It is a tight throat at the sound of the word “activity”. It is the trickling of perspiration down a clenched fist at the first sign of confrontation. It is the chaperon, Paralysis, who escorts any rational, irrational, fear; rational because it makes sense to me when I say it in my mind, rational because it makes sense to us. Irrational because the world refutes it as real, so we search for comfort perpetually. It is the naked dream, and it is the naked self. It is the silence. It is also the loquaciousness, but never the eloquence. It is the try-hard, but never the gregarious. It is the troubled childhood, the suicidal friend, the uncharitable parent and the scary teacher. It is also the imaginary, the call for attention, and the refusal to admit that we’re wrong. It is a yearning to be interesting, and a fear to be forgotten. And in the end, it is mostly just the desire to be loved. John confides: “I did tend to feel quite anxious last year sometimes. I still do sometimes, although less now, I think. Not about the teachers or classmates though really. It’s mainly just about whether people like me and whether I say the right things I think…”
We often talk of how a good friend should be aware of our issues, but what about teachers? Laura tells me: “Is there anything more terrifying than the choking silence that follows a tutor’s question? I’ll look down at my notes, the answer right in front of me, unable to shatter the quiet enveloping the classroom.” – she reveals.
University has become synonymous with autonomy, yet we seem to deny the real issue of people who need a little extra help – which is most of us. There are support groups, health centres, psychiatrists, wardens, but all of this hardly feels like normality. We’re already nervous enough in our personal lives – so is pushing it to the limit really fair just because we’re in the classroom? Claire feels that: “tutors have quite the tendency to attempt to force students to go in front of the tutorial and show how they derived their solutions. This is quite daunting regardless of how confident you are with the subject at hand and although the intention may be to develop a deeper understanding from material, I would say being forced to engage actually makes for an environment less suited for learning than one that simply generates an open discussion.”
Social anxieties come in many forms and symptoms can occur at any time in public settings, even in class. There is a reason why that person just screamed, why they changed seats and can no longer sit there, why they washed their hands eleven times, or why that guy over there stutters. I know people who frequently have “moments” of social anxiety; these are people who can’t leave their houses certain days and who are so afraid to be noticed that they wear the same oversized sweater each day and end up becoming noticed for just that, these are people who can’t speak. Harry lets me know that he’s “felt awkward and anxious in class especially in French because you have to speak in the language now”. “ I don’t want to embarrass myself”, he says, “or make mistakes. It’s like I want to say something but then something holds me back for the fear of being judged for my opinions. I wish the tutors would understand people with anxieties – but they don’t. That’s my view.”
Class participation is a daunting combination of words for anyone who even remotely experiences some aspects of anxiety. This begs the question: should tutorials weigh participation? To any department forcing their students to participate in lectures, I bid you notice who is comfortable, and who isn’t. To people who force people to say hi to their crush, to people who raise other people’s hands for them, to people who make choices for other people not knowing what they prefer, to people who bring up personal things in public: consider social anxiety.
In a recent class, a lecturer told students that if they were antisocial, this was not a class for them. She urged them to get out promptly. Although most likely an innocuous passing comment, my friend next to me shrugged. “You’re going to be talking a lot to each other, so get comfortable”, we were told. I felt uncomfortable for both her, and me. After this occurrence, more people were kind enough to share their experience with me. Lily says “I don’t think that telling people to not be anti-social is okay. Personally, when someone tells me that my social anxiety gets worse because I’m more conscious. I’m more likely to be social in an atmosphere in which I feel comfortable. Being around a group of people I don’t know is difficult at first so it sometimes takes me a bit to be able to speak.”
After much reflection, the problem seems to be that the gap between teachers and students sometimes feels awkward, despite many of us being close in age. We aren’t exactly friends, but we shouldn’t be strangers either. We should remember that we’re all humans dealing with our own problems, instead of pawns in a sort of academic chess game. We should be strict when necessary, but compassionate when needed.
Editors Note: Names have been changed for anonymity – this article is about symptoms of anxiety – not specifically clinically diagnosed social anxiety.