Managing Social Anxiety at School

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Reader’s Question

I have a question regarding stress and embarrassment. For a long time, I’ve had a difficult time talking to people like adults, or even my classmates, and the reason is this. If I am talking to someone like a teacher, and they began to yell at me for not having finished an assignment, or not having done something that they asked, my face turns red. When I say red, I mean that my face becomes numb, and I can’t speak; I think it’s is due to embarrassment or shock. I want to know if there is a way to get rid of this feeling, so I don’t freeze up every time I hear something offensive, or when a teacher talks to me in a stern voice. I want to have a normal conversation, and be able to defend myself when I need to. Is there anything I can do to fix this?

Psychologist’s Reply

I’m glad you were able to share this personal experience despite the risk of perhaps feeling more embarrassment and stress. You clearly have a lot of courage that will likely help you as you work toward making the “freezing up” response smaller.

What you are describing affects many people, some more significantly than others. In fact, it’s common enough that mental health professionals have a name for it: Social Anxiety Disorder, or Social Phobia.

The good news is that it can be readily treated -– especially for people like you who are very aware of the triggers and situations, and who are actively seeking relief from the symptoms. A qualified psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders knows the research supported therapeutic tools that may help you gain more influence over these physiological and emotional responses.

From what you’ve described, it sounds like a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy (usually ranging from 8 to 12 sessions) may be a good fit for you. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you explore situations, such as teachers “yelling” or “talking in a stern voice” and the thoughts and meanings (such as “having to defend [your]self”) that you associate with those experiences. A qualified mental health professional can also help you with relaxation strategies to counteract the physiological responses (face becoming red and numb, being unable to speak) that you are experiencing.

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Because you mention most of these instances occurring around school assignments, it may also be helpful to talk with a psychologist about any difficulties you may be having with the schoolwork itself, or whether it can be difficult to manage time and complete assignments. Psychologists are trained to help determine if any learning difficulties or other issues may be creating some of this worry, and can help you better manage these obstacles as well.

If you are enrolled in a university, many offer confidential counseling services free of charge to students. Although the counseling centers are part of the university, your visits are kept in strict confidence and are not shared with teachers or classmates without your consent. I would encourage you to explore those resources. If you are not yet in college, you might talk with your parents or a trusted school counselor about finding help. In the meantime, you might also find some tools that are helpful in Edmund Bourne, Ph.D’s The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

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