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It’s no secret that obtaining an advanced degree is often time-consuming, stressful, and perhaps even detrimental to your physical and mental well-being. For a person with social anxiety disorder, the negative effects brought on by constant academic pressures can appear insurmountable.
One problem that a person with social anxiety disorder may encounter is lack of understanding. This is particularly common when the career path you have chosen involves dealing with people on a regular basis. People who suffer from anxiety in social situations do not necessarily dislike other people; in fact, they may greatly enjoy interacting with others. In fact, dealing with their own difficulties may lead them into helping professions, such as medicine or psychology, which are highly person-centered. Others may not understand that your anxiety has nothing to do with your love of people, or your career interests.
Another problem that becomes especially difficult during graduate school is being put “on-the-spot.” Most professors ask questions during class, and some will call on a student whether or not their hand is raised. Answering a question in class can be extremely stressful, particularly for a person with social anxiety disorder. Once the precedence has been created, the classroom becomes a virtual minefield for this student; they never know when they may be called upon. For a student who has extreme fear of such a situation, this may lead to disengagement in the class activities, or even missing class.
What can be done about this? You can’t exactly tell the professor to back off, but you can change your perception and reaction to the situation. When you begin to worry that everyone will think your comments are dumb, challenge those thoughts. Pay careful attention to the answers your classmates give during class. Some of their answers may be brilliant, but many times, they stumble the whole way through or are completely off base. Do the rest of your classmates laugh and mock this student? Most likely not. Nor will they do this to you if your answer isn’t perfect.
Next, acknowledge that graduate school is about proving yourself; however, the first step to proving yourself was accomplished when you were accepted into the program. The professors know that you’re capable, and one imperfect response in class isn’t going to change that impression. The next task you have is to do the reading! Do the assignments! This is what you’re here for; to learn everything you can about the field that you love. When you’ve immersed yourself in the work, you will feel even more comfortable discussing it. When you’re unsure because you fell asleep before finishing a chapter, or forgot to read an article, you will obviously be anxious about responding to a question in class. If you’ve done your homework, you have nothing to be worried about!
Another option is confronting the issue head-on. If you do feel you’ve “made a fool of yourself” during class, stay after and speak with the professor in private. Be honest, and tell him or her that you felt your answer wasn’t a true reflection of your knowledge, and that you have difficulty pulling out information when you’re put on-the-spot. The professor is very likely to understand that feeling on any level. You can also do this by phone or e-mail if these methods are less stressful than an in-person meeting.
The last, and probably most important suggestion, is that you make sure to take time for yourself. The constant barrage of readings, assignments, etc. may cause you to feel as though you don’t have time for anything else. Mental, physical, and emotional well-being often can take a backseat to the many responsibilities of being a graduate student. Despite this, no one benefits from never taking a break. This is especially difficult for those who are also dealing with an anxiety disorder. Finding relaxing activities to pursue outside of school and work are extremely important. Take a walk every night after dinner. Go to the beach, go hiking, or even sit at home with a good movie or book. Strive to spend at least 30 minutes each day doing an activity that is calming, relaxing, and personally rewarding. Then you can get back to your work with fresh eyes and a fresh mind!
Whether or not you are currently seeking professional help for your social anxiety, these suggestions can help you cope with your difficulties as a graduate student. However, if your social anxiety symptoms are interfering with your life in a significant way, it may be very beneficial to look into treatment options. Most colleges and universities have student counseling centers, where you can receive free or low-cost psychological treatment. Often, just taking the initial step of seeking help can provide a great deal of relief.
As a graduate student with social anxiety disorder, the most important thing to remember is that you are in school for you. You are there to learn all you can, absorb all you can, practice your skills, and prepare for a career in your chosen field. Ultimately, your opinion of yourself matters more than anyone else’s.