Web Features

Web Coding & Anxiety

August 15th, 2013     by Erica Lenti     Comments

Graphic by Erica Lenti

It feels as if there is an anchor weighing down on my chest.

It starts with a sharp pain, a hitch in my breath. And then the anxiety washes over me, consumes me completely. My chest tightens. My jaw clenches, as if it were wired shut. My fists ball up and my stomach churns. The room spins. My breathing is uneven, heavy. My entire body shakes.

I am in full-blown panic mode.

It always happens suddenly, always throws me off my guard. It usually comes after a long day of work, when the pressures of deadlines, homework, being a people-pleaser and aiming for perfection mount. Stress culminates and moves from inside of my head to my lungs, to the tips of my fingers, finally resting in the pit of my stomach.

Everyone has their own suggestions to help me escape the anxiety: A therapist says relaxation methods – tensing all of my muscles and releasing my negative energy – will calm me. A former professor of mine swears by meditation. My doctor is quick to write me a prescription for the latest, greatest pick-me-up drug.

But there is usually only one fix that works for me.

I crack open the lid of my MacBook, find a quiet spot – usually, buried beneath the covers of my bed or on the floor in a blanket fort – and boot up Adobe Dreamweaver. I let my fingers glide along the now-worn, oil-stained keys of my laptop – and I code.

Graphic by Erica Lenti

I write code of all sorts, anything that will occupy my mind during an episode of anxiety: Javascript games of Xs and Os, the re-design of my own online portfolio – the one that really could have gone without any more updating – or troubleshooting for other coders on forums, who need some extra support to get their developments working.

I don’t stop until my breathing is restored.

Indeed, it’s an unorthodox means of keeping my anxiety at bay. After all, self-identified cis women like me are in the minority: In 2010, women made up a mere 20 percent of programmers, and an even smaller 1.5 percent of open source developers in North America. For those who code for reasons beyond the technology, the numbers are even smaller.

Yet today, coding is an asset not only to fuel our society’s obsession with technology, but also to change our intrapersonal lives – one panic attack at a time.

I have suffered from generalized anxiety disorder for six years.

I had my first panic attack at 13. I couldn’t seem to keep my social troubles, homework and family life in check. It all became a balancing act – one I was struggling to keep up.

One day, standing in the bathroom of my North Toronto high school, I felt that familiar pain in my chest, as if a subway train were rushing over my lungs. I couldn’t catch my breath, couldn’t do much else but cry.

The attacks never stopped.

My anxiety was not uncommon: At least 10 per cent of adolescents (ages 12 to 19) in Canada experience some form of mental illness, and young women are twice as likely as men to develop generalized anxiety – characterized by excessive worrying for more than six months at a time.

For those who identify as transgender, the numbers are even higher: Because they are more likely to develop anxiety and depression, one Ontario study found 45 per cent of trans people had attempted suicide, with trans youth at the greatest risk.

However, only one in every five youth suffering with mental illness in Canada, receives treatment. My own anxiety went untreated for years. As a teenager, coping was a solitary undertaking.

Finding an activity that could help me counteract my anxiety was key, something most with anxiety are encouraged to do. But while coding quickly became a form of therapy for me, it is not a ‘quick fix’ for others. These anxiety-busting activities are personal and unique to everyone. Sometimes, an activity alone isn’t enough to cope with anxiety, and other, more traditional forms of therapy – seeing a psychologist or counsellor, exercise and lifestyle changes and in some cases, taking medication – must be used in conjunction with these activities.

Graphic by Erica Lenti

I was fortunate: Around the same time I developed anxiety, I was becoming proficient in web development. While I learned the basics when I was 11 – HTML, CSS, bits of Javascript and PHP – I was quickly picking up on the skill, building a clientele and making pocket change by coding websites for the odd friend or local small business by the time I reached high school.

The hobby seemed out of character to those closest to me. I was always the creative type and spent my childhood writing poems and short stories, submitting them to children’s literary contests and dreaming of life as an author. Coding, on the other hand, seemed rigid, devoid of creative agency. My parents deduced that it was something better suited for my older brother, who excelled at math and science.

Better yet, my family had never heard of any self-identified female computer geeks.

But the unorthodox nature of coding is what drew me in. I found comfort in the logic and rationality of code; there is always an answer, always a way to fix what is broken. The lessons rooted in code contradict everything I ever learned about writing: There are rules, they are fixed and they will make everything I compile better.

As opposed to the events of my own life, coding brought about a sense of order, one the calmed the whirlwind of anxiety growing inside of me.

Last March, in a university classroom full of thirty other aspiring journalists, I found myself in front of a computer with hundreds of lines of code spread out on the screen before me. The following online journalism assignment, my professor warned, would include coding that may make some of us anxious.

I felt fortunate. For the first time since the ninth grade, the thought of completing a school assignment – normally a trigger for my anxiety – felt comforting.

Feeling determined, I dived right into the assignment.

My breathing remained steady. My eyes stayed fixed on the screen, avoiding the (familiar) anxious glares of my classmates. The room didn’t spin and my stomach didn’t churn.

Instead, I smiled.

Learning to code: A beginner’s guide

So, you want to learn how to design and build your own website. While it takes years (and loads of tutorials, troubleshooting and practice) to become a coding whiz, here’s where you can start:

1) Learn basic HTML and CSS.

Any basic website is marked up using HTML (hypertext mark-up language) and CSS (cascading stylesheets). Think of HTML as the bones, or structure, of the site, while CSS covers the design portion of it. Learning to write valid, well-structured code will prevent future headaches, so it’s important to get it right the first time around.

W3C Schools is the perfect place to start. While it offers more advanced coding tutorials, the site is the most comprehensive and interactive hub for learning basic code.

Some other great (and free!) resources include Codecademy and HTML.net. And for those with some cash to burn, the Dummy series is a worthwhile read.

Before you start designing your own site, however, you might find modifying pre-existing code helpful in mastering your skills. Blogging platforms, like Wordpress and Tumblr, offer a range of free templates where you can mess about with CSS to change how the site’s design appears. Start with simple tasks – like changing the colour of the background or changing the header image – and continue to make your way up until you’re ready to design your own!

2) Join communities

All coders – yes, even the pros – inevitably run into a wall while working on a project. When you can’t seem to troubleshoot a problem yourself, online communities are a saving grace. Websites like Stack Overflow and Coding Forums are full of experienced coders willing to lend a helping hand. In fact, chances are someone has already run into the same problem as you before – a quick forum search is bound to return dozens of results that will save you from a headache later on.

3) Keep going

Even if you feel you’ve mastered the basics, continue to challenge yourself. There are plenty of programming languages to learn. Adding to your repertoire of knowledge can only make your coding better – and make your sites look even sharper.

Erica Lenti is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. She is studying journalism at Ryerson University. When she isn’t writing (or coding), she is eating junk food and watching reruns of Degrassi. Follow her on Twitter: @ericalenti


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