I have been living with generalized anxiety disorder since I was a child. Although I wasn’t officially diagnosed until five or six years ago, I know anxiety was always there. I would excessively worry about every little thing growing up. I would worry incredibly about small tests and stay up all night studying at the age of 14. I would worry about an upcoming baseball game: what would happen if the ball came to me and I made an error? I worried about the next school dance — would anyone dance with me? Would everyone look at me? What should I wear?
This worrying and negative thought pattern has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. I have decided recently that although for most of my life I viewed my anxiety as a negative affliction, I am now deciding to treat it as a strength. I have dissected the side effects of anxiety and how they affect my life and taken a different, more positive outlook on them. After all, anxiety has been with me this far, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Why not use this power for good, not evil?
Many of the attributes of anxiety do in fact help me in life. Characteristics like being aware of my surroundings, being in tune with my emotions, being more reliable and prepared, showing more empathy and always looking inward to improve myself are all positive side effects of anxiety. The change in perspective on anxiety from negative to positive is helping me to quell my anxious thoughts and look at my mental illness through a more positive lens. This paradigm shift has helped me grow into a better person.
Having to deal with this illness for so long has proven that I am a strong, brave person. Getting up each day and facing the world when living with anxiety is an accomplishment itself. Just being able to function in this crazy world we live in makes me a brave person. I deal with things that make me stronger and more resilient. It fills me with pride when I realize I have been able to take control of my anxiety and change my perspective on the side effects.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have some bad days, but the majority of the time I view my anxiety as a strength and use it to my benefit:
1. I am hyper-aware of my surroundings
My anxiety has always given me the power to be ultra-aware of my surroundings. I am always scanning for others’ reactions to a situation, whether good or bad. I always know where all the exits in a room are, I have already surveyed where the restrooms are and I know exactly how to escape if the worst-case scenario happens.
I also have developed a knack for reading body language and non-verbal cues. In a recent business meeting at work, I was able to tell that the client wasn’t interested in our pitch and things were going south, fast. I quickly changed direction and pitched an idea I already had in my back pocket that the client totally went for. Later, my boss asked me how I could tell things weren’t going well. I explained I could just feel the energy in the room; I could feel the bad vibes, the shift in energy. I picked up on it a lot quicker than anyone else. Thank you, anxiety.
This awareness of my surroundings is developed innately from the “fight or flight” mechanism. I am more in tune with this instinct than someone not managing anxiety and as annoying as it sometimes is, it serves a positive purpose.
Others don’t worry and analyze situations as much as I do, and it has developed into a true strength.
2. I am more in touch with my emotions
Anxiety has given me a better grasp on my emotions. I am continuously doing a self-check on how I am feeling, whether good or bad. Emotions like fear, stress, anger, shame, unease, depression and humiliation are always easily accessible when dealing with an anxiety disorder. While sometimes these emotions can be overwhelming, at least I am more in tune with them. I can accept the emotions and deal with them in the present moment.
I feel like I have a better feeling of what my emotions are. I can feel shame or humiliation rolling in, or the stress level rising, or even the anger boiling up, much quicker than most. Others may stifle and bury theses emotions, only leading to more issues later on when they surface. Instead of viewing this sensitivity to emotion as a weakness, I view it as a strength.
I am quicker to adapt to my surroundings or environment if I feel a certain way. This emotional grasp has turned into almost a hidden intuition for me. A few months ago, I was at a get together with some co-workers and friends after work and all emotional barometer checks were going good. Shortly thereafter, I felt the energy shift, my anxiety started to rise and I could feel the environment changing. As sad as it may seem, due to my anxiety, I have an excuse to escape ready at all times (this time I needed to go pick up my girlfriend). I quickly said my goodbyes and left.
I was told the next day that some drama unfolded (as it often does with drinking) and a fight broke out between two of our friends, ending the night early and with hurt feelings. It was because of my heightened emotional awareness I was able to avoid the situation before it arose.
3. I am have more compassion and empathy
Being more in touch with my emotions has also made my empathy and compassion for others increase. I feel more empathy for others experiencing elevated emotion in situations, whether it be anger, sadness, stress, shame, etc. When I see someone clearly struggling with increasing emotions, I am quicker to react and try to remedy the situation. Sometimes a quick word of advice will suffice and sometimes more action is required, depending on the scenario.
I recently encountered a customer at work who was clearly in distress over an order gone wrong (I work at a large home improvement retailer, and she was having a major issue with a recently bought refrigerator that wasn’t working). The associate she was working with wasn’t offering much help and I could see the customer’s stress and anxiety level rising from a mile away. I have been there before, in her shoes, emotions rising high and not knowing what to do, and it can be overwhelming. I stepped in and took over the situation. I have dealt with these emotions and know how to bring them down and quell them. I felt for her, and genuinely felt compelled to help put her at ease. I calmed her down quickly with some reassuring words, and was able to come up with a solution for the problem.
