It has been noted many times over that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how long ago you left education, September 1 always feels like the first day back at school. How does that make you feel? Are you refreshed and ready for a new, exciting series of projects and challenges? Or can you feel a tightening knot in your stomach, an aura of unease, the sensation of a grumpy ghost pushing down hard on your shoulders? I’m in the latter camp. I had the whole summer to “prepare”, but I didn’t do enough, I’m not good enough and I’m terrified that everyone will be disappointed. Even though I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be preparing for. Even though, objectively speaking, I really am doing OK.
A new study of students in Quebec has found that anxiety can benefit a student’s academic career, with anxious pupils being much more likely to attend their classes and graduate on time than their more relaxed peers. Contradicting previous studies, which have suggested that anxiety can damage your academic prospects, this study suggests that students with the lowest levels of anxiety are at the highest risk of dropping out. Anxiety leads to achievement!
My anxiety disorder is difficult to manage – most days, I can keep it at a low-level hum, but under certain circumstances it becomes a chronic blare. I was at my most anxious at school, but it wasn’t until long after I’d left that I realised that there was a word for my endless terrified, terrifying feelings. More importantly, that was when I understood that I didn’t have to feel that way, consumed by fear and self-loathing. School normalised anxiety. Every day, we were told that the consequences of not showing up would be disastrous, that we were only as good as our last grade and that every single day would have a significant impact on our future, and we weren’t allowed to miss a thing.
I’ve paid for my success with my mental health and I don’t think it was worth it
I attended a small, selective, academic school and I understand that I was incredibly lucky to be supported by teachers who cared about every one of us. Most teachers are trained to deal with tricky teenagers who need to be reminded to focus. I don’t think ours expected to be preaching to the converted. Also, much of the pressure came from the other pupils, as we constantly compared ourselves with each other. In many ways, I was enormously privileged to be in that position. I did well in my exams. I went to university and got a fairly good degree.
Still, I wish it had felt different or that I had felt differently. I’ve paid for my success with my mental health and I don’t think it was worth it. When I talk to anxious friends who have been through similar experiences, I worry that academic culture is designed to exacerbate any anxiety we already have. Of course, it’s vital to motivate the students who need that sort of support. Still, I believe we need to do more to reach the many students who are already putting themselves under a huge amount of pressure. When there’s an escalating mental-health crisis, it’s clear that we’re creating generations of anxious adults. We’re obsessed with exam results, but perhaps we need to look at what we’re putting teens through in order to obtain them. We need to understand that safeguarding our mental health and wellbeing is every bit as important as acquiring some impressive qualifications.
Being anxious at school was great training for journalism. I’m obsessive about meeting deadlines, pleasing my editors and doing as much work as quickly as possible. When you’re a freelancer, your entire life is homework. It’s also made me obsessive about success. It doesn’t matter how much I do or how hard I work, because it can never be enough. My entire future could depend on my next assignment, and the better I do, the harder I need to push myself. On a good day, I can keep a sense of perspective and challenge my thoughts before they turn toxic. Still, sometimes when I’m spiralling, I resent the fact that I have everything I worked so hard for, yet I still feel like a frightened teenager. We need to redefine success, or at least make our happiness a bigger part of the definition. Right now, I’d swap all my A*s for a permanent cure for the sinking feeling that arrives every September.