I have anxiety. Always have.
When I was 5 I watched the hurricane lamps when the lights went out. How the flame flickered with each bump and bang as my brother and sister zigzagged around the house. I watched to make sure it didn’t fall over.
When I was 7 I sat at the window for hours, late into the night, watching the embers we had left outside. Our winter campfire, burning down, surrounded by snow and ice, atop a sheet of aluminum. I watched to make sure the embers didn’t dance into the words and set everything aflame.
I worried and over thought everything. Always. It continued throughout my life, finally culminating in a full blown panic disorder during my third year of university.
My grades plummeted, I had trouble working my part time job. I avoided family and friends. I woke up each morning with my heart pounding out of my chest.
I was lucky to be a student at the time. Mental health care doesn’t come easy, even in Canada, but as a student I was eligible for care through my student health center. I worked with a counselor every week and she helped my figure out my triggers and how to prevent attacks. I also took medication which helped me manage until I was ready to try on my own.
Its been 11 years and I have only had two panic attacks since. One could say my treatment was a success. But, the anxiety lingers. The worry.
I treated my anxiety as something to be overcome. As something that I had to live with and survive in spite of.
But, then I heard an interview with Zac Braff on CBC Q in 2013 (at 20:20, sorry this interview is with Jian :-/ ) that fundamentally changed the way I think about my anxiety. Zac talks about his OCD and anxiety and how it ultimately has lead to good art for him. That “a healthy level of neuroses and anxiety” leads one to pay attention to detail and put more effort into one’s work.
Zac talks about reinterpreting the overthinking and obsessiveness as enthusiasm and excitement and states that his writing wouldn’t be as good if he were at peace.
This was a revelation to me. Instead of looking at my anxiety as a cross to bear I started to look for how it might help me. I wondered how I might harness this hyper-awareness and vigilance to my advantage.
Anxiety is generally viewed as a survival mechanism. Anxiety is described as “increased arousal, expectancy, autonomic and neuroendocrine activation, and specific behavior patterns.” The purpose of these changes in our bodies is to help us cope better with anxiety generating situations, but can easily morph into a debilitating affliction.
For me, now, I find my anxious tendencies make me a better writer and thoughtful about my decisions and actions (sometimes). I think about what can happen, what might happen, and it helps me prepare for situations where I might feel anxious. I feel and see and hear things acutely at times and it makes me feel more connected to other people and the universe itself.
And, anxiety helps me prepare. For things like power outages and the zombie apocalypse. Watching shows like The Walking Dead scratches an itch. An itch to be ready, to think about how to find water if there is not water. How to make fire when there are no matches. How to feed and protect my family when the power goes out for days and days. When the power went out for three days, I was ready BTW. Candles, flashlights, non-perishable foods, water in the bathtub.
Watching other people try to survive makes me think about what I would do in similar situations (hopefully without zombies…) and makes me feel more prepared and at ease. This is also a form of cognitive behavioural therapy for me (which I used during my treatment) where one works on recognizing how your thought patterns can trigger anxiety.
Embracing my anxious tendencies and looking for ways that they help me has made a massive change in my life. And so has watching the zombies…
If you or someone you know suffers from anxiety, below are some great resources I have found useful. If you have some to add, please leave the links in the comment section 🙂