Nature versus culture: will it be like this forever?

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My earliest memory of school anxiety was when I was in second grade. I had nightmares of not putting my homework folder in my backpack, nightmares of forgetting to do worksheets. These thoughts jolted me awake at night and burned the back of my eyes in the morning.

Sounds silly, I know. Stress dreams of… coloring? Basic arithmetic? I mean, what are you even doing in second year? But of course, everything feels important when you live it. And of course, I was a very anxious child.

This anxiety runs in my family. It’s no surprise that it found its way to me – in many ways, my younger experiences with school anxiety mirror those of my mother. Many mental health factors are inherited, and so that part of me was baked into who I was. The way I experience the world around me has been shaped by anxiety for as long as I can remember. There was no way to imagine my world without her.

In high school, test anxiety ruled my world. Little quizzes would make me ready to vomit; the big exams gave me extreme fatigue and panic attacks. I lived my life between exams, pausing everything in my life for the tests. It was a vicious and grueling way of bailing me out during my classes. But like I said, I couldn’t imagine any other way. It was like that, right? I should learn to deal with that. And I did, but at a constant cost to my sanity.

When the pandemic forced the school to move online, the school became more flexible and felt much less serious about its virtual format. Assignments and tests were structured differently, classes felt less formal, and everyone was working under a myriad of strange and difficult circumstances. Things started to change slowly for me – the open-ended tests helped me calm my nerves, being able to take assessments from my own room, completely alone, easing my anxiety, and the graciously understanding nature of the majority of my teachers during the pandemic. the initial chaos gave me a relief I didn’t even realize I needed. The powerful and holistically disruptive force of the pandemic pushed me in a new direction, force-feeding me some perspective on my stress and redirecting it to things that mattered more to me than school, grades, or feelings of success: my health and the health of my loved ones, physically, mentally and emotionally.

The pandemic has abruptly changed much of the world we know and the way we interact with it. On a personal scale, it forced me to realize how little is guaranteed – not our health, not our plans, not our lives – and how that means we shouldn’t – and can’t – wait to push for our own happiness. We don’t have to wait to ask for help, work on ourselves and improve ourselves. Achieving this best version of ourselves is not a fantasy. With work, we can change.

A few weeks ago, I walked into a midterm thinking mostly about what I was going to order at Starbucks when I was done. No panic attacks, no extreme fatigue, no nausea, just the slightest flutter of healthy nervousness in my stomach. The night before the test, I watched TV and sketched before going to bed. No inability to think about anything other than the test, no tightness to things I loved.

It took a lot of energy and work time. It’s definitely not my ‘normal’ either – anxiety is still a huge factor in my life, one that I think will never completely leave me. And yet, I don’t know how to express how unthinkable this experience was for me just a few years ago. I was so sure that who I was – and the anxiety that came with it – was absolutely set in stone. And while pieces of it certainly are, anchored like sediment to the core of who I am, the severity and struggle of it come and go, soften, and stop eroding me as harshly as before. If my anxiety is set in stone, I will continue to reduce it.

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