All throughout high school and part of college, I had terrible anxiety and panic attacks in class. I was well aware, even then, that my social anxiety disorder and panic disorder were hurting my academic performance. This led me to explore the question: Does online school help with anxiety?
Going to school online may decrease anxiety temporarily, but can increase it in the long run for some. The benefit of taking online classes is the removal of anxiety triggers like social pressures, public speaking, and bullying. Ultimately, however, such avoidant behavior can actually reinforce one’s anxieties.
Because many of the most common anxiety triggers can be found at school, it’s no surprise that taking online classes can help students to feel more comfortable and at ease while studying from home. Yet, we need to be mindful of the long-term and undesired effects this may have on anxiety.
Read on, and I’ll explain exactly what kind of positive and negative effects taking classes online may have on anxiety, and what you can do to minimize the negatives.
Does Online School Help with Anxiety?
Here are Some of the Pros and Cons of Learning Online:
These are some of the major benefits of taking online classes, as well as the potential drawbacks. In the next section, we'll dive a bit deeper into each.
The Benefits of Online Classes for Anxiety
The benefits of online school can seem immense for students who are suffering from anxiety in a traditional classroom setting. Social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders affecting adolescents and adults, with more than 9.1% of adolescents suffering from social anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders like social anxiety and specific phobias tend to develop around high school. This can cause a great deal of fear, pain, and confusion for students in both high school and college.
Amid these struggles, many anxious students wonder, does online school help with anxiety?
Here are some reasons why it might.
Learning in a Comfortable Environment with
Little to No Exposure to Anxiety Triggers
Being removed from one’s anxiety triggers can be a massive relief. Regardless of which anxiety disorder a student has, taking classes online can almost certainly reduce short-term anxiety for them.
Some of the most common fears that students have at school are based around social anxiety and school-specific phobias. This may include social pressures such as bullying, but it can also just be a general sense of anxiety when interacting with one’s peers. Being humiliated by the teacher, getting picked last on a team, or having to read out loud / give a class presentation are a few of the most common fears that anxious students face in school each day.
Logically, it makes sense that students may perform better academically when they can focus on their schoolwork rather than the ever-present sense of anxiety looming over them.
Not having to face their anxiety on a daily basis can help students to excel through online classes.
Reduced Performance Anxiety
Another source of anxiety for students is the constant competition they may face amongst their peers.
If a student is worried about looking foolish or not doing as well as their peers, this can greatly distract and discourage them from their own progress.
Online schooling can help with anxiety by removing this pressure, allowing a student to focus on themselves.
Learn at Your Own Pace, From Anywhere
Perhaps one of the greatest hidden benefits of going to school online is the ability to learn at your own pace, anywhere.
The simple fact is, not everyone learns at the same pace.
In a traditional classroom setting, it’s possible that a student falls behind for some reason. In certain subjects, like mathematics, this can be a death sentence. If you didn’t understand the first formula, how could be expected to catch up with the lesson while everyone’s moving forward?
Add to this another fact: Some people just don’t learn as well in a classroom setting.
Completely regardless of anxiety, I myself could hardly focus while sitting in class at college. I’d wake up at 6am for a 6:15am class, and rush to the classroom before I even had time for a cup of coffee. From there, I’d squirm for an hour or so, completely tuned out of the lesson and desperately trying to stay awake.
Later, I’d have to make up for this by printing out the lecture slides and frantically teaching myself the material the day before the test.
I was the perfect example of someone who just learned better on my own than in a classroom setting.
The benefit of being able to learn at your own pace is a massive one.
The Downsides of Online Classes for Anxiety
Yet, just as with the benefits of taking online school to help with anxiety, there are also some downsides to consider.
Very Isolating with Little Social Interaction
Going to school online can be very isolating, and provide little opportunity for social interaction.
This may sound nice to a student with social anxiety, initially... but it has its downsides.
Namely, you could be missing out on some of the most memorable experiences of your youth. It’s impossible to know for sure what you may be missing out on, but many people look back fondly and consider high school or college the best years of their lives. Even if things look bleak right now, you will beat your anxiety if you put in the work.
Some online students claim to feel more depressed or anxious over time due to online classes. As I write this article, the world is dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, and many students are forced to take online classes. Among these students, there is certainly a shared desire among many to return to the classroom; something should be said for that.
Less Opportunity to Explore Interests, and Difficulty Self-Motivating
This won’t necessarily apply to everyone, but some students will have difficulty self-motivating without direct support from teachers or classmates.
Additionally, by removing yourself from a classroom environment, you may find it difficult to develop new interests or discover new talents you might have.
Not to mention the sage wisdom of surrounding yourself with people who have the same goals as you; so that you may strive to reach your goals together. You may find you have no issue self-motivating here, but it’s possible that it could emerge as an issue for some.
Little to No Exposure to Anxiety Triggers;
May Lead to Additional Anxiety Disorders
The benefit of being totally removed from your anxiety triggers can be a bit of a double-edged sword.
For anyone who actually hopes to beat their anxiety in the long-run, methods such as exposure therapy are highly recommended. Exposure therapy encourages anxiety sufferers to slowly exit their comfort zone and confront their fears, but to do so in a reasonably comfortable and controlled manner. This is done in the hopes that it will lead to fear extinction over time.
The hard truth here is that, if you are taking online classes to escape anxiety, you are engaging in avoidant behavior. Avoidance of an anxiety trigger will, unfortunately, strengthen that fear over time.
It may feel good at first to know that you have removed the immediate source of your anxiety by avoiding the physical location of school. However, this will probably not end your anxiety troubles.
More likely, this avoidant behavior will lead your anxiety to emerge in new and uglier ways. If you don’t expand your comfort zone, your anxiety disorder will expand your discomfort zone. This is what leads to phobias such as agoraphobia. Today, going to school might make you anxious; but with months of avoidance, even leaving your house might be difficult.
Are Online Classes Right for You?
Now that you understand the pros and cons of online classes, you’ve got a big decision to make.
Does online school help with anxiety?
Online classes can certainly help to reduce short-term, immediate anxiety. But it can also be a sneaky way for your anxiety to expand its borders while you have your back turned; leading to even worse conditions such as agoraphobia over time.
But I also know firsthand how bad anxiety disorders can be. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from taking online classes if they believe that’s how they'll best thrive academically.
My advice, therefore, is this:
If you decide that online classes are right for you, consider ways that you can continue to leave your comfort zone and face anxiety, at least occasionally.
For those with social anxiety, think about how you can continue to meet new people on your own terms and interact with your peers. For those with phobias such as presentation anxiety, consider joining your local Toastmasters to try and chip away at it there, etc.
Some online schools offer hybrid programs in which you primarily take classes online, but occasionally meet in person.
Any of these may be good compromises for you to remove the immediate threat of severe anxiety, while also slowly reclaiming your comfort zone on your own terms. I’m sure that, with this information, you will be able to determine what is best for you.
Whatever you decide, I wish you the best of luck!