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What anxiety taught me

And what I'm ironically grateful for, looking back

When I say anxiety taught me to be a better psychologist and coach, I’m not regurgitating platitudes like intellectual bulimia. Often, I read essays that anxiety is a dread that might haunt for the rest of one’s life. As a young psychologist, I was told to tell my clients they’d suffer from panic attacks their whole lives, and should only “manage it”. And yet as someone who suffered from High-Functioning Anxiety without knowing it, I can tell you that you can learn to master your mind. Yes, there’ll be moments where you tumble down an existential rabbit hole, waves of unadulterated joy, and the shades in-between; that’s called being alive. And then, you can take what you’ve learned from anxiety to make you a better person.

I supercharged my brain by embracing how it’s wired

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 towards fixating on tiny details, seeking impossible standards, and living inside my head. Incubate me in the competitive Singaporean environment— where I learned if you’re not the crème-de-la-crème, you sink— and it is a recipe for anxiety.

But that’s not for perpetuity.

Often, when we try to change things without understanding, we’d be more successful with a personality transplant or alien possession. That is why self-care sometimes flies in your face; instead of grounding you, it becomes yet another Instagrammable pursuit laced with the social arsenic that is FOMO. And that is also why telling someone to ‘Just meditate for two hours’ or ‘Just wipe away your thoughts’ causes The Mount Vesuvius Of Anxiety to erupt with a vengeance. Because we compound that with judgment.

When we can look in the mirror and boldly embrace our wiring, only then can we witness the glories of how we are wired.

Anxiety taught me to embrace the weird and wonderful ways I’ve been wired, otherwise known as neurodiversity. And 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. 

Like, I love puzzles. So I’ve learned to leverage how my mind joins the dots for my clients, liberating them from the perceived shackles of their ‘hopeless condition’. I revel in explaining concepts and simplifying things. And so I write, melding my personal and professional perspective. Similarly, a client with OCD uses her wondrous powers of meticulousness to spellcheck and edit quickly, because she wants to profit and stay sane. A perfectionistic coach learns to impart his wisdom and high standards to his young mentees, albeit with the compassion no one ever showed his younger self.

I learned to put myself first

Alot of anxiety festers in a social context.

How 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. . will that cause them to hate me? — and that dilemma becomes the perfect storm for eroding our boundaries.

Anxiety fuels empathy too.

Because we know how crappy it feels to be treated a certain way, we bend over backwards 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 legitimise why they stay. Sure, they 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 know it’s not all in my mind, but my mind is what saves me

If Thought Surgery were real, I’d gladly pay to plant new mindsets into every layer of my consciousness.

So whenever I hear someone exhort their clients, “Just think differently! Stop thinking this way!”, I get angry.

It’s not all in your head; the mind-body link is nothing new. Obsess over your palpitating heart when you are in a stuffy train, thinking “Oh God I am gonna have a heart attack, and everyone’s gonna laugh at me”, and I guarantee your heart rate will soar and you’ll have a panic attack.

Sometimes it’s our physical health that causes mental distress. That’s why a subset of my clients come to me in the wake of a diagnosis like cancer or HIV. Sometimes it’s the transitions in our lives, like moving countries or changing jobs. Whatever the root cause, there is a mental component.

Often too, people want a magic pill. They look to blame some chemical imbalance, and even if that helps alleviate the symptoms till they can function again, their busy minds still own them.

What anxiety taught me was that it’s not all in my mind. But I am fundamentally driven by my mind, so I decided to make it work for me, rather than the other way round.

It’s getting your mind on board to understand why you’re acting a certain way, why your anxiety muscle is pulsing away, and to set intentions to lovingly ground yourself in all your wisdom.

That is how your mind saves you. When you decide to rewrite all the stories that run who you are, you rewire the bedrock of your life.

I see learning skills as upleveling in a game

I like computer games and puzzles. Everytime I up-level, dopamine floods my synapses and I feel that rush of satisfaction.

Personal and professional growth invovles a marriage of mindset and skills. And often, we regard our lack of either as “I’m not good enough”. But we forget one fundamental thing— nobody taught us these. And we can reframe the art of picking up these skills and mindsets, or discarding what no longer works for us, as essentially uplevelling in the game of life.

When we accept who we are— including our anxiously-wired brain— then we can reframe picking up supplementary skills as a way to thrive in society. It becomes something done in pursuit of supercharging who we are, rather than shoehorning us into somebody else.

Take social anxiety, something I used to suffer from.

