It’s worthy of mention that I don’t have clinical anxiety, or anxiety medications, or really anything that puts an official label on it, but for the purposes of this article we’re going to call it social anxiety and I have plenty of Google searches, breathless panic and painful memories to back me up.
Social anxiety is a strange thing, it’s the monster under your bed and all the skeletons in your closet dancing together at midnight in a graveyard, but it’s also birds chirping at dawn and the sound of toast popping out of the toaster. It’s familiar and frightening, and writing this article has taken me longer than it was supposed to. Originally, I thought that separating anxiety from myself while writing about anxiety would be the simpler thing to do but my piece was short, flat, and forced. Anxiety is as much a part of me as my hands and my voice, and this art is one that can never be separated from the artist. So this is me painting the picture, trembling fingers and all.
There’s a lot that can be discussed when talking about this particular kind of anxiousness, but there is too wide of a variety, so we’ll just focus on the social anxiety that comes with being at university and more specifically, in university classrooms. Now, classes go two ways, there are either lectures in which professors are perfectly content to let you just nod enthusiastically as they speak, or there are the lectures in which at any point, a professor might happily exclaim, “Now then! Turn to the person next to you and….”
I don’t usually hear what they say next because at this point, I am thinking of every possible way to turn, bolt, run, ask the earth to swallow me whole or just possibly disappear to the bathroom for the next twenty minutes or so. Unfortunately, moving would draw attention to myself so I sink into my seat and hope somebody will strike up conversation instead of waiting for me to do it.
I’ll be fair, I’m a bit of a coward. I say this because the logical side of me knows that there’s a vey beneficial point to interacting with your peers, and I have definitely reaped the benefits of the few times I did scrounge up the courage to participate. I’ve made friends that I actually like being around, but just the risk that comes with interacting with people your own age is enough to put me off. I mean, I never have trouble talking to a professor or a T.A, other than the usual fear of authority figures that I assume even people without anxiety have. There’s something different about talking to people when you’re all virtually on the same ground but there’s still a likelihood someone might look down at you.
It makes me queasy.
But that’s not fair.
I sit in a classroom and I know that the reason the professor is asking me to talk to somebody else is so that I learn, so that I become a solid part of this miracle that is communal learning, so that our ideas can cross the artificial boundaries of our minds and that together, we learn to articulate, to advise, to understand and to see better. University is point zero. It’s the beginning of the end, and a support system will make things easier for you, learning to talk about your ideas in a space that is so inclusive and understanding is a beginning step in learning to being more confident in your ideas.
I sit in a classroom and I know that nobody in this room wants to be judged for blurting out an answer too fast, or for not knowing one, or for not having done the reading. I know that we are all under this immense stress and need to talk about what we’re learning, because we want to understand it better, because we want to apply it better. What’s more, I believe that to some extent, we all want to understand each other too, and the merging of opinions on something like classism or Kant or Tennyson’s poetry is just one step into the wide world of understanding each other.
I look around classrooms with anxious eyes and I convince myself that everybody in this room is smarter, more confident, more assured and more ready for the world than I am. My anxious eyes are liars. In the comforting atmosphere of writing this article, I can admit that I have seen nervousness in the eyes of every college student I have ever seen. We are all trying to do better and we all deserve that chance.
So, how have classroom discussions ever helped me?
They haven’t helped my anxiety, they haven’t made it easier to talk to people my age, but they have given me a sort of confidence in my words and in my ability to speak. I have learnt that nobody is jumping to judge me, that people will listen if you let them. I have learnt that I am maybe just as smart, and confident, and assured and ready for the world as everyone around me.
But nonetheless, here’s a little list of reminders for when anxiety and introversion come in the way of you speaking up:
- Your opinions are valid.
- You are allowed to be wrong.
- You are at university to learn things, learning to be wrong is one of those things.
- People around you have super interesting opinions, discussions are a chance to learn more about them.
- Something you say may help put things in perspective for someone else.
- Getting feedback on ideas helps them grow into better ideas!
So consider this an open letter to my anxiety and yours: do not be afraid, do not listen to the threats spelled out by your heartbeat. Speak. It’s the only way to be heard.