Like Peter Parker, when I first discovered my superpower it was awkward and a little painful. Around the time I was a senior in college, instead of spewing up globs of spider web, I was having daily panic attacks; hyperventilating, brain fog, disembodiment, all the signs.
Anxiety affects 40 million people in the United States, and of that 40 million, only about 35% are seeking help despite it being highly treatable.
I went to college in New York City, and as many colleges in NYC, there was no campus. That concrete jungle was my campus. One day, somewhere around my senior year in college, while working as a barista at a swanky Italian coffee shop in SoHo, I had my first panic attack.
I spilled a hot Cappuccino on a man in a three-piece suit. He didn’t lash out too badly, but he certainly was not happy. I went to the kitchen — in the basement — and started to shake. The migrant workers around me looked helplessly and quite literally without words at this white girl about to have a panic attack. I looked at them apologetically.
And then I unleashed a fury of tears, snot, and deep gasps. I couldn’t control what was happening. And it seemed to only get worse the more I gulped for air.
Panic is powerful.
I was fired that afternoon; the job was “far too fast-paced for someone with my demeanor.” C’est la vie.
And throughout my senior year, I began to wonder what was wrong with me. My fellow graduates weren’t hyperventilating on the daily; my roommate would remind me kindly that I’m not the only one graduating. Which in the moment was meant to comfort me but made me question why I was different.
I went to the doctor to learn more about these episodes. There were no clear triggers, no clear end, it was a constant state of fear, relief, repeat.
I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and prescribed Xanax without ever seeing a psychiatrist. And that Xanax worked to calm the episodes, but it never helped me understand what my triggers were. Through a lot of growth and resilience, I’ve learned that my superpowers are insurmountable when it comes to how I navigate through life. I must learn to live a life with anxiety, not against it.
Anxiety an Admirer of Bravery
I’ve heard often that what I’ve done in my life is brave. It’s usually in response to two things:
- Traveling abroad alone for months at a time and,
- Moving 2,000 miles away from anyone I’d ever known.
Those are audacious things to do, and they don’t equate to the bravery of our active military or mother’s giving birth, but I’ll take the compliment when it’s given to me.
But here’s the thing: I never made any of those decisions out of bravery; they were always out of the anxiety to be enough. And that’s a delicate balance because never understanding when we have enough can perpetuate anxiety.
My anxiety has held me back in a lot of ways; it’s kept me away from social situations, it’s affected some of my jobs (see Italian coffee shop), and it’s affected my relationships. But when I start to look at anxiety as being an admirer of bravery, instead of its enemy, I’m able to manage attacks in a more productive way.
Freedom to Fail
When I know what triggers will spin my brain into a fog of anxiety and helplessness, I can be better prepared to address them quickly. Knowing and understanding what triggers anxiety is a lifelong journey.
Ultimately, I’m triggered by a deep fear of failure and disappointment. Being fired for having anxiety certainly did not support overcoming that fear. I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid any sense of failure, but the funny thing about something you avoid — it becomes something you fear even more. In order to overcome my fear of failure, I had to fail.
And I’m still on that journey. Failing is still hard. Letting people down is still hard. But allowing for failure? That’s a superpower.
Follow Your (fast-beating) Heart
That panic attack in the basement of the Italian coffee shop happened nearly 10 years ago. And since then, I’ve become quite good friends with my anxiety. I’m better at telling when she’s shown up out of love or bravery or legitimate fear. I’m better at understanding and managing my triggers.
As I’ve gotten to understand my anxiety; I’ve realized it has happened since I was young. It stems from a need to please; a need for everything to be okay, and a need for everyone to like me and each other. I experienced social-emotional learning through my childhood anxiety; I built resilience in my 20s, and now in my 30s, I use it as a force for good to listen and follow my intuition.
My anxiety increases my awareness of what is happening both within and outside of my body. Because of this awareness, I’ve developed a knack for interpreting social cues. I’m sensitive to them, and that sensitivity allows me to deeply listen to the person I’m talking to.
Sure, I can’t really listen deeply and multitask; but Spiderman wasn’t perfect either.
Like Peter Parker, I’ve learned to hone in on my superpower and use it for good. Sometimes anxiety gets the better of me and I’m back in that coffee shop basement. I’ve learned that my anxiety is not something to fear; it is a tool to help me lean into the present, listen closely to my intuition, and ultimately be a more empathetic person.