I learned how to make small talk. Mindset-wise, I stopped chiding myself for suffering from Small Talk Disorder or saying “As an introvert, it is stupid”. Instead, I learned to reframe it as a part of social rituals. If I can sit through a 7-course degustation menu rather than gobbling all my food down, watching my servers brush crumbs off the table in bemusement, then I can sit through two minutes of small talk. Skills-wise, I learned how to make small talk more engaging. A question like, “So, what’s the best thing that’s happened to you today”, infinitely trumps “So, crappy weather huh?”.

So today, I ask my clients, “What needs to happen for you to know you are uplevelling?”

That’s how you get that same dopamine hit, if not more.

I trust 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”. It broke my heart.

You see, we often get logical like Spock on StarTrek. But 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. Following which, we swear never to trust our emotions.

Replay on loop— the head and the heart further disconnect.

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”. It is learning to be okay with worries popping into our heads, like how we don’t scold ourselves when we think the stranger smiling at us is really good-looking. It is returning to our bodies, rather than getting lost in our minds where worries have infinite space to metastasise like tumours and concerns are dramatised out of proportion.

When anxious, our minds show us a crystal ball. Except that all you see are fire, brimstone and catastrophe. If you wouldn’t pay a fortune teller who’s always giving you bad news, why do you feed your worries by believing you must stay in your head

These days, I allow myself to listen to the combined wisdom of my head and heart.

And it comes from trusting my wisdom, rather than borrowing it.

On a simple day-to-day level, I like to shop and skive. Then, I’d beat myself up for being decadent and lazy. Today, I’m able to trust myself to finish my work to a high standard, and know that I’m smart about my expenditure. So I’ll enjoy the ride, surround myself with beauty, rather than tar it with background anxiety.

I revel in the animal sides of myself

We judge ourselves excessively for the ways we are instinctively wired.

Emotions like anger, sadness and anxiety are slapped with the unsavoury label ‘negative’. Even if they teach us how to respond or react to a situation— in essence, our efficient shortcuts to ensuring our chances of survival. We are told to forgive someone else who’s hurt us grievously, without attending to our own sense of shock, loss and betrayal first; it’s little wonder we feel afraid of our animal sides.

Attraction is another one. We’re taught it’s bad to feel stirrings of physical attraction, or be on the receiving end. And then everything ‘becomes awkward’. Yet, there’s at least one person who will find someone attractive, so we need to learn how to deal with the fact that attraction is a possibility.

Sometimes, too, not all our intentions are 100% honourable. We may want to help someone, but part of it may be laced with utilitarian thoughts (“I may stand to gain [outcome/benefit] from it”) or we hope someone else would help us in a similar situation. Admitting these can be uncomfortable. So are acknowledging our dark-and-twisted thoughts about power, sex and death; being competitive; or not thinking the best of others.

But we are a bundle of contradictions. Part of it, wired animalistically. Another part, because of our superior cognitive functions as humans.

Anxiety has been the best teacher in letting these parts of me play with each other without judging them.

I’ve grown into my own skin

Recently I mused with friends that perhaps growing up is learning to become cool with how uncool we truly are.

My 32-year old and18-year old selves spend an inordinate amount of time in cafés and bookstores, think Julian McMahon is the most handsome man in the world, and have a penchant for tiny skirts and high heels. It was a moment of horror and bemusement when it hit me that perhaps, I hadn’t changed.

Or perhaps, the changes were alot more sublime yet meaningful. Those parts of me were hidden away or caked with guilt because they were uncool or did not align with the socially-acceptable behaviours of my peers.

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— they’re either those I’m misaligned with or those who get sick kicks out of insulting others.

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 WhatsApp for days, when I awake to 300 messages blinking merrily, what more when it comes to the swamplands of my psyche.

Yet when I stopped escaping myself, I understood that it wasn’t that big or scary.

So I like classical music, art and 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 realise how you glorious you are, being you.

And fundamentally, when people ask me “What do you really do?”, I say this: “I help people to remember who they are, rock the way they’ve been wired, and then some more”.

As a child, I had chronic insomnia. I’ve lived through a horrific abusive relationship with a psychopath, the suicide of a beloved aunt, lost my cat to kidney disease and a friend to cancer, all within a few years. These examples aren’t to justify my pain; it’s not a competition. Instead, I want you to know that things happen that feed the anxiety muscle. And sometimes letting go of anxiety can feel terrifying. It’s that whisper in your ear, “But who are you if you’re no longer anxious?”. There’s a reason why sailors didn’t venture past the horizon.We fear that cutting anxiety out is chopping a limb off. Yet, we know the earth isn’t flat; saying goodbye to functioning perpetually on anxiety is merely throwing out a grotty old sweater— it’s not a part of us. And by embracing the talents and skills which anxiety honed in you, you own your story and make the best of your anxious chapter.

Contact Dr Perpetua Neo to work together

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