Write about a time when you felt anxious. What did you do to cope with the feeling?

At the end of my Secondary 2 year, I did badly enough for the end-of-year examinations that I was almost not promoted to the next year. When my teachers were going through the examination papers, I had to beg and plead for a few marks for my Mathematics and Science papers so that I could ensure my promotion. Thankfully, I succeeded in that effort, barely getting through the promotion criteria. After this experience, I promised myself that I would not put myself through that anxiety ever again; paradoxically, that made my Secondary 3 year one of the most anxious years I had ever experienced. I coped, but just barely, both in healthy and unhealthy ways, and has been to this day a very important learning experience for me.

Entering the Secondary 3 year, in order to avoid the stress and anxiety of the previous year, I started studying even before classes had properly started. While my friends would play football or go out together after school, I would head straight home or to the library to study. After a few class tests, the results started showing — I started to get straight-A’s, something I had never achieved before. My friends were happy for me, but they started expressing concern for me. What had happened to the playful and social teenager they used to know?

Unbeknownst to them, I had carried the anxiety of my Secondary 2 year straight through to the Secondary 3 year; the anxiety of needing to fight so hard for my promotion was so hard to shake off, I had actually studied straight through my November and December holidays. Not only had I continued studying, I also had developed a very unhealthy caffeine habit, mainly via the consumption of up to six cups of coffee a day. Because of this bad habit, my anxiety did not abate during the holidays. I believed that by studying hard through my holidays, I would do well in my Secondary 3 year, therefore doing away with my anxiety. This proved to be true, in some way; since I was doing well in school, I was no longer anxious about my results. However, I was still anxious — I was anxious about anxiety itself! (How silly I was.)

After the mid-year examinations, I started to cope in more healthy ways with this anxiety. Instead of spending as much as possible of my free time studying, I made sure that I spent enough time with my friends and my hobbies while ensuring that my grades did not suffer that much (an occasional B was really no cause for worry). I also made sure to get fitter, while drinking less coffee, because these changes would help me feel less anxious while also giving me more energy. Life finally got better for me, because I realised that I would rather get a few B’s than feel anxious all the time. I had fun with my guitar, my band, my friends — and my studies were doing decently, even though my grades were no longer all perfect.

This kind of balance in life is the key for me, to avoid the extremes of perpetual anxiety and the ennui that precedes failure. If I only I could teach my younger self this!

(540 words)

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Why I am a selfish good-deed ninja, and why you should be one too

I am a good-deed ninja. Whenever I step out of the house, I keep my eyes peeled for any opportunity there is for me to swoop in and help someone. Pick up a shoe bag? Done. Provide directions? Done. Pretend to be angry at a misbehaving child so that his mother can get a moment’s peace? Done. Commit acts of random smiling and waving? Done and done.

Someone trailing me might even accuse me of being artificially and annoyingly positive.

It’s not because I’m some kind of angel that I do this (my girlfriend would say that I’m more devil than angel). I do this because it gives me a performance advantage. When I manage to help a stranger, I feel happier, sharper, more engaged with the world and my work, and in some strange way, even more capable than I probably am. I feel much more positive. And the science is out — while the numbers should give any critical reader some pause, author Shawn Achor has amassed a wealth of evidence to bolster the claim that a more positive brain gives us “23% more energy, 31% more productivity, 3x more creativity” (source).

While I’ve only just started consciously looking out for “good-deed ninja” situations, the power of a good deed for the doer, and not just the recipient, was already displayed for me in university. I often tell stories of how I used to be a nervous, anxious wreck after serving my national service (NS), when all of a sudden I was thrust into a situation where I wanted to excel, wanted to get straight A’s, wanted to be the best in the grand old National University of Singapore — in stark contrast to my army experience where I was a lowly corporal who didn’t have much to do beyond obeying orders (not much demand on the brain there). Imagine walking around school permanently on anxious high-alert, always on the edge of panic. I was that person.

Then imagine me, sitting and reading anxiously in the NUS library, with my throat constricted and my heart racing because I needed to get through my reading and I needed to get started on my essay so that I could get the A that I thought I really needed. I was sitting near one of those vending machines filled with snacks, because I spent most of the day nauseous on caffeine (got to focus!) that I couldn’t eat much beyond M&Ms and sugared peanuts.

Some poor girl then broke me out of my anxious trance, as she stood facing the machine, staring at it for an unreasonably long time. So I got up to see what the matter was and saw that she was about to have a meltdown because her snack got stuck in the machine and she had no more coins left (crisis!). I selflessly (inoticedshewasattractive) offered to buy the same snack so that hers would get unstuck, over her refusals (“eh no need no need!”).

