Social anxiety is NOT just butterflies in your stomach
Public speaking panic attacks mean much more than feeling a little anxious. Some schools require students who have these disorders to participate in group activities or present in front of their classes. People with these disorders can have serious reactions that could be dangerous to their health if they are put in these stressful situations. Symptoms include shaky voice, sweating, paleness, and severe body shakes. It can also be quite frustrating for students with such disorders when others tell them that they are just nervous or need more practice. An anxiety disorder can prevent a student from making friends, raising their hand in class, and participating in school activities. These students can feel ashamed, afraid, and alone.
Cynthia Kipp, a victim of social anxiety disorder, told her story through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Cynthia told her viewers that any kind of social situation was uncomfortable for her, causing her to experiment with alcohol and drugs as a way out of her anxiety. Sharon Longo also shared the story of her son, Brian, who suffered from selective mutism. He never raised his hand in school to ask a question or go to the bathroom; however, he talked with his family, the people he felt most comfortable with.
Cases like Brian’s are pretty rare, but they do occur. The fact that he would not verbally interact with anyone except his family shows he didn’t feel comfortable in school. Brian’s teachers should have tried to make a more comfortable environment for him in order to help him interact with his peers. The same goes for Cynthia, who started using alcohol and drugs to help with her anxiety. School is where children learn lessons, grow up, and make memories that they can cherish. It’s not a place for kids to feel pressured and constantly anxious. Requiring students with these disorders to associate with others and perform activities they’d rather stay away from shows that as a community we need to improve awareness and try to be helpful to those with these disorders. We should let these students know that we understand them.
We can compare these types of situations to another situation that we see often. When students break their leg or hurt themselves during P. E. class, they are exempt from any physical activity until they are in full condition to put their bodies through the activities again. It’s just like the fact that you can not make a student who has a broken leg run a mile. Their bodies simply can not take it. It is the same situation for children with social anxiety disorders. If they do not have the capacity to speak in front of a class or present a group presentation, they should not be required to. Forcing a student to participate in an activity he or she feels uncomfortable in can cause mistrust between the student and the teacher, and even the student and people around him/her. This doesn’t mean that students who have such illnesses should get by without having to do anything. A teacher should push a student, for example, by giving 15 extra minutes for a test, but the following week giving only 10. But also keep in mind that the teacher should never push a student to their breaking point where they may harm themselves or even others.
There is a fine line between being nervous and having an issue with anxiety. Some may think that they can get away with thinking they have a disorder and be exempt from assignments that they don’t want to complete. Social anxiety disorder is an actual medical condition and should be dealt with by the school psychologist; it’s not something to be taken advantage of. And if a student does have this anxiety, the teacher should be understanding of their situation. A good idea would be to have the student present their project alone rather than making the student perform in front of the class.
Students like Cynthia and Brian should not be obligated to take a part in any activity that makes them uneasy and fearful. Schools should make all students, including those with social anxiety disorders, feel welcome and protected in order to help our community flourish.
My thanks to Mr. Chang for writing this article on social anxiety. Anyone can have, or develop, the disorders discussed, as well as many others. Trying to deal with these, or any other types of issues, on your own is a serious mistake that can adversely affect you for the rest of your life and can lead to further and more complex damage to your mental, physical, and spiritual health.
We had little or no access to help with anything to do with mental health when I was K-12. I wish we had. The anxiety and panic I felt on a daily basis carried over far into my adulthood. I managed to make it all the way through graduate school, somehow. I wasn’t able to form lasting friendships or relationships, I basically drifted through life and a couple of marriages. I was on the verge of panic most of the time, basically stuck in a state of “fight or flight”. Fight or flight is a normal reaction when a person or animal is cornered and/or in threat of imminent danger. If I had access to help when I was K-12, I believe my life would have been a lot different. I have been working with someone for a while now and am able to finally feel serenity, happiness, joy, and a lot of other good emotions that were obscured by the anxiety. My all-around health basically collapsed before I took steps to get help with this disorder. I am glad I made the choice to find someone to help me work on myself, my life and relationships are much better than they were two years ago. I have found, as long as I keep doing the work, life keeps getting better.
At first, you may not realize something is gong askew, you may shrug your feelings off and ignore the warning signs, including those discussed by Mr. Chang. The feelings of “flight or fight” are real, can compound over time, and can lead to self destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, anorexia/bulemia, bullying, depression, detachment disorder, binge eating disorder, and many others. It is important to find someone you trust, or feel you could trust, such as your counselor, the school psychologist, social worker, teacher, administrator, religious or spiritual advisor, or other mental health professional and ask for time to talk.
You are not obligated to limit yourself to just one person and you do not have to jump right into the subject. You may end up “trying out” a few people before you allow yourself to establish the trust you need. The important thing is to just start talking – about anything. It may not be easy at first, you might not find the right person to confide in right away, it’s ok. Keep trying and congratulate yourself for each step you take to heal yourself. Your healing process is going to involve some puzzle solving. Every disorder is a puzzle, . Each adult you talk to can either help you fit together the pieces of your puzzle(s) and/or lead you to the next person who can help. For most of us, we find the most benefit from more than one mentor/counselor/therapist…
Be patient with yourself and others. there is something positive to be gained from each conversation you engage in. Patience with yourself is very important, if you find yourself having difficulty expressing yourself or finding the right words, it’s ok. The work you do to puzzle this out is among the most important and rewarding you will ever engage in. Even though you may not notice it right away, each positive step you take will benefit you in some way. Patience will be one of your best tools.
Remember to breathe, give yourself some time to focus on what you want to say. Remind yourself that your conversations aren’t scripted and that taking pause to focus on what you want or need to say is important. Ask for some time to think and schedule another time, you may need to do that sometimes. Set aside some quiet time for yourself to think and record your thoughts and feelings before your next meeting. By giving yourself time to think and write these things down, you will become better equipped for your discussions.
Students, if you notice one of your friends or classmates is engaging in self-destructive behavior, or changes by withdrawing, acting out, seems to lose control, and/or displays symptoms and behaviors as discussed by Mr. Chang, please do not sit passively by. You can help by bringing your concerns to one, or more, of the aforementioned adults. And please do not ostracize or gossip about the individual(s) for whom you are concerned as these negative activities are destructive to all.
Adults, I know your time is precious and your jobs must be overwhelming at times. Please be mindful should a student comes to you with something to discuss or just to talk, he or she may be testing the waters to see if you are trustworthy. Please take the time to listen, actively listen. Please encourage the student to keep coming back. It takes a lot of courage for someone, especially those of school age and young adults, to take the first step. Be encouraging, be positive, be without statements of platitude or condescension. Pushing or forcing the issue will rarely give positive results. If you feel you are not prepared to help the student, just keep listening. By listening and being patient, you are helping. And, by listening you will be able to gently mentor and lead the student to the next person(s) who can help put together the pieces of her/his puzzle.
When you notice one or more of your students struggling, there is a reason for it and it very well could be due to one of these disorders. Please work with the school psychologist, social worker, counselor, and others on the faculty and administrative team to find creative and alternative way for your student to fulfill school requirements and activities that would otherwise be difficult or impossible for your student to achieve. As Mr. Chang stated, “Students… should not be obligated to take a part in any activity that makes them uneasy and fearful… all students, including those with social anxiety ” and other “disorders, feel welcome and protected in order to help our community flourish.”