My seminar leader has just asked a question, which I am sure I have an answer for. But as I consider speaking up, I become painfully aware of the presence of nearly twenty other people in the room. What if they think my answer is stupid? What if I stumble over my words? What if I’m completely wrong?
What if, what if, what if?
My answer scatters in my head, replaced by innumerable worries and doubts. My heart starts thumping and my face is flushing and my chest feels uncomfortably compressed as though I couldn’t force the words out even if I wanted to and –
Someone else has answered the questioned. I can relax. Until I dare considering answering another question – then the whole process will begin again.
As someone with social anxiety, I experience situations like this far too often. To someone without anxiety, it may seem ridiculous – why is answering a question such a big deal? Why do I care what the other students think? Why don’t I just stop worrying and say something? I have been given this not-so-helpful advice in the past, but the answer to solving anxiety is not that simple.
I understand that many people only entertain a vague idea of what anxiety actually means – they know that they might feel anxious before or during a stressful event, like an exam, and that anxiety is comprised of feelings of worry and unease. But to further understand the nature of anxiety, we need to consider why we are made to feel like this.
Anxiety is a reaction that happens immediately in your body as a response which you have no control over, even if it is an entirely irrational response. This is because anxiety stems from a natural survival mechanism – the ‘fight or flight’ response. When we feel like we are in danger, the body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that help us to get out of that situation as quickly as possible. Alongside the emotional symptoms of anxiety, these hormones also create physical symptoms, such as raised heart-rate, nausea, sweating and panic attacks.
This reaction may have been useful when we were primitive creatures that often faced life-threatening situations, but it is deeply unhelpful when I am trying to answer a seminar question and my body is preparing to either hit something or run away – both being reactions that I am not sure my seminar leader would approve of.
My irrational response to seminar questions reveals one of the differences between people who occasionally experience feelings of anxiety, and those who have anxiety disorders. For most people, the feelings of worry will dissolve when the stressful situation ends, but with anxiety disorders the feelings will persist in the long-term and often occur in response to situations that most people wouldn’t consider stressful. The causes of anxiety are unique to each person but the most common causes have been identified through specific anxiety disorders. For example, I have social anxiety which means my fear stems from social situations like speaking in front of large groups of people and meeting strangers. This is different to obsessive-compulsive disorder, which creates anxiety when certain rituals are not completed. Panic disorder is different again, as anxiety comes in the form of regular panic attacks with no obvious cause. These and other specific disorders should not be generalised however, as anxiety is an experience that is personal to every individual.
Because experiences with anxiety are so subjective, there is no perfect cure that will work for everyone. It is also difficult to prevent anxiety as it is an innate response within the body and is generally considered a long-term condition. There are many different treatment options that people with anxiety can turn to though in order to combat the symptoms. As with many mental health problems, treatment can come in the form of therapy, self-help or medication.
There is a general stigma against mental health which stops people talking about it, yet by not discussing these issues people remain ignorant. Those diagnosed with anxiety have to deal with unhelpful suggestions to ‘stop worrying’, meanwhile undiagnosed people may never get the support they need because they don’t know where to turn. For these reasons, I think it is important that we continue to encourage an open discussion on mental health and continue to educate people on the various aspects of it.
If you are struggling with anxiety, the university has various support systems which you can turn to, including the University Counselling Service and your individual college’s welfare system. Outside of the university, you can also turn to the NHS or charities such as Mind for information and support.
University Counselling Service: https://www.dur.ac.uk/counselling.service/