Here are five things I wish academia understood about my social anxiety disorder

Graduate student lydia wong studies wild bees and wasps in the colorado rockies.

Lydia Wong studies wild bees and wasps in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.Credit: Lydia Wong

Over the years, I have met many people who have admitted to experiencing social anxiety in some way. Often, their struggles are particularly acute in academic settings, where “flawless” interactions with supervisors, colleagues, peers, and interview panels are critical to success.

I can relate to these people’s experiences on a personal level, as I had selective mutism as a child. Children with this social anxiety disorder are unable to speak in certain situations or around certain people, despite their perfect ability to speak in other contexts. Untreated, it often persists into adulthood.

At school, I didn’t drink water during the day so I wouldn’t have to ask to go to the bathroom. In undergrad, I got used to getting a zero when participation points were given, and I worried about oral presentations a few weeks before.

Participating in field research at university was what finally helped me overcome my mutism. I was so excited about the plants and insects I was working with that I couldn’t shut up any longer. Instead, I found myself talking freely with my teachers and classmates about flora and fauna. Now, as an ecology undergraduate, I love many aspects of research. I feel fortunate to have secured a position in a lab with a supportive supervisor and to have had the opportunity to do fieldwork in stunning landscapes.

Difficult situations

However, fieldwork is only part of my life in research. There are many situations in which social anxiety can surface, from lectures and interviews to lab meetings and social events. Although I no longer suffer from mutism, intense feelings of anxiety persist in these situations and have shaped my life as a young academic. Sometimes my anxiety makes me feel inadequate, misunderstood, isolated, and unsure about pursuing a career in academia. Based on conversations with other students, I don’t think my experiences are unusual.

I find that people often misread my behavior or demeanor because they are not aware of the ways social anxiety can manifest itself. Here are five examples:

1. I struggle with face-to-face conversations, especially in public places, so having an informal discussion in a coffee shop or restaurant is difficult for me. But if you went for a walk with me, or talked in a quiet meeting room, I’d make it a lot easier. I’ve also had fruitful scientific conversations while working in the lab and workplace, and even cleaning dishes after an event.

2. Looking people in the eye can be disconcerting for me, and when I try to do it, I have a hard time concentrating on what is actually being said. Please don’t interpret my lack of eye contact as disinterest or boredom. I may not be looking at you, but I am listening, caring and empathetic.

3. Just because I’m quiet, doesn’t mean I’m rude, unfriendly or judgmental. I know it can be hard to make sense of what I’m thinking when I’m silent, but in some situations it’s hard for me to speak my thoughts. Ideas are jumbled in my head, and by the time I’ve decided how to communicate, the conversation has progressed.

4. Anxiety is not ‘rational’, so I can’t reason from it, or identify the logical patterns that characterize it. My anxiety manifests strongly in some situations, but not in others, in seemingly incoherent ways. For me, oral presentations are no longer a problem, but attending academic social events can be daunting.

5. I want to connect with people but, ironically, my anxiety often surfaces, especially when I’m in the company of people I want to have intellectual and meaningful discussions with. I can hold conversations with strangers and speak amicably to the public at outreach events, but I become quiet, awkward, or avoidant when I’m with the people I want to talk to the most. It’s an isolating experience, and I hope those who experience communication difficulties don’t take it personally.

Work in progress

As a PhD student, I remove my thesis every day; I make research plans, seek help if I need it, set goals and do my best to achieve them. I try to deal with my social anxiety in a similar way, and acknowledge my responsibilities on this journey. I also do my best not to let my anxiety interfere with or inconvenience those around me. I understand that, for many, coffee shops are wonderful places for scientific exchange, and the last thing I want is for my situation to prevent others from enjoying useful discussions over coffee.

At the same time, I wonder if as an academic community we can work towards a middle ground. In his 2017 book Academic Ability: Disability and Higher Education, Jay Dolmage, a disability rights activist based at the University of Waterloo in Canada, describes the notecard technique, whereby people attending seminars, lectures and conferences can send questions or comments to speakers on paper or digitally. I love this idea. Raising your hand in this setting can be overwhelming – my notebooks are regularly filled with unasked questions and unshared thoughts. Note cards allow the audience to ask non-verbal questions. Pandemic has developed a number of tools that make this easier, including Slido, Mentimeter, Vevox and even Zoom’s chat function.

Other ideas, such as anonymous surveys and small-group icebreakers, have been proposed as ways to make college classrooms less anxious.1. As a teaching assistant, in my tutorial and lab sessions I have encouraged reluctant students to email me with questions or concerns.

I know that the experiences of people struggling with social anxiety in academia vary widely. Therefore, I doubt that there is a single practical solution to deal with it. That said, my personal desire is, above all, to have greater understanding and acceptance in the academic community. Those of us who are awkward in conversation, avoid social events and stare at the ceiling tend not to make a good first impression. We may come across as unfriendly and disconnected, perhaps even judgmental and arrogant. I sincerely hope that what I have shared will be verified otherwise.

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