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I have crippling anxiety around "authority figures", and I'm irrationally deathly afraid to the point where I will cry in a room when alone with them, likely due to my upbringing, namely, always being afraid of my verbally abusive, but very loving and well-intentioned, father. And so I tend to leave very important and very kind emails from professors unanswered. This is unprofessional of me, and so I was wondering what some of you here have successfully tried doing to counter this level of anxiety.

The authority figure can be a professor, a fireman / police officer looking to help me, my basketball coach. I've experienced similar with all of these people. I am sometimes just mute.

I see a doctor and take meds already, but I am looking for other ways to cope.

Is there a cool, fun strategy to try to implement, say, respond to emails within 5 minutes of reading them, even if my response is incomplete? Aim for a one-sentence reply?

I don't know, I'm just thinking, but I know I need a lot of help.

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    would it be helpful if I were to share some e-mails I wrote to authority figures (such as a professor I know, a professor that I do not know, a department head) and try to break down what my personal approach is? – Boaty Mcboatface Apr 28 at 22:31
  • @BoatyMcboatface Sure, I'd be happy to read it. – user123405 Apr 28 at 22:35
  • Who are you? An undergrad, grad student? – Azor Ahai -- he him Apr 28 at 23:21
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    If your doctor cannot help you with this question, they should be able to refer you to someone who can. I do not think you should take advice from internet strangers who might not have any experience with severe anxiety. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 29 at 1:19
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    I would recommend OP to ask this question in Academia Reddit and not here. Because moderators here don't allow personal information – SSimon Apr 30 at 5:07
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You are doing the right thing seeking some medical advice. But the way to become more comfortable in this, as in most things, is:

Practice. Practice. Practice.

The first steps are painful and you may fall. Eventually you learn to walk and probably to run.

My doctoral program took a few years longer than it might have because I was too afraid to speak up on my own behalf at a certain point and got stuck (really stuck) with an unhelpful advisor.

Later, I took on the issue head on and taught myself to look people in the eye and to speak up. It was very difficult at first. Now I do it without thought or worry.

It is just a skill. Learn to apply it. Haltingly at first, but it is extremely unlikely that bad things will happen if you speak up. If people don't know your needs they will not be able to assist your academic growth. Just. Do. It. Grow into the person you want to be.

Sometimes you need to just pretend to be the person you want to be.

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As I mentioned in the comments, I will try to explain how I go about writing emails via breaking down some of my older ones. Hopefully this can help a bit. I am not boasting my writing skills (or of the lack there of). This is what works for me. Note that there are some reductions and italic text are the censors.

I) A professor that I expect to remember who I am.

Here I am asking for a professor for the homework questions he prepared for a class that I have attended. I also have a good rapport with him. So I try to keep it brief and on point.

Hello,

Can you please e-mail me the algebra homework sheets you prepared for your courses (if you have them)? My friend is retaking algebra in another university and it appears they don't give decent, constructive homework. I also think I can benefit from redoing those and repeating some of the basics with her. Finally, I intend to send you a some other matter draft tonight hopefully it is not too late.

Regards

For something like a small request, I would simply briefly say hello, state my request kindly and explain why I am asking for it. Thank them for their time and end with regards. If it were something more time consuming I would use phrases like, "would it be possible" or "if it is not a problem". Brief and on point usually works great.

II)A professor that most likely does not know who I am.

This is a more complicated issue. I am asking for a proffesor (to whom I have never talked before and that I will be working with) if he would be okay for me the apply for a grant for another project relating to his project in order to fund my participation.

Hello,

I am writing to inform / check with you something. I will be participating your program and as you might know along with the usual expenses your university demands a payment around ... I have been looking for financial support options for a while and I could manage to find two small ones. The part that might concern you that one of the support option comes from some institution and the only way to get the program funded is to declare the program payments as "cost of education" for another project that will be done in my country. Hence, I will be doing a senior project next semester with another advisor on a related or correlated topic to justify the declaration and get funding. I acknowledge that the any result or material done in the summer is the program's intellectual property and I ensure you that any result will be used only with the appropriate citation and reference. I also acknowledge that your program is the more important between two and that my total attention and concentration is and will be on your program. Aforementioned senior project is only to make the program financially less crushing. I hope that this is alright with you.

Regards,

For a longer e-mail I find it useful to state its purpose in the first sentence. What are you asking/saying? Then introduce yourself if it is necessary. Finally make your point. It is usually a good idea to keep it as brief but complicated issues have naunces and it is important to adress them. In the case above, I try to answer why am I writing? who am I? what is the issue at hand? why is this issue at hand? why it might concern them? Why shouldn't they worry about obvious issue?.

