Ask a question? You know you want to!

Does even the idea of asking a question in class make you break out in a sweat? For some, anxiety over asking questions in class, even in small groups, let alone making a presentation in front of all your peers, triggers such a strong avoidance strategy that they can go through their entire time at university without ever asking a question, even though they often have questions they would dearly like answered. That might even extend to not going up to the lecturer at the end of the lecture to ask a question, for fear of appearing stupid. Does this sound familiar? If so, do not despair, instead seek some help - once you understand what is going on treatment can often be quite straightforward.

So what is going on? What is it that prevents some people from asking questions in class, while others do it all the time? There are several things happening here; first, basic anxiety is typically a fear that something bad is going to happen (if you ask a question, or make a comment) and you won’t be able to cope (with the consequences). Such anxiety may be caused by a low sense of self-worth: that “I’m not good enough”, that “I’m stupid”, “they’ll think I’m an idiot”, “I’ll blush - go red and everyone will look at me (and so I’ll be embarrassed)”. All sorts of thoughts go racing through the mind at the very thought of raising your hand to ask a question or say something. Ironically perhaps, this can also exist alongside a high degree of perfectionism - wanting to to be the best, or the best possible - a coping strategy that ultimately becomes quite unhelpful.

While anxiety exists in many forms and can be severely debilitating, at its root it is really quite a simple mechanism. The physical symptoms of anxiety are those of the ‘fight or flight’ response - the body preparing itself to run away or fight: racing pulse, shallow breathing, sweating palms etc.

Anxiety model.jpg

Typically, anxiety involves two over-estimations and one under-estimation: over-estimation of the likelihood and of the severity of something bad happening; and under-estimation of your ability to cope (see Figure); the first set relating to the estimation relating to threat, and the second, to your degree of perceived vulnerability. Because the perceived threat outweighs the perceived ability to cope, anxiety is experienced. Linked to these over-estimations are what are known as cognitive distortions - or ‘thinking errors’ - some very common, but unhelpful ways of thinking about situations and events that help trigger the feelings of anxiety, and maintain that response:

  • You over-estimate the probability/likelihood that you will go red, blush, you’ll make a mess of asking a simple question, that people will think you’re an idiot, etc…

  • You over-estimate the severity of the impact - not just red, but really red; not just a mess of the question but a spectacular mess so that people will laugh at you, and so on.

  • And you under-estimate your own ability to cope with all of that - if the worst happened which actually, of course, is highly unlikely when looked at logically.

So, you think you know what people will say, that they will judge you, but you don’t really know that, and very likely ignore signals (evidence) that might suggest otherwise, e.g. others may think of you as actually very smart, but you believe your own inner critic and think of yourself as inadequate.

This model of anxiety (by Aaron Beck) helps provide a helpful pathway to treatment, since both the threat and vulnerability schemas can be addressed with a variety of cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy (CBH) techniques, often with only a few sessions. So don’t keep avoiding the anxiety by not asking a question - that just maintains (and even reinforces) the problem. Seek some help, to address the anxiety and build your self-confidence, so you can fully engage in your university experience.

Bill Sheate, 22 October 2018