What I Want My Professors to Know About My Anxiety

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By Hatteras Dunton

I am a math major. I have anxiety. This is part of who I am. When it comes to school, though, it seems this is all of who I am. The bad thing is that my professors don’t know this about me. I’m sure to them it seems like I’m just another student taking their class, but there are some thing I wish they knew about me as a student in their class struggling with mental health issues while trying to learn. These are the not-so pretty things I wish I had the courage to tell my professors:

I’m not finishing my homework because I’m embarrassed for you to see what I don’t know

I get stuck on one problem and then I feel like the rest of my assignment is going to be garbage. I really don’t want anyone to see that. I don’t want anyone to see my struggle or my lack of understanding. I especially don’t want the people teaching me to see this because they are way smarter than I am. I know that it’s important for my teachers to see what I’m not grasping, but part of me feels like they will just see me as a failure. I imagine that while looking at my homework, my professors are giving up on me or just labeling me as a bad student. Just thinking about this though makes me even label myself as a bad student, which I’m not.

I’m fidgeting in class because I’m close to having a panic attack, not because you’re boring me

I try to make an effort to nonverbally communicate with my professors to let them know if I am understanding their material or not, but sometimes I begin to fade. I’m not fading because I’m bored and it’s rarely because I don’t understand. I just wish my professors knew that when I begin looking at my phone or messing with my hair or drawing on my notebook, I am really just doing everything I can to not lose it. I feel sick, I have pains in my chest and I can’t breathe. It’s something I want no one to see, so I cover it up by distracting myself. I just wish I could find a way to distract myself without looking like a bad student who is more interested in Instagram than integrals. 

I’m scared to talk to you in office hours because you’re so much smarter than I am

This idea I have of my professors being unapproachable is the number one thing I wish my professors knew about me. Oftentimes all I can think of in class is how small I am compared to my teachers. I think, “Compared to them, I know nothing, I’ve done nothing and therefore I am nothing.” I find myself planning to go to see them but as soon I actually get ready to go, that’s when I bail. For some reason I feel like I’ll be able to be successful on my own. Yet deep down I know I need to get my butt into office hours and ask a question that will probably take my professors two minutes to explain to me. When talking to my counselor about my school anxiety, she asked me what I would want from my students if I was a professor. Would I want them to be afraid of asking me questions or would I want them to feel like they could come to me anytime to ask me anything? I’m sure you could guess which answer I picked. 

I want to be successful in your class and I want you to like me, I just don’t know how to make you see that

These professors are teaching a subject I want to have a future in; obviously I want to be successful. Part of my anxiety, though, makes me wonder if I’m annoying someone or if they think poorly of me. When it comes to my professors, this thought even goes so far as wondering if these people think I am incapable of achieving my dreams. The thing is that I do a lot by myself to help my math career progress. I go to conferences, I join math societies that are not often advertised to undergrad students. But while I do all of these things, it will never replace the connection I could have with my professors who actually have insight to where I want to take my career. I’m not sure how, but I need to find a way to make myself more open to approaching these intimidating teachers. 

The hard part about anxiety for me is that I constantly have to remind myself that my feelings are not facts, and yet I can’t shake them or bring myself to take action. I’m currently working with counselors from my university’s health network to challenge these thoughts to become a better student. I’m not expecting things for get better overnight (or even during one semester), but it’s a task I’ve got my mind set on.