I know how people see me now: super-organised, controlled, energetic, confident and ice-cool under pressure. Because I’m articulate in front of huge audiences or being interviewed, I appear extrovert and unselfconscious. People see me as mentally and physically healthy. I certainly don’t “suffer” from stress.
I’m also seen as someone who knows about the brain and can explain human behaviours by linking neuroscience with observed reality. I can talk about the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the mesolimbic pathway, myelination and brain bandwidth and avoid the psychobabble traps surrounding mirror neurons or brain laterality.
But that person is not who I was.
This is my message to young people, or people of any age, struggling with how things are for them:
“Everything changes. Some of it will change anyway and some of it you can make change, once you know how you work. And what you can’t change, you rise above, deal with, park.”
Throughout school, I suffered what I now realise were stress-related health problems, often making me miss school or just under-perform. I was horrendously self-conscious, afraid of failure and hated speaking in class, let alone standing on a stage; anxiety was my middle name and phobias restricted my enjoyment of life, although I somehow thought that one day I would wake up as a different person, which was a very comforting thought.
I was also “different”: I was the only girl (apart from my sister) in a rural all-boys’ school until I was 11, most of that in classes with people three years older than me, and then arrived at a girls’ boarding school where I was a shy, skinny, naïve, never-been-to-a-city 11 year old in a class of sophisticated 13 year olds. Those girls were not impressed by my tree-climbing and weapon-making skills. Or my appalling crimplene-heavy fashion sense.
Weirdly, I describe myself as enjoying school, except for my Lower 6th year, when all the teachers gave me deeply critical and pessimistic reports, telling me I wouldn’t get to University, except for one who suggested that I might be unhappy rather than unteachable. Full marks to that teacher. (I did go to university – Cambridge.)
I was also regarded as being poor at science. I know this because I have my last science report, which includes the words: “She does not seem to have great deal of aptitude for science subjects”. (You’ll see that “aptitude” is spelled wrong so we might guess the science teacher didn’t have much “aptitude” for spelling. That’s fine: aptitude is very over-rated.)
Apart from science (OK, and maths) I was always seen as a brain-box, teased for being a swot and knowing the meanings of ridiculous words or being able to unpick the errors in complex sentences or arguments. I unhelpfully underlined my “difference” by being the only person in my year to take Latin and Greek A-levels, which was guaranteed to reinforce me as the brainy one.
It is certainly true that I “suffered” from stress and did throughout my twenties and thirties. I don’t suffer from it now. And I don’t plan to again.
So, what happened? Was it just time or something I did? I think there were several things but one I value most: I fell in love with the human brain and decided to find out how I could control mine better.
I was training to be a dyslexia specialist in the early 1990s. We had to look at what was known (not much) about brain differences between dyslexic and non-dyslexic people and what I learnt about brains how small changes affect our behaviours, emotions, thoughts and physical and mental health just gripped me. People ask me why I’m so interested in the brain and I can only say, “How can you not be?”
And so I read. And read and read. I have never stopped reading about the areas of neuroscience and neuropsychology that interest me. Now, I read the original research and communicate with the practising scientists, who have been amazingly helpful and welcoming to this non-scientist. I also do now understand how to think scientifically, you’ll be glad to know. You can learn to do anything if you want it enough and work hard enough.
So, from stressed-out, unsociable outsider to confident author and public speaker. Same personality, different behaviours. More self-respect and self-kindness. Better strategies. A real pride in my introversion. And completely different mental and physical health.
I believe that makes me the perfect person to help others live a life where biological stress motivates them rather than traps them in dizzying anxiety and suboptimal function.
I wish I could talk to the cripplingly self-conscious, illness-prone and mentally unresilient teenager I was. I would say to her: “Your brain is in your hands far more than you think. I can show you how you can affect your own wellbeing and have the best chance of self-driven success. Trust me.”