Believe It Or Not, I'm Grateful For My Anxiety. Here's Why
As a young psychologist, I was taught to tell my anxious clients they’d suffer from panic attacks their whole lives. Yet as someone who suffered from high-functioning anxiety, I can tell you that you can learn to master your mind. Yes, there will be moments when you tumble down an existential rabbit hole, but you can learn to find your way back out again and enjoy the good times without the ever-present fear of anxiety's return.
I supercharged my brain by embracing how it's wired.
The turning point in my relationship with anxiety came when instead of fighting my nature, I found strength in it. Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti said it best: "If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation." My brain is wired toward fixating on tiny details, seeking impossible standards, and living inside my head.
When I look in the mirror and boldly embrace my own wiring, I can embrace the weird and wonderful ways I’ve been wired, otherwise known as neuro-diversity. Once I let go of the judgment about how I couldn’t fit in, I could walk forward unencumbered and instead pursue the things that bring me joy and profit.
I learned to put myself first.
A lot of anxiety festers in a social context. What does someone think about us? Did that person just ignore me when I waved at him? Social rejection is perceived as physical pain in our brain. Do I dare to say no, and if I do, will that person hate me? That dilemma becomes the perfect storm for eroding boundaries.
But anxiety fuels empathy, too. Because we know how terrible it feels to be treated a certain way, we bend over backward trying to help someone feel better or make life easier. In that, empathy becomes our kryptonite. Because we forget the most important thing—empathy for ourselves. And so we run dangerously close to empty.
That’s how we let the toxic people in and let them stay. Sure, there are charming manipulators to begin with. But there are things that make us vulnerable, and we can do something about it. When we learn to put ourselves first, that’s when empathy becomes our superpower. Because we aren’t placing someone else’s story above our own. We know how to fuel ourselves, how to be discerning about who and what we want in our lives, and to say no with grace. And in that, anxiety about how others might perceive me taught me a vital lesson—to have empathy for myself.
I started trusting my own wisdom.
The client who made the deepest impact on me was a 9-year-old girl. She had recurring migraines and severe anxiety. I invited her to draw what her heart and head said. Her head brandished a sword; she told me, "My head stabs my heart." Our hearts are crying to be heard. Anxiety evolved to protect us, to teach us to retreat so we can conserve resources and stay alive. Unfortunately, we silence our hearts with the sword of logic. Eventually, tension builds and we have outbursts and forget to listen to our own wisdom.
Replay on loop the head and the heart further disconnects. And yet true wisdom comes from inviting our heads and hearts to play a symphony. It is knowing that our emotions signal what’s going on in our lives—just as we don’t get angry with ourselves for feeling joy, we shouldn’t be upset with ourselves for feeling distressed—and learning to tell them "I see you." These days, I allow myself to listen to the combined wisdom of my head and heart.
I've grown into my own skin.
I recently mused with friends that perhaps growing up is learning to become cool with how uncool we truly are. Anxiety invited me to delve into my psyche, to examine the ideas I held that parts of me weren’t "acceptable" or "good enough." Sure, there are people who wouldn’t accept me for who I am—but that's OK. Maybe those people just aren't meant to be in my life.
And I know it’s difficult: At workshops, I often preface some exercises with the disclaimer that they’ll feel pretty uncomfortable being honest with themselves. Because let’s face it: I run away from my phone for days, especially when I wake up to 300 messages blinking at me.
Yet when I stopped escaping myself, I understood that it wasn’t that big or scary. So I like classical music, art, and am fascinated by the tiny minutiae in our cells. It’s possibly uncool, but I’m not anxious about that anymore. It is glorious being me. And I hope you realize how glorious you are just being you.
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Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.