The first time I experienced serious physical symptoms from anxiety, I went to urgent care. I was so confused about what was going on that I was surprised when my vitals came back as normal. For the next year or so, I tried my best to deal with all of the ups and downs that came with anxiety, and over the past couple of months, I’ve seen some major improvements. I feel like “myself” again—but now, I’m going through the process of figuring out who I really am after anxiety.
In some ways, it feels like a veil has lifted—not every day is perfect, but most days are much, much better. And yet this whole new chapter comes with some challenges of its own. It felt like anxiety took up so much of my mental and physical energy that sometimes, I feel like a blank slate now. Yes, the anxiety is gone, but what’s left behind? Who am I, really, without anxiety?
Many people are under the impression that once you tackle your anxiety, the struggle is over. Now that you can manage it, and the condition no longer interferes with your life, it’s a non-issue, right? In my experience, that hasn’t really been the case. Don’t get me wrong, starting this new journey of self-discovery is certainly preferable to wallowing in anxiety, but it’s an interesting phase to navigate—it isn’t talked about much, but it’s still a challenge for anyone who once struggled with their mental health.
For example, I know that being more anxious than other people meant that I anticipated problems they didn’t. I worried about spending too much money, so I was great at budgeting. I worried about getting lost, so I always looked up directions in advance, and I worried about arriving at events late, so I left home early. I definitely spent too much time worrying about what people would think of me, so I was overly considerate.
So, would letting go of my anxiety mean letting go of my frugality, my punctuality, my organization skills, my empathy and my efforts to be extra polite? So far, the answer is no—but it took some time to understand the difference between my anxiety, my personality traits, and my values.
For example, certain aspects of my personality simply haven’t changed. I’m an introvert by nature, and I haven’t suddenly become super outgoing since getting my anxiety under control. I’m always going to be a little quieter when I first meet people and open up to them over time. But the need to plan every last detail of an excursion with friends in advance to avoid disappointing anyone, for any possible reason? That’s fading away. And that’s definitely for the best.
So far, the key to this process has been looking at the whole thing with a curious eye. Instead of feeling the need to reinvent myself, or judge myself based on the habits that stick around and the habits that don’t, I’m trying to step back and observe. Who am I without anxiety? Well, let’s give it a little time and see.
It turns out I can be more spontaneous than I realized. I don’t actually feel so awkward about doing things alone. I want to meet new people, to laugh with strangers, to welcome that distinct sort of discomfort that occurs when you push yourself just beyond your usual limits. I enjoy sharing my opinions beyond the shield of a screen, and I don’t mind hearing disagreements. I like to cook for my friends (without worrying that my dishes will turn out burnt and tasteless). And I’m ready to try new things—I’m solo traveling through Israel for ten days in August, and I’m so excited (and of course, a little nervous) to take on the world’s most vegan-friendly country all on my own.
Here’s the other side of the coin—sometimes when I’m making plans to try something new, I ask myself, “Wait, who do you think you are again?” And then I’ve got to remind myself that anxiety never summed up the entirety of who I was. It was just one aspect of my life, one that is slowly becoming a part of my past rather than my present. And stepping outside of the boundaries of my anxiety doesn’t mean I’m “fake”—it just means that I’m capable of more than I once thought. Before, I identified with my anxiety, but now, I just want to give myself the space to be who I am, warts and all.