At first I thought there was something terribly wrong with me.
When I was a little girl I felt anxious a lot, though I didn't know what to call it. I simply thought I was defective and the only one to feel so uncomfortable on the inside. I was easily overwhelmed by too much of just about anything—too much attention, too much noise, too much anger, too many people, too much to do. I picked up on the emotions of the people all around me, including the unspoken stuff. I couldn't discern whose emotions they were—mine? I felt unnerved by the stressed-out people in my life, perceiving their emotions and behavior as all about me, when that wasn't the reality.
I savored quiet spaces, time alone, and spending hours in quiet solitary play or work. Crowds and excess stimulation sucked the life right out of me (even today I avoid crowded stores, big gatherings, and loud music), making me feel grumpy, tired, and anxious. It was easy for my child mind to conclude that I was just shy, anti-social, hard to get along with, easily irritated, awkward, stubborn, and unlovable.
Are there any upsides to anxiety?
But I learned that having anxiety meant that there are some pretty cool things about me.
I am sensitive, intuitive, and empathic—common traits of the classic introvert. My anxiety was often the mismatch between my introverted constitution and the way I tried to live my life—the way my school and family and culture wanted me to live my life—like an extrovert. I envied the easy outgoingness of my fearless popular friends, and tried to be like them, but inevitably fell flat and felt like a failure. Nope. It was never meant to be.
While being sensitive can easily lead to feeling overwhelmed, it can also be a good thing. I often feel uncertain and uneasy, and life perpetually seems risky, but it makes me stay awake and tuned in. It drives insight, empathy, and understanding. It lends a sense of urgency that helps me clear away the clutter, the nonsense, and the debris that gets in the way of the truth. It takes me straight into the heart of the matter and what matters most. It connects me more deeply to the people and things I love. It urges me to tell the truth, to be kind, and to forgive.
Being sensitive can be a lot to bear.
In spite of the gnawing anguish anxiety has always caused me, I've come to see it as a guide—a most remarkable guide—that shows me exactly where I need to do my work.
While sensitivity is a gift, I've had to learn to contain it—to put boundaries around it to protect me from too much stimulation—and to honor my need for quiet and restoration. I've had to get clear about whose emotions are whose—is the fear I sense mine or does it belong to the person standing next to me? Whose anger do I experience when I walk in a room? Highly sensitive people can often take on the emotions of others without being aware of it.
I've learned that all the internal sensations we experience represent the intelligence of our bodies—they are purposeful reactions and adaptations to our circumstances and are not accidents, mistakes, or bad luck. Our work is to honor the wisdom of these sensations, uncomfortable as they may be, in order to discover the answers that lead to the solutions we seek.
I've had to learn to trust my anxiety. While it's still scary, I've learned to walk right into it rather than numbing it out. I now trust there's always a message. We can label it as social anxiety disorder, but the truth is that there is always a reason. I've learned to read my anxiety as a guidepost for what's going on in my life, what I need to look at more closely, or how I need to tend to myself more carefully.
Here are what different types of anxiety have taught me.
My anxious mind delivers clear and important messages to me, presented in ways to be sure to grab my attention. Not that I'm happy about it—ever—but if I can peek around the discomfort and look beyond the stories I create to explain it (often with disparaging conclusions about me or how my life is falling apart)—there's always something to learn.
1. Feeling overwhelmed
There's too much going on around me, overwhelming my senses, triggering my survival-oriented stress responses, often making it feel like catastrophe has hit, when really I'm just on overdrive.
Action: I need rest and to disconnect for a while. More often than not, I need to let go.
I've lost touch with my deepest inner self. I've focused too long and hard on my thoughts buzzing around, on the stories I've created about what's going on around me, and on the opinions and impressions of others.
Action: Focus on my deeper core of heart and gut and body. Meditate to connect to the place where my strength and my truest wisdom lies.
I've been stubborn, willful, and resistant to the people who love me.
Action: This usually means I need to re-prioritize my self-care.
4. Out-of-nowhere anxiety
As an empathic person, I'm experiencing someone else's anxiety. It's not mine at all.
Action: I must learn the fine art of caring for others without taking on their emotional stuff.
5. Catastrophic thinking
I'm worried about the future rather than focusing on what's happening right now in this situation in front of me.
Action: Engage all five senses to focus on what's happening in the present.
I've let mistakes and disappointments lead me down a path of guilt and shame.
Action: I do my best to flip my perspective. Even if it feels like walking in someone else's shoes, I look for the opportunities for needed change, improvement, and growth.
7. Physical tightness
I've neglected the needs of my body and gotten out of physiological balance.
Action: Sleep, rest, play, connect with others, move, or eat good food.