From a 14 year old girl in the U.S.: I have always been a shy person. I’ve never particularly enjoyed making small talk with strangers or spending a great deal of my time around people. However, I never really saw this as a problem until now, when a lot of my schoolwork has started to depend on being able to talk to others.

I always saw myself as shy, and nothing more than that, but the more I think about it, it’s not just an unwillingness to talk to people. It’s an inability. From the beginning of my time in middle school to now, I have noticed something about the way I interact with other people. I need to rehearse all possible conversations in my head before they happen, or else I cannot respond. If someone says something that catches me off guard, or if I haven’t practiced what I’m going to say, I’ll lose my voice entirely, like I’ve gone mute. I’ll try to move my mouth to form the words, but the sound just doesn’t come out, no matter how hard I try.

With strangers, it’s not as big of a deal, because I can pass it off as having a hoarse voice due to sickness or something. But it happens with people I know too, and I’m afraid that they’ll interpret it as me being rude.

There are only a handful of people this does not happen with: my very close friends and immediate family. Also, if I practice what to say beforehand, I’ll usually be able to respond; for example, I practice my order at a restaurant before I go up to put it in. Occasionally, I can stutter out yes or no. But other than these few exceptions, I’m usually left mute in my day to day life. I’m tired of walking away and clearing my throat, pretending like I have a sore throat. My voice works perfectly fine and I just want to be able to use it. What is happening to me and how do I stop it?

A: I’m sure this is frustrating and very difficult. It’s possible that you have developed some form of social anxiety. Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people. This often leads to embarrassment and over-concern with how others will respond to anything the person says. Although most teens do worry about how they are seen by others, teens with social anxiety find it especially difficult to get beyond their fears when asked to speak in front of others they aren’t sure about.

You aren’t worried about rejection from family and friends who love you. But with strangers and especially in class, you may literally “clam up” out of anxiety.

If you could have fixed this on your own, you would have done so already. For that reason, I do suggest that you make an appointment with a counselor to learn some strategies to reclaim your voice. Talk to your school counselor about how to find the right counselor for you.

In the meantime, you might find it helpful to check out the forum on anxiety right here at PsychCentral. People offer tips and support for each other.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie