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Monday, July 21, 2014 University: My Experiences With Social Anxiety

It's pretty late at night but I just had the urge to get this down. It was the first day back at university today and while I'm happy that this means I'm another step closer towards finishing my degree, it's also hard to ignore that my good ol' mate, Mr Anxiety, is popping his big fat unwelcome head up to say “hello”. I'm sure many of you out there who have attempted uni degrees know this feeling and have experienced the anxiety in some shape or form... the soon-to-be looming deadlines and new classmates and awkward introduction sessions and getting lost trying to find classrooms and thinking back to the stresses you felt last semester while knowing that you're going to be feeling them all over again. I think that's the worst part... waiting for the ball to start rolling.

Last night I was reading through the Course Guides for each of my classes and I started feeling extremely nauseous.. now this, I'm not sure is “normal”. I had to put on an old episode of Masterchef just to get my mind off things (not my proudest moment, but it worked). For me, personally, the concern comes not from the assignments or the workload, all that stuff is stressful but I know I can cope with it. What really gets my heart thumping is when I learn that I am required to partake in a class presentation. I suffer from a fear of public speaking as a symptom of my social anxiety, and knowing that I have a presentation coming up, even months away, will make me sweat and panic. Whenever I think about it I can quite literally feel my heart start to pound in my chest. And so then I immediately start thinking of ways to get out of it – maybe I can put this subject off for one more semester, maybe I can pull a sicky on the day of presentation, maybe I can get a doctor's certificate to say that I cannot do presentations for medical reasons (desperate times, people). These thoughts, at their worst, sometimes even lead me to conclude that I should just drop the university degree all together. They're my lowest moments.

I usually manage to talk myself out of these states of panic. I reason with myself that the amount of time that I have to spend making these presentations will amount to about an hour of my total life. While those minutes will be terrifying, they will pass. I also tell myself “just don't care what other people think”... “life is short”... “conquer your fears” etc etc. These rationalisations work.. temporarily.. sometimes.. but their effects seem to be short-term.

One of the most frustrating things for me is not knowing how to communicate these feelings. I think that for anyone who doesn't suffer from these forms of anxiety, these concerns can come off as sounding a bit petty or immature. I've tried to talk to George about it, for instance, but as is to be expected from someone who hasn't experienced social anxiety, he doesn't quite understand. “The presentation will come and go”, he says. And he is right. But that doesn't help my immediate feeling of anxiety. I'm dreading THAT moment that hasn't gone yet. It is still looming. Sometimes I've tried reading online forums from other people who suffer this phobia, thinking that at least these people will understand, but these forums just usually work to make my anxiety worse – almost like it's putting new ideas into my head and establishing additional reasons or justifications to be fearful.

My brother also suffers from social anxiety, and I have taken comfort in knowing that he knows how I feel. It acts as a reminder that there isn't something wrong with me per se, and that I'm not crazy or immature or losing my mind. It helps me realise that, like all forms of anxiety, this has something to do (a lot to do) with the way I am wired. I am a very introverted person (that probably goes without saying at this point). I'm a perfectionist. I'm extremely hard on myself. I'm also quite an observant person, in that I spend too much time analysing people and too much time thinking about what other people are thinking. And I care too much about what other people are thinking. While I think this makes me quite an empathetic person, I also think it makes me quite a paranoid person. So when I'm standing up in front of a group of people, all these factors combine to create something that is completely overwhelming. I'm not concentrating on what I'm saying. Rather, I'm thinking about the fact that there are 40 people in this room and everyone is looking at me and I have no idea what they're thinking. That absolutely frightens me.

So what is to become of this semester? Well, I'm not too sure. But I'm going to give it my best shot.No medical certificates and no missing class. If I'm ever going to be desensitised to this fear, I need to keep confronting it. And I hope, if any readers out there have experienced something similar to this, you know that you are not alone.   

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