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Several of the techniques here could help, but here's another angle to consider: Use your email's delay send feature, and schedule for, say, half an hour from when you hit send.

That takes the pressure off of actually hitting the send button, because hey, if you think of something catastrophically wrong, you can go back and fix it. However, it's entirely possible that when you step away for a moment, it'll take a backseat in your mind. So, the half hour mark will pass, the email will send, and you won't think twice about it.

Maybe worth a shot?

(Your mileage may vary. The trick is taking your mind off it in the half hour, if that's at all possible)

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What helps me reply to emails from professors is to have a lot of "template" sentences; things that you would pretty much say to anyone in a professional setting without much attention to context. That way it removes a lot of the personal interaction that brings anxiety to me and luckily this sort of attitude is more or less preferred in an academic setting because everyone is busy and all they want is a kind and concise email. Once you develop a habit you can write emails faster and consider it more of a task than an anxiety-inducing social interaction.

My emails frequently contain some of these phrases:

Hello, Dr. _

Thank you for getting back to me/Thank you for your help/advice. Yes I agree with you/I appreciate your comments/I would like to ___.

I look forward to meeting/discussing/hearing from you.

Regards, Cell

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I very much agree with Buffy's answer, but I believe there needs to be a slight change in emphasis.

What you are describing is not a lack in some skill that you could overcome by practicing. It sounds like the textbook definition of an anxiety disorder, specifically a subtype of social phobia.

Anxiety disorders are quite amenable to behavior therapy. I would very much recommend that you talk to a psychotherapist, not just a medical doctor or psychiatrist. Your school may be able to help you with finding a good therapist.

Your therapist will likely recommend a form of exposure therapy, which consists of performing the anxiety-inducing actions in a controlled and safe environment, essentially to unlearn the anxiety response by learning that the action is indeed safe. For instance, you might write email responses in a therapy session, under the therapist's supervision and help. You will start with small messages and work your way up to more confrontational ones.

Yes, this will take a lot of practice, just like Buffy writes. However, professional support will be invaluable in doing this and in reflecting on what is happening in yourself as you write your mails.

Good luck!

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    Please do not accept medical advice from people you do not know who have unknown qualifications. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 29 at 10:30
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: do you consider my advice to see a psychotherapist as medical advice which the OP should not accept? Or my personal opinion of medications as a second step after behavioral therapy? To be quite honest, a diagnosis of social anxiety seems sufficiently likely to me here that I would consider any advice not to see a professional and to essentially work only through a self-help program as dangerous. Incidentally, I may actually be best qualified in this thread about social anxiety, having collaborated on a couple of papers some years ago. – Stephan Kolassa Apr 29 at 11:23
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    "I may actually be best qualified in this thread about social anxiety, having collaborated on a couple of papers some years ago." If that were true, surely you would have ethics training telling you that you cannot treat patients you have not examined personally. Your advice is very dangerous because it might cause someone reading it (not necessarily the asker) to stop taking their prescribed medication. Further, this answer is inappropriate for this site. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 30 at 0:42
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: I do not quite see how my advice to see a professional constitutes treatment. I have removed the sentence about medications, as you are right it could be misunderstood. I do not see how my answer is inappropriate for this site as long as the question remains open. (I see that you have voted to close this as a "boat programming" question, and I am inclined to agree.) – Stephan Kolassa Apr 30 at 4:52
  • Thanks. ....... – Anonymous Physicist Apr 30 at 5:44
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I know such problems very well.

My advice is: Do not put yourself under pressure. This makes your fears worse.

You do not have to answer within five minutes. Unless it is something really urgent, you even do not have to answer the same day. Authorities usually are quite busy, they do not just sit there and wait for your answer. So take your time.

I myself start by writing a draft. Not the real answer, but just a draft. I make a list of items I want to mention in my e-mail. I collect some phrases I might use.

Then I start writing and try to finish a first draft of the text. I save this draft and do something else.

When I get back to my e-mail after an hour or so, it is not so terrifying any more, because I already have a draft. Perhaps it is not so bad, and I can use it. Very often, at a second glance, I quite like my text, and I send it as it is.

If not, I go over it again and tell myself that it is still a draft. Then I wait again for some time, and then I send it. In very difficult cases, I sometimes wait until the next day, but not longer.

This works fine for me, and I hope it is of some help for you, too.

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