It is difficult to imagine anxiety and the toll it takes if one has never experienced it. Well, to be fair, everyone encounters anxiety at one point or another. It is, in fact, an essential emotion that is meant to prepare us for rather uncomfortable situations. The brain becomes active, allowing us to cope with particular situations, such as public speaking or exams. However, it becomes a problem when perennial fear kicks in, even when not required. The cold sweats and gasping for air without a corresponding situation are cause for concern.
I experienced my first panic attack a few years ago at a friend’s wedding, as I sat watching my friends dance. I had never experienced one before, so I had no language or framework to comprehend it with. Nor did I have any mechanism to cope with it. There I sat alone, surrounded by my friends, with loud music playing, slowly sinking into the dense air.
There was no attack for some time after, but slowly insomnia kicked in. I would lay on my bed exhausted, sleep lurking somewhere behind my pupils. I could feel it. I tried holding on to it, but I just could not sleep. Anxiety it is, I was told. But why would I have it? There was no rational answer. I had everything I had ever wanted, a happy married life, a healthy relationship with my parents, a great job. There was no answer. I just had to come to terms with the fact that I had anxiety.
Raised with typical notions of masculinity, it took me a long time to embrace the vulnerability that the anxiety and insomnia induced. I started talking about it with my friends. Eventually, I also started bringing issues of mental health into the classroom discussions I conducted. I was surprised to find out that an overwhelming proportion of my students had experienced this debilitating emotion. Sometimes, these discussions almost became like group therapy sessions.
Made to doubt themselves
For many of my students, particularly female, this anxiety prevented them from speaking in class. They often held back from commenting even when they knew the answers. What if we are wrong, was the overwhelming fear. Even when the girls did respond to the class discussions, their responses were coated in self-doubt. A regular, straightforward statement ended in a questioning tone, the uncertainty evident even if the student had no reason for it.
This observation of self-doubt was reinforced in another social experiment that I have been conducting every year in my sociology class. While discussing the sociology of education, there is a reference in the course to a study conducted by Michelle Stanworth, which concludes that female students tend to underestimate their academic ability while boys overestimate theirs. Before mentioning the study, I ask my students to predict their final grades in the external examinations they are supposed to take at the end of the year. While there are exceptions, the overall trend always seems to confirm what Stanworth found in her research. Even the most hardworking female students understate their expected grades while the most non-serious male students tend to do the opposite.
With the way girls and boys are socialised in our society, it is no surprise that female students tend to underestimate or doubt their abilities. Femininity, in our cultural context, is defined in this particular way. Growing up, young girls, sometimes as young as two, are made to be conscious of their bodies – to sit, talk and laugh properly. Such expectations do not exist for boys. Even before a child becomes aware of the concepts of gender, these expectations weigh down on girls, as children are forced to internalise the voices of the society that expects them to be constantly self-conscious. The more self-conscious a child becomes, the better it seems she can play the role of gender norms in society.
How then do we expect our young girls to grow up without anxiety? And what is anxiety but a constant doubt lurking in the mind? The what if. Anxiety, it seems, is inherent in these conventional gender roles. As we raise our girls to conform to traditional notions of femininity, we also raise them, in the process, to become more anxious.
This phenomenon can also be seen in the #MeToo campaign. For many, the stock response to the movement is to ask why the women took so long to speak up about the sexual harassment and misconduct they faced. This despite there being reason to believe that many of these women did speak up in the past but that nothing happened. In certain cases where the harassment was not blatant, there must also have been an element of self-doubt, inherent in traditional gender socialisation. Did it even happen? Could that person do this in front of all these people? Am I reading too much into it?
To argue that gender expectations only affect girls would be wrong. Boys too are socialised to imagine themselves as the primary breadwinners. These expectations demand of them the role of the alpha, the hero in the family, the solver of all problems. This, too, is an anxiety-inducing experience. The problem is aggravated when toxic masculinity robs a man of the language in which he can express his vulnerability.
This is not to imply that anxiety can simply be equated with self-doubt and explained through gender roles. There are graver, more complex reasons for the phenomenon. The argument here is that conforming to conventional concepts of gender roles brings with it particular forms of anxiety-inducing symptoms, making our lives miserable when they do not necessarily have to be. Sometimes, external factors only worsen the symptoms of what we have been socialised into.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book, Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was, was published by Penguin Random House.