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Friday Takeaway: In Praise of Anxiety

  • Naomi Shulman is shown May 31, 2017 in her Northampton home.



Friday, August 03, 2018

I’m reading the news, or I’m stuck in traffic, or my kid is late coming home from a party. There it is again — that familiar tight coil of nervous energy winding its way up my chest. Something has set me off. I take a deep, slow breath, blink a few times, talk myself down. I am anxious. 

To be honest: I am often anxious. Of course, almost everyone is, sometimes. And it’s not like we  don’t occasionally have perfectly legitimate reasons. But note that I’m not saying I feel anxious; I’m saying it’s what I am. I’m pretty certain no one has ever described me as easygoing or laid-back. (I rarely feel easygoing or laid-back, so I don’t blame anyone for not describing me that way.) Anxiety can be crippling. Even when it’s not, it tends to be limiting — it discourages a person from stepping out of her so-called comfort zone (which, let’s face it, is not always all that comfortable). It can make a person difficult to be with. At the very least, it can be a huge bummer. In my life, it often has been.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about my anxious tendencies in a somewhat different way. Almost any trait can become too pronounced, moving into the territory of disorders; this is certainly true of anxiety. But a small amount of anxiety isn’t necessarily disordered; maybe it can just be a personality quirk. Some of us care a little too much sometimes; we can be a little too deeply invested, too attached to an outcome. Maybe that’s not exactly a flaw. 

I think about the inverse of being too anxious. The words that come to mind are positive, even prized: cool, carefree, chill. I wouldn’t mind having a more relaxed attitude from time to time; after all, no one wants to be wound too tightly. But I find that too often, “cool” is  code for letting other people sweat the details. “Chill” doesn’t  worry itself with how other people are feeling or who is going to pick up the pieces. “Carefree” has no expectations of you — and can’t understand why you might have expectations of them. 

An over-relaxed stance may also, at heart, be a defense. Consider those lines from “Hey Jude”: “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool/By making his world a little colder.” If you’re feeling anxious about something, at the very least you know it matters to you — you know you care. Being cool, on the other hand, is the opposite of letting someone know you care. You give someone the cold shoulder when you try to get rid of them. When you want to numb something, you chill it — whether that’s a physical feeling or another kind of feeling.

A friend of mine pointed out that psychologists actually differentiate between facilitative and debilitative anxiety. Facilitative anxiety is the jazzed feeling you get before going on stage; debilitative anxiety is what makes you forget your lines once you’re in the spotlight. I’ve sometimes walked a very fine line between the two, but I’m slowly coming to realize that ignoring anxiety only makes it louder and more insistent. It’s when I’ve owned my anxious nature, made room for it, and even felt compassionate for myself about it, that I’ve been able to talk myself down to a facilitative place.

Anyway, like it or not, this is part of who I am. We anxious types may never be chill, but you know what often does describe us? Warm. So, I’m working on being at peace with not laid-back and cool. It’s OK. I’ll be who I am instead — someone who cares a little too much, holds on a little extra tight. Just give me a minute to take another deep breath. 

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.