I started my morning thinking about anxiety. Unlike a typical morning, where these thoughts swirl in my own brain, I was listening to Big Medium founder Josh Clark speak about the future of technology and how it impacts our lives. Centering on the theme of anxiety, he illustrated the importance of checking biases at the door and gathering data that reflects the future we want to build. As he discussed fears of smartphone addiction and becoming a human data farm, I scanned the room and saw many people nodding in agreement.
The experience felt remarkable because my own relationship with anxiety is both private and personal. I’ve been a worrier from a young age: I remember becoming aware of human mortality when I was four or five and the thought of losing my parents brought me to tears. Both of my parents were healthy humans at the time, so there was no rational reason for me to feel this way. And yet that what is so frustrating about private anxiety: unlike the tech fears discussed in the talk, my personal dread rarely has an identifiable root.
My anxiety manifests itself in two parts: the mental and the physical. The mental piece takes the form of a thought loop, a never-ending cycle of fear and angst about the future. Once a thought takes hold, my mind burst forth in an infinite spiral of worse case scenarios. This process also kickstarts the physical component by sending a shot of adrenaline coursing through my veins. My body gets hot and tenses up. As my breath shortens and my eyes dilate, I feel one step away from a panic attack.
And the weirdest part? If I didn’t tell you, you probably wouldn’t know I was in such a state. One of the ways I cope is by internalizing the fear and going into robot mode. Very few people have seen me ever actually panic, and those who have know that when it passes, I go about my business as usual. I never wanted anyone to see me in such acute distress; displaying my inner turmoil meant exhibiting weakness, and there was no way in hell I was doing that.
For a long time, my goal was to smite my anxiety, to cut it out at the root and scorch the earth so it could not return. When I first started going to therapy, “success” meant a world where I magically transformed into a Type B, cool-as-a-cucumber human. Needless to say, that goal is unrealistic and unattainable. Instead of stomping it out, I learned techniques to check myself, slow things down, and give myself space to break the feedback loop. The anxiety voice will never disappear, but every day I learn to give it less airtime and power.
At my current job, I’ve leveraged my experience with anxiety as a way to reduce its stigma and connect with students. When I introduce myself, I share a quick bio includes my experience with anxiety and the different techniques I’ve learned to manage it. Without fail, I look around the room to see heads nodding in agreement, just like the audience at the CreativeMornings talk. These conversations are a small step towards shifting the conversation about anxiety. I’m eager to get to a place where we feel as comfortable speaking about our private anxieties as we do with our public ones.