By Mehek Azra, age 15, New York.
When you’re a teenager, you may find yourself worrying about how others perceive you. You are pressured to fit into several norms. There is always a right and a wrong thing to do if you want to make friends or be liked by your teachers. And all of these expectations can be extremely overwhelming, especially to a kid. But many teens grow into having social anxiety. Social anxiety is a response to trauma. And I know that the word “trauma” gets thrown around a lot but regardless of how “small” or ”big” it is, but it is still a trauma.
Some of the experiences (trauma) that often lead to social anxiety are: being bullied, being humiliated in a social situation, or being pressured to participate in class. But the sad reality is, that society acts blind when it comes to teenage mental health. Teens with mental illness are being neglected because they are too “young” to be facing any issue.
Teachers or parents don’t really notice when a student has social anxiety because they think they are “shy.” Being shy and having social anxiety are not the same. Shy kids can gradually come out of their shell at one point but those with social anxiety don’t. They have a constant fear of being judged harshly by others. So when they are told, “Don’t be shy! We are all here to help,” it doesn’t necessarily help.
I was generally a very quiet kid who did not speak much in school. You can also call me an introvert because that’s what I am. Being an introvert is already a stressful factor about myself that makes every day things hard, such as school. And having social anxiety, on top of that makes it even more horrifying. Since I have extreme social anxiety, I will mention some of the things that trigger my anxiety, and if you can relate to these, you may also have social anxiety.
- 1. When a teacher randomly picks on you to read out loud, you sit there in silence and you panic. You’d rather get a zero than participate because you are afraid your classmates will secretly laugh at you.
- 2. You’re at the mall and a group of teenagers walk by and they start laughing, and you think they are making fun of your outfit.
- 3. Your mom asked you to make an order at McDonald’s, and you start to sweat. You plan out the conversation in your head multiple times before you actually speak because you’re scared they will judge you.
- 4. You constantly avoid going out with people because you’re not sure they will like you.
I will share one of my own personal stories. When I was in 4th grade, one of my teachers would often call out on me during class in front of my classmates, either to read something out loud or just to participate. According to her, she was just trying to help me speak up. But she didn’t realize that she was promoting quite the opposite. It made my social anxiety worse. One time in my freshman year of high school, we had a project that we were then required to present. I kept getting anxious about it way before the due date. When it was finally my turn to present, my hands turned cold, sweating excessively. My heart was beating so fast, it seemed like it could burst out of my ribcage anytime. Although the presentation seemingly went well, it was dreadful. And that is just one of the many terrifying experiences.
If you have social anxiety, you may feel more comfortable expressing yourself through writing. You may prefer text over calls. No matter how much you love them, you are not going to respond to that FaceTime call. It gets to the edge in school, or at least it did for me. The madness about constant group work and participation made me despise school. Though classes are all online now, social anxiety does not go away. You may still be afraid to unmute yourself to answer so you just don’t join your classes anymore.
Many suggest therapy to overcome social anxiety. But not everyone has that option. So what can you do? First of all, know that nothing is wrong with you! You are not alone. Social anxiety is not always recognized or spotted easily by others. So that kid in your class who you think is confident, not afraid to speak, and answers questions effortlessly, might have a fear of social judgment. You can’t tell. Some are just better at hiding it.
One of the methods that seemed to help me with my social anxiety is self-talk. Since I am afraid to let anyone know about my issue, I became my own therapist. Talk to yourself the way you wish others would talk to you. Never disrespect yourself. Remind yourself that as much as you may think others are judging you, most of the time they are just busy with themselves. The teenagers in the mall laughed because one of their friends made a joke. That one girl laughed when you were reading out loud because she and her friend were making inside jokes that did not involve you. We stress too much about how others see us. But you need to see yourself for who you are. Be aware of your triggers. Avoid situations that will make your anxiety eat you up. You do not need to do things to please others. Use your preferred way to share your thoughts and let others know about your issue. Please pay attention to yourself!
I want to let teens like me know that they are not “weird.” They don’t need to “fit in.” I am speaking up on behalf of those who struggle to express their thoughts. And I also want teachers to be mindful of how their students are and not pressure them to do presentations. They should offer alternatives in which the students can contribute their ideas without increasing their social anxiety. I shared my thoughts but will you take them into consideration?
By Mehek Azra, 15, high school sophomore, New York. She is Bengali (from Southeast Asia).