August was a month of firsts for me. It was the first time I ever preached a sermon and it was the first time I officiated a wedding. Both of those things were very exciting, but they were also a source of anxiety for me. I struggle with anxiety on a regular basis. Even though I have been going through therapy (which has helped a lot), I still struggle with anxiety. Anxiety is something that I have been so accustomed to, that on the outside, it may look like I am doing fine.
That is why it is always weird for me to hear people tell me that “you didn’t seem nervous.” When I do public speaking or anything that requires me to be at the center of attention, I have a lot of anxiety leading up to it. My thoughts get away from me and I picture all of the worst case scenarios unfolding. For me, the majority of my anxiety comes from what’s called anticipatory anxiety. This means that the time leading up to an event is where I feel most anxious.
I appreciate what people are trying to do when they tell me that I didn’t seem nervous. They are trying to help me realize that my outward appearance is calm and collected. Telling me this is their way of reassuring me that I am doing okay. I know they mean well, but it doesn’t necessarily help in the way they intend it to. What I mean is that when someone tells me that I didn’t seem nervous, it makes me self-conscious about how I am dealing with the situation. It often leads me to thoughts like “Why were you nervous in the first place?” or “See, that wasn’t so bad. You were anxious for nothing.”
I think a better thing to say to someone who struggles with anxiety is something along the lines of “I know you were nervous, and you handled it really well.” One of the most important things that I have learned in therapy is that naming something reduces its ability to produce anxiety. By naming the anxiety, it gives me the opportunity to shift the narrative. Instead of beating myself up over why I allowed myself to be anxious in the first place, naming the anxiety helps me change the perception of it.
The funny thing about the “You didn’t seem nervous” comment is that it revealed something deeper going on in me.
Take my first sermon for instance. I was able to articulate to the congregation that I was nervous going into it and that it might affect my delivery. Afterwards, however, multiple people told me that I didn’t seem nervous and that I delivered the sermon just fine. The deeper issue going on is that I have been so accustomed to anxiety for the past several years that any anxiety-provoking events (such as public speaking) come off to others as me being calm. In other words, I have gotten so used to anxiety in my life that I have learned how to internalize it so it seems like I’m doing fine.
I’m not saying any of this for pity or empathy. I am attempting to show that anxiety is not something that is easily fixed. Anxiety isn’t something that disappears. Therapy has helped me deal with it in a healthy way, but it is something that is still constant. For any of you who struggle with anxiety, you are not alone. Anxiety is a real struggle. Please seek help. Whether that is therapy, pastoral counseling or spiritual direction, seek help. I won’t promise that your anxiety will disappear, but I can promise that you’ll learn how to better deal with it.