Bright red, boiling hot, shaky and nauseous – that was me after giving a simple, monosyllabic answer in class. I retracted into my chair, worrying about people looking at me and whether I’d spoken correctly or loudly enough, or said something that was brain-numbingly obvious.
Unsurprisingly, I missed what happened in the next part of the lesson.
I was 14 when I was diagnosed with social anxiety and I was deeply ashamed of it. I refrained from telling people, feeling that there was a stigma attached to it and that something was dreadfully wrong with me.
On the outside there were few signs of my anxiety. I regularly attended a youth group, had a circle of firm friends and enjoyed going to school.
But looking a little closer, you’d notice it: I hated buses with a passion and refused to raise my hand in class, even when the answer burned in my throat. When I did speak up, I would turn a magnificent shade of crimson and I had bizarre phobias, including one of opening doors, in case I opened them the wrong way and embarrassed myself.
According to Anxiety UK, as many as one in six young people will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives. This could mean that up to five people in your class are living with some type of anxiety.
Social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders, normally starting in childhood or adolescence. It is often caused by environmental factors, such as overprotective parents, constant criticism or lack of affection. For me, the roots were in low attendance at school due to illness, which meant that I often didn’t know the topic being covered in class or the event that my friends were laughing about.
Social anxiety is far more complicated and devastating than shyness. Sufferers will fixate on a situation, worrying before, during and after it, terrified of embarrassment and humiliation. This makes it very hard to move on, even after the event has passed.
It’s important to make allowances for people with social anxiety, but it’s hard – everyone has different ways of coping with it. What is helpful for some may be a nightmare for others.
Push the boundaries
Appointments with school counsellors and nurses didn’t work for me; I missed lessons and a one-to-one with a stranger was frightening. However, I did find it helpful to have 12 weeks of counselling sessions with a psychologist outside the school environment.
School counsellors may not have helped me but they have helped people I know. Similarly, some sufferers may find it less scary to go to school in their own clothes, whereas others may find this awful, because it causes them to stand out.
Schools need to maintain close contact with the student, their medical team and family to ensure that they are doing the right thing, moving forwards rather than back. Another important tactic in overcoming social anxiety is pushing boundaries. For example, if a student is anxious about answering questions, encouraging them to raise their hand during the lesson that they’re most comfortable in may help.
Most importantly for me, the key to overcoming social anxiety was and continues to be one question: “What is the worst that could happen?” Once you have the answer to this and are prepared for it, you’re safe. Where logic is strong, social anxiety is weak.
Kira Taylor is a student at Exeter College @KiraTaylor15