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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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The Struggle Within | On Edge

Rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, a sudden urge to run away, the overwhelming desire to cry, intense feelings of shame or embarrassment and the fear that others are judging you. These are a handful of sensations that people with social anxiety disorder report experiencing when put into unfamiliar social situations with people they don’t know.
A freshman bioenvironmental sciences major, who wished to be identified only as Amanda, deals with SAD: “I have social anxiety disorder, which is when you constantly feel like you’re being judged for everything. And it kind of sounds selfish, I guess, too, because you feel like everyone is always thinking about you and judging you.
“It’s like being afraid of the dark because you know nothing’s there, but you’re still scared of it. It’s an irrational fear, and you know it’s an irrational fear, but you’re still scared and you can’t help it.”
For senior school health major Jonna Ledyard, social situations that many students take for granted are cinched off. “Having the anxiety almost keeps me from seeking outside activities because I’m so worried that no one will like me, and that’s just part of the worrying. I’ll eventually convince myself that it’s just not a good thing [to get involved],” Jonna said.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition, SAD raises unreasonable fear or anxiety in connection with exposure to social situations involving contact with people they do not know or who they expect may judge them. The feared social or performance situations are avoided or else endured with intense anxiety or distress.
Amanda and Jonna are two students with different backgrounds, but each faces the same psychological challenges.
Amanda has SAD and learning disabilities, in addition to generalized anxiety disorder, testing anxiety, ADD and dysnomia. Her anxiety was diagnosed when Amanda blacked out during a science presentation she had to make in the eighth grade.
Jonna first experienced symptoms of SAD and learning disabilities in the second grade, but it was her third grade teacher who contacted Jonna’s mother about possible learning and anxiety problems. Jonna’s parents did not suspect any anxiety problems since she was open and social around those she was comfortable with.
“My third grade teacher called my mom one day and said, ‘I think there are some issues going on with Jonna,'” Jonna said. “And [my mother] said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ [The teacher] goes, ‘She’s really quiet. She never talks.’ And my mom was really surprised and said, ‘Are you talking about my kid?'”
In middle school, Jonna’s mother had her tested to see if she qualified for additional educational assistance under the belief that she was not getting everything she could out of education. Test scores were close to special education qualification, but were just high enough to be considered “average.” As a result, Jonna was forced to struggle through school until she was officially diagnosed with learning disabilities at age 17 during her senior year of high school.

Struggles of treating anxiety

Like other psychological disorders, treatment for SAD can involve a combination of medication and therapy. Emerging research for anxiety and depression show that some medications are better suited for some individuals than others with similar symptoms, and many teenagers who are diagnosed with anxiety and depression spend their adolescence experimenting with medications before they find a mix that frees them from their symptoms and unwanted side effects.
Amanda tried several of these medications because many of the prescribed medications used to treat anxiety are used to treat depression symptoms that she doesn’t have, and the medication treating her ADD often conflicted with medication aimed at reducing her anxiety. “That’s the problem, for ADD, you take stimulants for it,” she said. “But stimulants, they don’t deal [well] with anxiety because they increase your heart rate and stuff – they make you more anxious.
“So we went through a period where we were like, ‘Well, which one do we treat?’ I tried all sorts of stuff for the anxiety, but currently I’m actually not on any of them. I’m on a Beta-blocker. It blocks the physical effects. It doesn’t do anything mentally, so I still freak out inside my head, but I’m not going to start crying, or blushing, or stuttering or anything like that. I just take it on an as-needed basis. It’s not like a Xanax or anything where I’m calm.”
Jonna takes medication to treat her anxiety. “If I’m off my medication, it’s almost like I don’t know how I’d make it [through the day],” she said. “I get really down to the point where my anxiety kicks in, and it’s almost like it’s so frightening to me that it would probably confine me to my home, to where I wouldn’t want to be out and about.”

