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How My Anxiety Actually Makes My Life Better

Feeling anxious? Same. But maybe that’s not a bad thing: One writer gets real about how the mental health disorder benefits us all.

It’s way past midnight and I’m not sleeping. You know the feeling: There’s a tightness in my chest, a too-quick heartbeat, an internal voice with nothing nice to say. I can’t stop thinking about the build-up of unread messages in my inbox. Can I really put off responding? What if someone needs something? Will my clients think I’m a flake? 

I’m not supposed to be working—my wedding is three days away. But here I am in the dark, flipping open my laptop, firing off responses to every last email. I click, send, and delete until my inbox is back to zero. The whole time, I’m breathing fast. I’m fidgeting.

Allow me to introduce you to my anxiety. I’ve been diagnosed with a condition that falls somewhere between generalised anxiety disorder and purely obsessional OCD (also known as Pure O), and it manifests itself in all sorts of ways, like obsessive thought patterns and excessive, unrelenting worry. According to the media and all my friends, I should be taking CBD oil and meditating myself into a calmer state. Anxiety is an epidemic, after all—the curse of our generation. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 40 million adults now suffer from anxiety disorder, making it the most common form of mental illness. Who wants to be this anxious?

Me. I do.

In my life, anxiety is inextricably tied to achievement. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I’ve ever accomplished anything. I’m grateful for it, even if it comes with it some less-than-ideal side effects. Why aren’t we allowed to say that?

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Before I was a thirty-something overachiever, I was a twenty-something slacker. I worked a handful of dead-end jobs and spent my nights downing a bottle (or two) of wine while scrolling through social media, hate-liking all of my friends’ milestones and achievements, from law school and marathons to promotions and engagements. I envied them. And at the time, I didn’t understand why my life own life was going nowhere.

Surprise! It was the booze. After I hit rock bottom—I was physically sick everyday, had no real friends, and couldn’t keep a job—I finally went into a treatment program and eventually gave up drinking for good. Without alcohol holding me back, a whole new world of possibilities opened up. All of a sudden, I was able to do things that just months earlier had seemed out of reach (because I was drunk).

I landed a gig at a marketing agency. For the first time in my adult life, I started paying my bills on time. I even bought a pair of sneakers—for exercising. That felt huge.

But pretty quickly, I felt something else, too—an undercurrent of angst that made me worry that paying my bills wasn’t actually that amazing, that everyone else was accomplishing way more than that. That I could do better, bigger things if only I worked a little harder.

My first hit of anxiety was uncomfortable. It was also fuel.

In the nine years since, I’ve backpacked through Bali, met the love of my life (and married him!), and launched a successful freelance writing business. I bought a house in Portland, Oregon and adopted a dog. I’ve become the kind of daughter, sister, and friend that I’ve always wanted to be—the kind who remembers birthdays and sends just-because gifts. I even ran a marathon (very, very slowly). All of these things feel really good.

But the truth is, it takes a lot of anxiety to keep me here. I live in a constant state of low-level panic that makes it nearly impossible to relax, unwind, or ignore a single email. This hum of terror is what pushes me to be my best self. I always say yes to last-minute projects, even if it means pulling an all-nighter or putting in time on my honeymoon (true story). I’ll choose budget spreadsheets over sleep every time.

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I know—living this way sounds terrible. And sometimes it is. Like when my heart pounds so hard it almost hurts, and I get an uncomfortable pins-and-needles sensation all over my body. Once, I pushed myself to compete in a half-marathon even though I knew my body wasn’t up for it because I was too anxious to cancel on my running partners—and I ended up fracturing my knee.

But I’ve experienced what it’s like to live with nothing propelling me forward, nothing making my palms sweat—and I’m here to tell you that in some ways, it’s worse. I didn’t invent the theory that you could use anxiety to your benefit—science did.

The idea that anxiety and achievement are intertwined is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This psychological principle dates to 1908, when psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson noted that performance can increase with mental arousal (e.g., anxiety). ‘There is an optimal amount of anxiety which actually improves performance of all sorts, physical, mental, and makes us better at what we are trying to do,’ confirms Gail Saltz, Ph.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.

And yet, anxiety is billed as the bad guy of our time. Buy a crystal, read a self-help book. Go Goop on your nerves. Apparently, we’re supposed to face down the millennial debt crisis, our crazy political situation, and reports of world-ending climate change without feeling so much as a quickening of the pulse.

But let’s be honest: Anxiety constantly gets shit on, but it’s the thing that keeps the lights on. If you didn’t occasionally feel anxious about your future, would you bother contributing to your retirement fund every month? If politics didn’t give you heartburn, would you march for change?

The catch is that you have to keep it from crossing over that ‘optimal’ line, after which it actually hinders you and can even have a negative impact on your health (by lowering your immunity, for one). The right amount of anxiety varies from person to person and situation to situation—it’s not like there’s an algorithm, says Sarah Gray, Psy.D., a clinical health psychologist at Harvard Medical School. But if anxiety starts having a negative impact on your actual body (panic attacks, problems breathing) chances are you do need to rein in it, Gray says.

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I realised my anxiety had crossed from helpful to harmful about a year ago. I was losing hours every day to obsessive thoughts and fears (You’re nothing but a drunk. Your business is successful now, but it won’t be forever.), was sleeping only a few hours a night, and had near-constant tingles. It was suddenly hard to get anything done.

Still, I worried about seeking help. I didn’t want to meditate or medicate my anxiety away only to see my drive disappear. But the physical symptoms were impossible to ignore, so I began to see a therapist.

I told her that I didn’t want to get rid of my anxiety—and luckily, she was cool with it. Instead, the plan is to keep it in check when it’s not benefiting me. Nowadays when I feel anxious thoughts manifesting in ways that are impacting my health or productivity, I take deep breaths until the feeling passes, go for a run, or call a friend. Other times I use that flicker of a feeling to help me reach a goal, like networking with new people to grow my business even though I may feel uncomfortable. ‘You can actually learn to befriend your anxiety without letting it take over in a way that negatively impacts your life,’ Gray says. So instead of instantly labelling every little twang of nervous energy as anxiety, I sometimes think of it as something else entirely—excitement.

A few weeks ago, a client sent over a last-minute assignment that I didn’t really want to do—the pay was low and it would have taken up a lot of my time. But I felt panicked about turning down work. I bathed in the buzzy tingles for a few seconds, letting them wash over me. Then I declined and went for a run to work out my nerves. By the time I got home, I had forgotten about the project. But I checked my email anyway.

This post originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com

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