I’ve lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember — before I even had a name for it. As a child, I was always scared of the dark. But unlike my friends, I didn’t grow out of it.
I had my first anxiety attack during a sleepover at a friend’s house. I didn’t know what was happening. I only knew that I couldn’t stop crying, and I wanted more than anything to go home. I started therapy while I was still in elementary school, and started learning what anxiety was, and how it affected me.
There’s a lot I don’t love about my anxiety, and for many years I was focused on the negative aspects of it. I concentrated on warding off panic attacks, grounding myself in reality, and supporting my own mental health.
But in my journey to accept myself as a person with anxiety, I’ve come to see some of the positive ways that my struggles have shaped me into the woman I am today.
My anxiety can make me hyper aware of my surroundings, especially if there’s some real (or perceived) significance to a change in my environment. Left unchecked, this can lead to paranoia.
But if I can hold the line on out-of-control thinking, I’m left with a very heightened sense of what’s going on around me. I’m aware when my neighbors come and go, I’ll notice that weird humming sound that means the light bulb is about to burn out, and I’ll be the first to mention it when the secretary in my doctor’s office has a new haircut.
For as long as I can remember, my imagination’s been running away with me. When I was young, this had definite downsides. The most innocuous mention of a monster, ghost, or goblin was enough to send my imagination racing down a dark, shadowy path filled with enough horrors to keep me terrified and awake for hours past my bedtime.
On the other hand, I spent many long summer days swinging on my tire swing, making up stories about how I was secretly a princess who had magically been switched with an ordinary girl and now had to figure out everything about her new life, just by observing the world around her.
As an adult, I’ve conquered my fears of “things that go bump in the night,” and I still get to enjoy the rewards of seemingly boundless creativity. This means, among other things, that I’m rarely — if ever — bored. And I’m never going to run out of bedtime stories to tell my daughter. And that I can really lose myself in books, TV shows, and movies — which can be a great release.
My anxiety has come hand-in-hand with self-doubt for much of my life. Any position I might take, or course of action I might consider, I’ve questioned. At its extreme, this severe doubt can be paralyzing.
I’m more confident in my decisions and views, knowing that I’ve already subjected them to examination and challenge. And I’m able to show empathy for those whose views oppose my own by spending time considering their perspectives.
Planning has been a defense against worry for most of my life. Being able to imagine how and when something will happen helps me insulate myself against the anxiety of a new or challenging experience.
Of course, not every experience in life can be planned down to the letter, and I’ve learned to keep myself calm when spontaneity is required. Mostly. But if planning is what’s needed, I’m your girl.
If we’re traveling to a new city, I’ll happily map out the directions, book the hotel, look up nearby restaurants, and figure out which subway stops are within walking distance. I’ll calculate the time it’s going to take to get from the airport, to the hotel, to the restaurant, without even breaking a sweat.
Worry is most commonly associated with anxiety, but for me, anxiety means that a lot of other feelings — anger, fear, joy and sorrow — are also present in great abundance. More than once, I’ve had to tap out of reading a children’s book to my daughter because the story left me overcome with emotion. I’m looking at you, “I’ll Love You Forever.”
A stirring piece of music can send my heart pounding and tears of joy pouring from my eyes. And anything I feel is written all over my face. I catch myself mirroring the facial expressions of characters on TV, because I feel what they’re feeling — whether I want to or not.
Anxiety is a notorious liar. The stories my anxious brain makes up are out of this world — and I’ve learned to be very skeptical of them.
As carried away on waves of emotion as I may get, I still know that even the best story deserves to be fact-checked, and if a narrative seems too good — or too bad! — to be true, it’s probably not true. This skill has served me well as a journalist, as well as a consumer of news.
There’s nothing like experiencing an anxiety attack to leave you in awe of the mind’s amazing power. The fact that mere thoughts and ideas could leave me feeling so helpless also let me see the other side of the coin — that by taking control of my thoughts, I could regain some of my power.
Simple techniques such as body scans, affirmations, and visualizations have given me tremendous power over my anxiety. And while I may never “conquer” or “defeat” my anxiety, I’ve built many tools to help me manage its negative influence on my life.
Anxiety may be a lifelong challenge, but it’s also part of who I am. So rather than focus on anxiety as a weakness, I choose to focus on the strengths I’ve gained from it.
If you live with anxiety, tell me how it’s empowered you!
Emily F. Popek is a newspaper editor turned communications specialist whose work has appeared in Civil Eats, Hello Giggles, and CafeMom. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter. Find her on Twitter.