When our snacks fell out of recalcitrant machine, her undisguised smile broke through my fog of panic. Her smile was a complex mixture of relief, gratitude, and (probably) hunger. I think the pleasant shock of the panic-fog clearing was great enough that I stood speechless, staring at her for an extremely awkward length of time, forcing her retreat from the very strange good-deed nerd.

When I tell this story, my students always ask me if I got her number (“You owe me money now, let’s swap numbers so you can settle this debt.”), but the truth is, I was just marveling at the fact that I no longer felt anxious. The attractive girl had faded from my consciousness, because I was so relieved that my heart was no longer racing, my throat was no longer restricted, and I felt sane.

A single good deed was more effective than any dose of Valium — with no side effects! This is just one example of how powerful a good deed can be, especially when we take joy from the positive effect that we can have on people through actions that cost close to nothing.

The conclusion of the larger story is a little bit more mundane, with me abandoning the quest for grades (because the anxiety was driving me crazy) for the rock band quest. If I had paid greater attention to my mental health, I probably would have ended up with a better degree than the one I have now.

This should not degenerate into empty self-help platitudes about positive thinking, but the fact is that genuinely happy people do have a neurological advantage over perpetually unhappy people — and that’s why I am a selfish good-deed ninja.


My more mature students might want to consider:

  • What makes an action selfish or altruistic?
  • Is it a contradiction if I selfishly try to be altruistic? Am I just being selfish?
  • Should I have asked for the girl’s number?

A trip down memory lane, and how religion affects my teaching

I took my O-levels in 1999, after spending four years in ACS(I). It was a time when the administration and teachers seemed to take their Christianity very seriously. Even as a teenage boy, I could tell that the prayers did not come from a place of mere duty. The teachers did not seem to drag their feet when they prayed. They prayed with an earnest sincerity that made it seem like leading a public prayer was a privilege. (But I have to apologize a little bit, because even though I remember the way they prayed, for the life of me, I can’t remember their names.)

I remember that the non-Christian students among us never seemed bothered by the Christian-ness of the school. The strongest complaint we had was that some of these Christian rituals — chapel services, morning devotions, and so on — could be terribly boring at times (I say “we” even though I identify as Christian because we all had the same complaint). Nobody was, to my knowledge, coerced to do anything that offended their religious convictions. Everybody had to wear their ties to chapel, of course, but you did not have to pray if you did not want to. You had to show respect, but if you were a Buddhist or a “free thinker”, you never had to participate.

I remember that sensitivity to the multiplicity of religions in my school with great fondness. It was probably my first introduction to the idea of tolerance — it was a flawed embodiment of that idea, but a very good try, nonetheless. I had the good fortune of having a form teacher who would pray with our class very occasionally. He kept to the practice of not forcing prayer on any of the non-Christians in my class. I have a memory of him explaining to my class that prayer could be used as a way of calming ourselves before an examination, which was a brilliant way of including everyone. Not everybody prays, but I’m pretty sure everybody knows what anxiety is.

To my eyes, my school managed to convey the good bits of spirituality without the coercive, hateful parts. The impulse towards being Good (capital G!), the virtues of honesty and excellence (how different the world would be if everybody stopped telling lies), the calming power of prayer or simple meditation (prayer and meditation are not the same things, but very similar at times) — these are massively valuable lessons that could very well have been the reason for academic excellence, for many of us.

This principle — imparting the good without coercing — guides my own teaching. If I meet Buddhist students, I ask them if they have read any of the Dalai Lama’s or Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I ask them if they have any idea what meditation is. If I meet Christian students, I use parables to illustrate the power of stories. I ask them if they understand what “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” is. I ask, but I avoid any hint of force like the plague.

I often ask students about their religious sensitivities, very early on, so that I know which lines not to cross. Some prefer not to talk about religion at all, so I talk about how neuroscience has shown that the brain’s ability to function under stress is diminished. Eventually we get to talking about conquering anxiety and exam panic, but I never need to resort to religion to teach them peace.

Teachers are called not only to get their students good grades. Our students learn from us, by the very virtue of the way we exist. If a teacher is perpetually overworked, domineering, and anxious, students learn something from that. If a teacher has self-discipline, is always well-rested, and never panicky, students learn something else from that. I try my best, but as old boys (and girls) from my old school like to say, with wry grins — the best is yet to be.