Wrapping education around anxiety

Medical treatment for SAD accounts for part of the struggle that students with the condition face in handling their academic lives. Special study habits and testing accommodations address daily educational needs.
Jonna said that if she sees other students finishing their tests before her, she starts to panic and loses her concentration on the exam. Amanda’s experience is similar. “There can be other people taking a test, but when someone’s taking the same test and they’re doing it faster than me or slower than me, I get so caught up in, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I missing?’ that it kind of consumes my thoughts.”
Because Jonna’s learning disabilities are in reading and math, she must cover material multiple times in order to learn it. Sometimes she will go through two or three days without rest in order to study adequately, she said. To compound matters, she must take extra time to look up the definitions of words because she possesses a fifth-grade reading level.
In light of these circumstances, Jonna completed an associate’s degree at Blinn College in child development before she applied to A&M. She said that though she was embarrassed to speak with her professors about her disabilities when she began classes at the A&M, she is pleased at how well they work with her.
Amanda said she often does not approach her professors because she needs the greatest accomodations for presentations or reports. Because college classes are graded primarily by tests, she hasn’t told many of her professors about her SAD, though she said she is the type of student who makes good grades on daily work but will “bomb a test.” If the course requirements include presentations, Amanda will get through them with rocky results if she cannot give the presentation to only the educator, or as part of the entire class sitting in a circle.
“I remember in freshman year of high school, we had a history presentation,” she said. “And I had been doing them just for her [the teacher], and I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do it for the class.’ And so I got up there and I just started crying, I just lost it. So she sat me back down and she’s like, ‘You can do it after class.’
“So two more people went, and I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do it, again.’ I ended up doing the whole presentation in three separate tries, just crying and reading off my poster board. That was a big thing to do. It wasn’t necessarily successful, but it was a step in the right direction.”

Social ramifications of anxiety

Both students find it beneficial to study alone or with small group. Jonna said it is important that at least one person she knows and is comfortable with at a group study session. “The first day of school, or the semester, I’ll try to scope out and read different people and see who’s kind-of like me, or the person that maybe is off by their self,” she said. “I’ll try to make a connection and feel them out, and if I pinpoint someone, it’s almost like a comfort for me if I can be with that person every class, and it really throws me off if they’re absent.”
It is this attitude to social situations that contrasts Amanda and Jonna. Amanda characterizes herself as someone with high social needs: “[My anxiety] is not bad at all. I read online, and there are people who are agoraphobic [and afraid of unfamiliar environments] and won’t leave their house. I would suffocate inside my house. I’m not claustrophobic by any means, but I need to be social a lot. That is the weird part: I need to be social, but I have social anxiety. It’s like I need my fear. It’s weird.”
She said that the large number of students at A&M and the large number of people in a city like Dallas appeal to her because no one there has preconceptions of her. She said there are many opportunities to make friends if she embarrasses herself in front of anyone.
“I always thought I was a shy person, but once we started identifying all this, I’m not shy, I’m just anxious. There is a difference,” she said. “I don’t mind going up to people and talking to them and meeting new people. I like it. But with the anxiety, it was really difficult to do that.”
Jonna said she would enjoy joining social groups geared toward volunteering to work with children or are oriented for future teachers. She said she enjoys being outdoors at parks or near water where she can get away from everything. She practices individual arts and crafts, particularly cross-stitching.
She maintains a limited number of friends. “I just have a few friends,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of great people around, but it’s just that fear and it’s holding me back. I wish I could be more involved here on campus, but it’s really hard for me. It’s like I want to be, I really want to be, but it’s like there’s a wall in-between, and to try to get over that wall is really hard.”
Jonna and her husband have been married for three years. They met nine years ago. She said that he deals with anxiety more than she does, but his job puts him in a confined social context that fits his personality.
She said that once she finishes school, she and her husband want to have two children. They fear that their children will inherit anxiety disorders because she and her husband struggle with it, but she said she wants to address those issues early for them. Jonna said that her situation would have been much different if her parents had stayed married as she was growing up, which she said she intends to do for her children.
Amanda is dating someone she met at the beginning of the fall semester. However, she said she wants to get married and have children, and have a “normal life.”

Carrying anxiety beyond A&M

Looking ahead to a career, Amanda said she wants to become a marine biologist, though she doubts there is much money in it. Jonna said she will pursue elementary teaching, most likely in health unless she is able to test out and teach regular elementary school.
Amanda and Jonna each expressed a positive outlook on managing their SAD in the future and offered advice for those who may be dealing with the effects of the disorder but don’t realize it yet. “It used to bother me, I used to be embarrassed about it,” Jonna said. “But the more I’ve learned about what it is – and that I’m not the only one, and that there are other people out there fighting this – has really helped me to accept that this is who I am, and I can’t change it. Rather than trying to fight it, just accept it and speak out about it to where if there’s someone out there who feels the same way, that maybe they would have the courage to come out.”
Amanda said, “This isn’t something you can do alone, which makes it difficult because you’re afraid of what other people are thinking, which is why it’s so hard. But honestly, if not just your family, find some friends or someone else. Find someone you trust and tell them about it.”

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