Anxiety and Academia: Fear of Being in a Classroom

Last night I stepped into a classroom for the first time in six years…and my academic anxieties returned with a vengeance.

Anticipatory Anxiety

gnome mallFor days leading up to class I started to worry about the social interactions:

  • Will I have to introduce myself?
  • Will there be groupwork?
  • What if I get called on?
  • What if I get called on and don’t know the answer?
  • What if part of the grade is class participation?
  • What if a classmate talks to me?

For me, the anticipatory anxiety is usually worse than the anxiety during the event – I have more time to stew over it and run unlikely scenarios. I enter an event in a near blind panic about all the terrible things that are surely about to happen.

Academic Anxiety Cycle

broken egg facesOne would think that I would acclimate to the school setting over 17+ years; unfortunately, exposure had the opposite effect and anxiety increased over time. As the academics got harder, I got more anxious.

What if I did something wrong?

Commence the spirals!

Spiral the First

  • If I do something wrong, then it proves that I am stupid.
  • If I’m stupid, then I have no value.
  • If I have no value, then I should die.

Spiral the Second

  • If I do something wrong, then people will see I’m stupid.
  • If people see that I’m stupid, then it will expose me for the fraud I really am.
  • If I’m exposed as a fraud, then no one will trust me.
  • If no one trusts me, then I have no value.
  • If I have no value, then I should die.

In-Class Anxiety

I enter the classroom and choose a seat in the back corner, hoping that gives the impression that I need to be left alone.

kirbyThe lecture begins and I look around at others taking notes.
If I write something that others don’t write, then it means I’m missing something easy and I am stupid. If I don’t write something that others do, then it means I’m missing something important and I am stupid. Everyone can tell that I don’t belong here.

The professor asks an easy question to the group.
My mind blanks. I have no idea what the answer is. I am stupid and should just leave – there is no chance that I’m going to do well here.

Another student gives a simple answer to the easy question.
I can’t believe I couldn’t think of that answer. I have absolutely no right to be here. I over-think everything and create complicated (and incorrect) answers to simple questions. I can’t see the obvious. I’m going to fail. I’m dying. I feel like the reporter stomping grapes.

We get a ten minute break.
Great. I have ten minutes to worry about being the weird kid in the corner not talking to anyone. Everyone is dressed better than I and they all seem much younger. They are wondering what I’m doing here. Everyone can see that I’m wrong and I don’t belong.

I share an elevator with classmates after class
Do we talk? Everyone is too close. I’m going to panic and die.

Conclusions

journalI recognize that many of these thoughts are irrational.

Unlike during my younger school years, I realize that mind blanks and trouble concentrating might be anxiety effects and not stupidity effects.

Being in class is hard for me, and though that’s no excuse for failure, I have to realize that we all have strengths and weaknesses – that anxiety makes certain things hard for me. Generally, my learning occurs more outside of the classroom when I’m more relaxed.

Ultimately, I love to learn and I love school – the degree program is exceedingly interesting and I will learn a lot.

Earning a master’s will open doors that were previously closed.

My headspace is better now than it was in college – I’m more equipped to recognize and manage the anxiety.

I don’t believe any of these conclusions.

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12 thoughts on “Anxiety and Academia: Fear of Being in a Classroom

  1. Although I don’t promise that this will be helpful, you might want to read some Stoic Philosophy — people like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. Or, for a popularized version, “A Man in Full,” by Tom Wolfe, which was a best selling novel. Any of them would say, more or less, “Don’t sweat the small stuff; it’s all small stuff.”

  2. Minus the death parts and the conclusion, this pretty much sums up school for me. Thanks for writing this so I can share with other to explain myself.

  3. I used to have panic attacks walking to school. Didn’t realize it, of course, just felt shaky and sick every single time I went to campus for about the first semester or two. It wasn’t anything in particular – I’m a GAD kind of gal.

    I know it would be very hard for you, but it’s completely reasonable to talk to your professors and let them know that it’s extremely uncomfortable for you to be called on unexpectedly, and that you would appreciate forewarning if you’ll be expected to speak up. BTW, if there’s an Office of Disability Services or something similar, DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND GO TO THEM! NOW!

    As an instructor, I would have welcomed any student filling me in, because it would also tell me that when the student doesn’t engage with others, it’s not due to being unprepared or checked out. As an educator, I want my students to learn, and if they’re freaked out about being called on, they’re not going to learn. Most instructors expect a few quiet, shy students (who almost always excel in the actual work) and most have been exposed in some fashion to the notion of supporting diversity in the classroom, which extends beyond the typical demographic crap.

    Most decent instructors are happy to help in any way that’s reasonable. I had one student break down in tears in front of the entire class (it was only 8 students and they were all very tight, but still!) and everyone else courteously kept going with the activity, and I asked her if there was anything I could do, and worked with her individually for a little while until she calmed down.

    Participation is rarely a grading criterion in grad school; I made it a check-no check thing that was 5% of total grade, just to enforce that I expect everyone to show up and be engaged. Nobody lost a single point, even on the days that they were quiet.

    Group work, however, is a fact of life. We all hate it. We all have to get over it and just do it. I would flatly refuse to excuse any student from it – it’s a life skill, not just a class activity, so I’d consider it negligence in my responsibility to the students.

    • Thanks, DeeDee, I appreciate the insight from both sides of the desk. It looks like none of the classes have a class participation component, thank goodness. I might contact the Disabilities Office first and see what they say, though I still hate the idea of having a “disability” but that’s a whole different can of worms.

  4. Hello, I am a senior in a four year college. I have this exactly same experience in classrooms, except I also have panic attacks in the classroom. My heart rate accelerates, I feel like I’m having trouble breathing, and I also start shaking and sweating at the worst times. I’m sitting in my seat in the back corner thinking “everyone will notice how weird I am acting and think that I am the weirdest person and then I will die.” I might not have those exact thoughts, but I fear that people will see me in a state of panic and think I am very weird, and the panic itself feels like I am going to die.

    When I was a freshman the panic attacks were not as frequent, but now it seems like every time I am around a large group of people where we have to sit and listen, just like in a classroom, I feel trapped and begin to panic. In school I feel extremely trapped because every absence counts against me and I need to stay in class to learn the material the way the teacher wants it taught.

    I like what you said about letting the teacher know. I think I am going to try doing that this semester. I am also in touch with the disability services (since I have ADD) so I can take my tests in a separate classroom. I feel the most anxiety when I am about to take a test. I’m really happy I could find someone to relate my experiences to and hopefully you can give me some more advice on how to manage this classroom anxiety.

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