By James Hinton
I was an older student with an anxiety issue. After spending time in the Army, including several combat tours, I had been diagnosed with PTSD. Being around large numbers of strangers worried me. Noisy settings where I was not completely in control gave me the need to run for it. I would even feel a touch agoraphobic if I was not close to something I could bunker up within.
When I made the decision to obtain a college degree after getting out, these all presented me with significant problems. While some of the university classes I participated in had relatively small class sizes that enabled me to learn faces fairly quickly and find a certain degree of comfort with, large classes were a daily struggle. I would have to position myself close to doors so I could bolt outside for relief if needed. More boisterous classes could result in frequent, embarrassing episodes where I just plain had to get out.
Eventually I made it through and obtained my Bachelors, but it was not a particularly easy or enjoyable process. My struggles had frequently led to my considering quitting, which had only caused the depression that comes with PTSD to get worse. Preparing for class had been an anxiety inducing process that involved my wondering whether I’d make it through to the end, or have to make a dash for the door yet again.
I still wonder sometimes how I made it to graduation.
When the time came that it became clear I needed to go for a Master’s degree I was extremely concerned about this decision. While I had been reassured that the class sizes tended to be smaller, I had also been informed that the pressure tended to be higher as well. Already being high strung thanks to my mental issues, anxiety was a constant companion in my process of deciding to attend and applying to schools.
The times, it turned out, had changed, and for the better for folks like me. While my initial classes had been about as anxiety inducing as I had feared, I soon discovered that technological advances had given me an opportunity I’d not had during my undergraduate program. It turned out that I had the option of taking a number of my classes online.
It was a night and day experience for me. Interacting with fellow students was done through computer media rather than face to face. I was able to engage in class from the safety of home, and always knew I was in total control because I was a power button away from being able to step out any time I needed to.
In some cases class activities were done through asynchronous methods. Lectures were delivered by video, readings assigned through downloads and websites. Conversations were conducted using bulletin board software like Blackboard or through e-mail. In these cases, I could take my time going through the comments, responding to them after taking time to consider them, and had the ability to step away at any point, coming back later without missing any part of the conversation.
In other cases class was conducted at set times. Students participated in fully engaged simultaneously through methods as simple as AIM chat rooms and Google Hangouts or through multi-media driven processes such as video chats or virtual classroom spaces in Second Life. I couldn’t simply step away from these without missing part of the conversation, but I found that having that electronic barricade between me and my fellow students left me rarely needing to.
Regardless of whether it was through asynchronous or synchronous methods, I found that I actually enjoyed the classes I was in. I was far keener to attend and learn. I engaged with other students more often, and at a greater depth, because I wasn’t constantly stressed by concerns of immediate physical dangers. My grades skyrocketed, and so did my mood.
This isn’t to say that the classes themselves were easier. If anything classes were a bit harder through this. Not showing up in a physical classroom made it easier to rationalize skipping, and not having a professor watching you turn in assignments made it easier to let them slide. It took greater discipline and self-motivation to complete all tasks assigned and show up for class. Nor was the material covered or the requirements for completion dumbed down in any way.
If anything, the standards were higher. My professors knew that my access to the net gave me additional resources to work with and means to explore topics, so they frequently expected additional research on topics to take place without prompting. Significant amounts of time was spent in several of my classes as students discussed with the class the additional explorations they had conducted on the topics.
Online education isn’t the answer for all anxiety sufferers looking to receive an education. For some the source of anxiety has to do with workloads or expectations. For them the simple fact is that their anxieties will stem from the education itself. For these individuals I would strongly suggest they spend some time with their mental healthcare specialist to explore options that will work for them.
If the source of your anxiety is social, however, as mine was, going online may well be the answer. My program was a “blended” program, with some classes conducted in person on campus and with some being conducted online. I have since learned that there are a large number of fully online programs that are being offered by accredited and highly respected schools at all levels from BA/BS to Ph.D. Examples would include Portland State’s Criminal Justice BA, the MBA program at Norwich University, or the Pharm.D program from the University of Florida.
Take some time and explore the possibilities. Online education helped me a great deal when I went through my educational process. It could well help you as well. It may not be the easiest route for all people, but for those of us with anxiety disorders, it may well be the best route available for our particular needs.