My increased level of empathy and compassion allowed me to handle the issue much differently than the other associate. I felt more prepared to step in from previous experiences with my own emotions. I know what steps help me in an emotional situation, and often it can help others too.
4. I am more reliable
My anxiety has caused me to be much more routine-based in my life. I get up at the same time every day, I am never late for work, I take lunch at the same time, I exercise at the same time and so on. Although this routine can also be a detriment to my existence, I now view my routine as a positive attribute.
Because of my routine, I am uber-reliable, and people can always depend on me. I am going to get that project done on time because my anxiety won’t let me fail. I will always be to work on time because if I don’t, anxiety will ruin my day.
If you are lucky enough to know me, you know you can count on me. My anxiety simply won’t let me let you down.
5. I am always prepared
Anxiety has driven me to be consistently thinking about situations far in advance. I will ruminate about a meeting or event for days and weeks beforehand. I have already gone over multiple scenarios and come up with a Plan A, B, C, D and even E. I need to be this prepared, because I have already gone over a million worst-case scenarios.
While traveling to Japan a few years ago, my girlfriend and I had a late arrival and knew it would be a close rush to get to the last direct train to Tokyo from the airport, especially with having to deal with customs after landing. Sure enough, customs took longer than expected and we missed the last train. Luckily though, I had already gone over this exact scenario in my head. I knew immediately that if we took a short cab ride to a nearby station, we could take the local subway, and with two transfers we could make it close enough to our hotel to have a short walk. Thank you again anxiety for allowing me to have a backup plan at my fingertips.
I have also found when things go wrong, I often act quicker than others, because I already have these multiple plans formulated. Instead of folding and breaking down, I tend to step to the forefront during a wayward situation and take the lead. Others tend to reel, not knowing what to do and get flustered easily. In spite of my emotions and anxiety rising high, I can normally take the reins and lead the pack during these times.
I am not saying that rumination and worry are completely good things; there is often a lot of unnecessary energy expended and worry-induced late nights because of it. But this anxiety induced pre-planning certainly helps me be prepared for almost anything thrown my way.
6. My creativity and imagination are heightened
Rumination and worry have certainly wreaked havoc on my life and caused me many sleepless nights. One good thing that they have done for me is boost my creativity and imagination. I can spend hours thinking about any little situation. I find myself amazed at where my mind takes me and what strange, outlandish scenarios I can come up with. I mean really, what are the odds that my clothes will spontaneously disintegrate while at work, or how on earth would I end up being called on to fill in for the announcer at a basketball game I am attending?
I have started to take some of this creativity and imagination and focus them in a positive way. I spend more time writing, drawing and painting. I let my mind wander and am never at a loss for an imaginative thought. I now channel my anxious, ruminating mind in a more positive direction.
7. I achieve more at work and life
Managing anxiety has turned me into an over-achiever. Whether it’s at work or in my regular life, I am always worried I am falling short, that I am simply not doing enough to get ahead. I am the one who spends extra hours at work to make sure my entire to-do list is finished. I can’t leave any loose ends open at work because I will feel like a failure. I am also the one to go the extra mile when preparing for a small dinner party, making that extra appetizer, or setting the table like a Martha Stewart spread, just so I can ease my anxious thoughts about having a horrible event.
Anxiety motivates me to take these extra steps because I have spent hours thinking about how I will fail and how things could go wrong. This extra work often leads to accolades at my job or extra compliments in life. I am consistently exceeding all expectations.
Because of anxiety, I can never do enough.
8. I am constantly working on myself
It is because of my mental illness that I have been forced to focus inward and continue working on myself. I am continually trying to improve myself and move towards becoming a typical, functioning human. Other people may not need to obsessively think about how they act, how their actions will affect others or how actions will affect their own well-being: but I do.
Presentations and client meetings for work are especially hard. As one could imagine, they are quite anxiety inducing, causing me to ruminate and prepare for days and weeks beforehand. Because this is a big part of my job, I have been forced to take steps to improve myself and how I handle these events. I am always reading the newest book about anxiety and how I can manage it better. I am constantly looking for advice online about how to present better and improve my skills: obsessively researching the topic, viewing online videos, reading blogs and researching tips.
Ironically, as anxiety riddled as I am, I have become a solid, reliable presenter. Working on myself endlessly has made me improve into a much better person in many aspects of my life, both personal and professional. The more I can improve how I react to situations in a positive way, the better human being I am becoming.
In the past I have viewed my anxiety as a complete negative. I have since taken a step back, changed my perspective and started viewing my anxiety as a strength. In doing so, I have found my new perspective has helped me to improve my overall anxiety disorder, make it a more manageable aspect of my life. The shift in perspective has made me understand that the attributes of anxiety have helped me for a long time, helped me survive and are a deeply ingrained part of me. Anxiety is part of what makes me who I am and always will be.
The difference now is that my anxiety is now my ally, not my enemy.