What it’s like to not be anxious

It’s interesting to grow up thinking your experience is the same as everyone around you, then to realize it’s really not.

I don’t think I really understood that my mind was different from those around me until high school a friend asked me what anxiety felt like. I’ve talked about that experience before, in an article about what anxiety feels like.

But in the last year I’ve experienced something new, and I realized while neurotypicals may be wondering what anxiety feels like, those with anxiety disorders may be wondering what no anxiety feels like.

For most anxiety disorders, the anxiety is constant. Some develop anxiety later in life, so they might remember what living without it is like. I’d imagine that is so painful, knowing what it’s like to have a mind at peace but unable to get back to that place. Others, like me, are born with anxiety disorders. Even as a toddler my parents remember my emotions being more intense than my siblings’. So for those like me who have had anxiety their whole life, we really don’t know what it’s like not to have it.

But I do now. *Thank you cognitive behavioral therapy and medication*

Wow. I just have to say that –wow. Holy crap. I did not realize just how much I battled my anxiety in tiny moments every single hour of every single day. I did not realize just how much energy my anxiety took. I get it now. I get why my friends were excited to learn to drive. I get how people can socialize regularly. I get how a school test is just a test to some people. For me learning to drive haunted my sleep. For me socializing was like jumping into a barrel of snakes and praying the whole time I wouldn’t get bit. For me a test at school was an assessment of my very worth as a human being. None of those are exaggerations, not even the snakes.

Here’s what it’s like to not have anxiety:

When someone honks at you on the road, you feel a moment of discomfort and maybe panic if you have to brake suddenly, then an hour later you’ve forgotten about it and the discomfort is gone. Your mind understands that it’s over, so there’s no reason to carry it with you.

You realize you missed the due date for a bill, and you feel almost indifferent (at least relative to how you would’ve felt before), and you calmly pay the bill and put the next due date in your calendar so you don’t forget again. You think, “whatever, it happens. I’ll remember next month.”

Your child gets hit in the head at physical therapy, and you don’t cry or even need to. You hold them and let your calm penetrate them. When you get home you periodically check their pupils and observe them for abnormal behavior. Your heart rate stays steady and you feel a little sad for their hurt but you remain calm without much effort. You know logically that you’ll be able to tell if anything is off and the hospital is just 5 minutes away. And knowing that is enough.

You drive past a street that has his name, the name of your abuser. You acknowledge that that particular name leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then you think about where you are now, and how insignificant he is. And you drive over that road and imagine he is nothing but the road you drive across to get where you’re going.

You still feel stress, but the stress is something you can manage. You know what to do with it. And if you don’t, you try to figure it out. Your mind is working, chugging along and solving problems without you even realizing it’s happening.

I genuinely did not know before now that people didn’t freeze up every day. I didn’t know that everyone else didn’t think about that person who honked at them for weeks, replaying the scenario in their head over and over. Wishing the other driver knew what your mind did on your end so they wouldn’t think you were just a bad driver.

I still have some progress to make, confrontations continue to be a source of anxiety for me, but they used to send me into immediate panic attacks. I still ruminate on past confrontations and “rehearse” future encounters constantly. But as I do so the amount of anxiety associated with them has lessened.

Anxiety is now the exception instead of the rule, and it’s wonderful and strange. After 25 years of working against my anxiety to accomplish literally anything, even sleeping and breathing, I feel now like I can do everything.

Understanding exactly how much more I had to overcome makes my accomplishments taste that much more sweet to me now. And it makes me more self compassionate and understanding of my failures and regrets. Of course I dropped out of school; as if having a baby wasn’t enough of an anxiety boost, I would sometimes run into my abuser on campus, and being in the same major meant we might end up in a class together as we had in the past. To be honest, my mind and heart didn’t need that environment. What felt like weakness for so many years was actually self preservation.

And now I have the incredible opportunity to finish school almost anxiety free. I believe I will enjoy it so much more now.

My dream is that someday everyone will be able to experience their mind truly at peace. That medicine will advance. That psychology will discover new treatments. That anxiety will become part of your past, and not your future.

In the meantime, don’t give up. I am still in awe every time I experience my everyday triggers and the anxiety never surfaces. I never imagined my mind would be like this; it took over a decade (like 12 years?) of trial and error with many different therapists and many medications and a few different types of therapy before I found the right cocktail. Maybe your cocktail is out there. Don’t stop looking for it.

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