July 3, 2017

How Photography Is Healing My Social Anxiety – Past, Present, Future

How Photography Is Healing My Social Anxiety

I’ve been thinking about writing about how photography is healing my social anxiety for a little while now. Every time I thought I should get started it was hard not to feel dread. Vulnerability is scary, especially when you’re pointing out that you have anxiety that can cripple you. It reminds me of the early days of my anxiety when I just wanted to be like every other kid, with nothing wrong with them.


Ever since I can remember I’ve been anxious. The earliest forms of anxiety I can remember was the sheer terror I felt being dropped off at a friend’s house for a sleepover. I wanted to go, clearly, that’s why my parents brought me over and I always had an amazing time. But there was something about the anticipation, always the anticipation that pushed me over the edge.


I had always wondered what had caused this anxiety in me that for a long time extinguished any hope for happiness in my younger years. I remember it wasn’t really until I was 19 that things seemed to start going up hill. I was going to Durham College for art and design. I hated myself. Pure and simple. I would cry myself to sleep being bullied by myself. Telling myself things like “You have no personality”, “No one will ever want to be your friend”, “You’re a loser”,”You’re ugly in every way”. All types of things would run through my mind every second of the day. This self-hate maximized my social anxiety. There was no way I was going to try to talk to anyone at school with the “You have no personality, No one likes you” broadcast running over and over in my head. I went to therapy for 6 months and it ended the self-hate. A marvel that I am so grateful that my parents provided for me.


It is in recent years that I realized it was my experiences in the education system that had destroyed my young self-esteem. In kindergarten, I spent too much time looking out the wind or playing with my shoelaces that my teacher came to my mom with concern that I had Attention Deficit Disorder. After confirming it at the doctors, he prescribed me Ritalin. I was 5 years old. Thankfully, my mom told him where to go.

The most haunting experience that I can’t forget on this social anxiety journey of mine was grade 6. I got the most uncaring and brutal teacher at our school. She was known for her strictness and lack of smiles. To my absolute horror, everyone was required to present current events once every month. Presenting in front of people is still a massive fear so you can imagine what it was like for 12 year old me, still in the deep throws of anxiety. Nights before in the anticipation of what was coming I would have panic attacks all night, unable to sleep in the horror. One day, after seeing enough of the terror my mom went in to talk to her about my struggles. She was met with complete disregard. “It’s all in her head. She needs to get over it.”


It’s all in my head. Yes, it’s all in my head. It’s called a mental illness. And no, forcing me to face the triggers of my mental illness will not make it magically go away. I don’t even want to think about the damage that year and the following years of stress have done to my body.


Next, I would be diagnosed with a learning disability in regards to math. I would only have to do every other question on the homework and be escorted out of the class in front of everyone to go to the special math class. By this time my social anxiety was in full swing. I had figured out that I wasn’t like the other kids and I felt like there was a flashing beacon always following me around letting everyone know I was stupid and different. I know these things sound ridiculous because the school system was just trying to create the best Individual Education Plan (IEP) for me but I don’t ever remember being sat down and told that is was for my benefit and that it didn’t mean I was lesser. I just remember conservations all around me, about me, but never including me. Just the adults that knew better.

colour film portrait of girl in clothing closet
Sarah, 2008, colour film


I remember discovering my IEP. It was like an earthquake. Written on this piece of paper was everything that was wrong with me, or at least that was how 13 year old me saw it. I had been trying to ignore, with little success, that I was different from everyone else. I just wanted to be like my friends. Happy, outgoing, and smart.


Furthermore, comes the ridiculousness of the education system and where I believe, at this point, they were just digging for things that were wrong with me. I was sat down for a test to see how fast I wrote and how fast I typed. You probably haven’t seen my writing, it’s worse than you think. Anyways, they came to the conclusion that I had developed without a certain bone in my hand that confirmed the reason I couldn’t write fast or nice enough. I was given a laptop for class that made me stick out even more like a sore thumb because I didn’t meet some sort of writing level, like everyone else.

film photo of young girl in window

I wish I had the foresight to know like I do know that I was just an artist in an educational system that serves the left brain. Constantly, my weaknesses were pointed out but never my strengths. I was talented at drawing and creative writing. I remember the school held a drawing contest for students to create works of the beloved janitor who was retiring. To my frustration, I came in second to, M, the extremely talented girl that drew all day every day no matter what was happening in class. Funny enough, M was heavily labeled too. Why were we forced to better our left brain and leave our right brain behind?



film photo of girl on mossy scottish stone wall
Sarah, 2008, B+W Film


When I was 16 I discovered photography, I thought it would be a super easy credit in high school. I had just got out of a lengthy stint of serious depression that I still look back with amazement that I made it through. I went to a different school than my elementary went into so here I was, the new kid with social anxiety. I made a new friend just in time. Anyways, I fell head over heels for photography. I still remember seeing an image slowly appear like magic on the photo paper for the first time. Amusingly, I got crap marks in that class. I didn’t care though, it would be my obsession for the rest of my youth.


So, how is photography healing my social anxiety? Well, even though I have this phobia I love photographing people. I love people, connection, and emotion, unfortunately, because of the series of events you are now aware of I’m working my way back to that outgoing, bubbly 4-year old that my mom dropped off on my first day of school. I started with forcing my family members to be my subjects to close friends and then onto people I didn’t know so well. I would be all excited about this idea I had for a shoot but then in the anticipation of it all, usually last minute, I would call it off. I’m so sorry if it was you I did this to. Over time, I kept booking these shoots and taking that first step. The first step towards getting ready, the first step to getting into the car, the first step to walking up to my subjects and saying “Hi”. You just have to focus on the first step and then next, and the next.


I think most people wouldn’t realize that I still battle with these anxieties. I have proudly come very far since my early days but I am still quiet and reserved at times. I try hard to let who I am shine through but it’s a skill I’m still developing. With every person I have photographed, which is a lot now, my social anxiety disorder has shrunk that little bit more. With every photo shoot that has left me with happy clients and photographs I love, in turn, my confidence and self-esteem grow. Photography is helping me be unafraid to be the person I am, bursting with personality and creativity.

how photography is healing my social anxiety

I now know that it is ok to be really terrible at math or have chicken scratch for handwriting I just wish that there was someone that could have told little old me that being creatively inclined is ok. Accepted! Especially in the school system. It’s ok if you grow up to be an artist and not a doctor! I am so glad that photography was offered once I got to high school. It seems like a miracle really. I was allowed to take one art course per semester and I picked the one that would save my life. I really don’t know what I would be like now without it. It has helped me find happiness and love for myself.


If you’re interested in hearing more about creativity and schools watch Ken Robinson’s fantastic TED Talk. His talk went straight to the deepest depths of my heart when I first heard it.

Thanks so much for reading this post, “How Photography Is Healing My Social Anxiety”. Read more of my writings on the blog.