I once read an article in which the author said that having anxiety is a blessing in disguise. As I think about my own experience with anxiety, it has definitely changed my life for the better.
Of course, I did not look at it that way at first. For me, it all began in 2013 when I became sick from working so many hours. I remember entering all of my symptoms into various websites and trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with me. No matter where my search began, it would always end in the same place. Anxiety. It was the one thing that seemed to explain most of what I was experiencing in my mind and body.
At first, I was not ready to accept that diagnosis. I was a successful director at a major health insurance plan. I was highly intelligent and responsible. I was a perfectionist. I prided myself on being the smartest person in the room. How could I have anxiety? It just didn’t seem possible.
Yet despite all of my apparent success, I had been miserable at every job I’d had in the past 20 years. And I had been struggling especially in my most recent job. Working nights and weekends on a project that was absolutely unbearable. I would write in my journal over and over again that something needed to change in my life, but I had no idea how or where to begin.
When I first started seeing a counselor for my anxiety, I told her that I wanted to go back to my old life. I wanted to be able to work as long as I wanted without getting tired. I wanted to feel confident and in control again. I did not want to live at the will of my anxiety. Letting it decide what I could eat or whether I could sleep at night. It seemed easier to stay with what was familiar, than to venture out into the unknown.
Over time, as we started to peel back the layers of my anxiety, I realized that it actually set me free from a life that I really did not want. On the outside I may have appeared to be highly successful, but I had been measuring my success against external standards and expectations that had no value to me personally. Instead, I adopted some new qualities that seem to serve me much better.
The first thing I learned from having anxiety is that I do not need to have all of the answers. That was by far the hardest lesson and it took the longest amount of time to learn it. I abandoned the expectation that I had to be the smartest person in the room. More importantly, I no longer had any desire to be the smartest person in the room. I started to sit back and observe, instead of trying to manage or control every situation.
When I got sick, it gave me permission to make a lot of changes in my life that I had always wanted to make, but for some reason I felt that I couldn’t. I started working only eight hours a day and I stopped working nights and weekends. Eventually I left the health care industry and started my own business as a freelance writer. Now, I try to make decisions based on what I feel and not based on what others expect me to do. And that has been very liberating. My anxiety keeps me in check because if I am about to make a decision that is not authentic to me, I will feel it in my heart.
I love the word curiosity. It is the equivalent of dipping your toe in the water to check the temperature. I spent a lot of my life living in a very black and white world. I felt like I needed to know things with certainty and I needed to make decisions decisively, which was never my strong suit. Now I like to take my time and explore things. I learned that it is ok to be curious about something without having to make a commitment.
So many people are too hard on themselves. I know that I was for many years. I would set high expectations for myself and others. I would find ways to keep pushing when I was too tired or lacked energy or a sense of purpose. I would over commit myself and try to be everything to everyone. Now I know that self-compassion is essential for me to live a happy life. Because my body has certain limitations, I have learned to respect them. And I no longer resent those limitations for slowing me down. I embrace them for keeping me grounded and in touch with myself.
One of the first things I noticed by slowing down is that I love to be in nature. It soothes me. I make time every day to appreciate nature, whether it is taking a walk or watching the sunset or the moon rise. I also appreciate how lucky I am to work at home where I can open up the balcony door and enjoy the fresh air all day long. In slowing down, I have forgotten how to multi-task. I do one thing at a time and I try to be mindful of what I am doing. Life in the slow lane is so much better than life in the fast lane.
I used to think that having anxiety meant that there was something wrong with me. But now I realize that it is just a part of me. I no longer assume that people who can work 50 or 60 hours a week or push themselves to the limit are “normal” while I am somehow broken. Most of the time, I really don’t define myself as having anxiety at all. I just accept that there are certain traits I have and I try to recognize that others may have different traits.
There are still days I struggle with my anxiety. Mostly on those nights when my mind seems to grab onto a problem or worry with such intensity that I can’t fall asleep. On those nights, as I lay in bed with my hand on my heart trying to quiet my mind, I remind myself of the alternative.
I think about the life I would be living if I hadn’t slowed down and took the time to discover my authentic self. And in those moments, I am immensely grateful for my anxiety. It spoke so loudly that I could not help but listen to what I already knew deep down inside. Something had to change in my life. And I never want to go back.
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