from my life, I can fight it. And I will not let it limit me.

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Thinkstock photo by isaxar

Originally published: March 10, 2017
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