I’m been thinking about root causes of anxiety. How & why does it develop? Are some people simply born with an anxious temperament, or does traumatic experience trigger it? Personally I think it’s a mixture. I was born with the ability to develop an anxious condition if the right environment were presented. For me, this environment was secondary school.
I found secondary school difficult and unnerving
Like many people, I found secondary school difficult and unnerving. For the first time in my life I was forced to behave in a way that was deemed ‘desirable’ rather than what felt normal to me. Constant group work, speaking out in class and reading aloud were all activities that ‘normal & sociable’ children should do. In contrast I preferred working solo & presenting my ideas to the teacher or my immediate group. This wasn’t an environment that got the best out of me.
Here’s an example from my school report in Geography, from the year 2000:
Claire is a shy and deeply reserved girl. She doesn’t answer questions without being directly provoked and doesn’t enjoy sharing her work with the class. She needs to make a special effort to come out of her shell if she wants to be successful.
Notice that the report makes no reference to the actual quality of the work I produced, (I was mostly an A/B grade student) it only mentions my personality. Surely if my work was good then I was already successful? So why did the teacher feel the need to criticise my character at such a young age?
It was generally assumed that because I day dreamed and was quiet in class, that I was stupid. I remember my Maths teacher called me “bone idle” on numerous occasions and my Geography teacher once refereed to me as being “a bit thick” in a fit of temper. Despite the fact that I now have both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, in my darker moments I still see myself as being “thick.” That’s the thing about labels, they’re bloody sticky!
School was the time in my life where my confidence was challenged
Secondary school was also the time in my life where my confidence in my appearance was severely challenged. Fellow students were more than happy to inform me that I was ugly and weird. As an adult, I’d have told them all to f**k off, but as a young and impressionable teenage girl I accepted every word they said and spent years investing in fake tan and padded bras! I thought that if I could just be blonde, tanned and have bigger boobs then everything would be ok. Queue the sad violin music please...
By the age of fifteen I’d developed some very physical symptoms of anxiety. In class I blushed deeply whenever spoken to and developed a tremor. I would hide my hands under the table to prevent anyone from noticing it. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was the beginning of a lengthy battle with anxiety. However, I just ignored the signs and hoped that I would snap out of it as I grew older.
A teacher made me feel empowered and happy in my own skin
It was a college teacher who finally made me realise that I wasn’t weird or stupid. I was actually just an introvert! Let me tell you this… the education system certainly isn’t geared in their favour.
My English teacher was the first person in my educational life that treated me like an adult who deserved respect, rather than a nuisance child. From day one he accepted my personality and encouraged me to be myself. Instead of criticising my reserved nature, he praised my creativity and the quality of my work. In time, I felt comfortable enough to contribute in class discussions and my confidence grew. No longer did I spend lessons feeling tense and terrified that a teacher might draw attention to me. Instead I felt empowered and happy in my own skin. Happiness kills anxiety in the same way that water kills fire, and every time I entered that classroom my anxiety was dowsed in water. It didn’t stand a chance.
It's OK to be myself, no matter what the environment
There’s nothing I can do about the past, so I try not to spend time thinking about those years. Perhaps I was an over sensitive girl. I’m sure that many adults had a terrible time at school and still managed to brush it off and forget. But unfortunately not everybody is born with the innate ability to do this easily.
Secondary school was my trigger and any environment that reminds me of school always triggers my anxiety. But thinking of my English teacher and my college years always helps to ease the blow. It’s ok to be myself, no matter what the environment.