How much are we allowed to hide behind our anxiety?
My day-to-day existence has crackled with nervous energy for as long as I can remember. Anxiety shapes how I think, feel, and relate to others — and how I see myself. A formal diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) a few years ago only further cemented the identity I’d already built as an Extremely Anxious Person. At the same time, I’ve wondered whether identifying so strongly with anxiety is healthy. Could it discourage you from managing your symptoms, or venturing beyond your comfort zone? How much should you lean into your anxiety diagnosis?
I turned to Athina Danilo, a Burbank, California-based therapist, for help with answering these weighty questions. She tells me that the key is to lean into your anxiety just enough to gather and act on the information it’s relaying to you, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed, stuck, or afraid to move past it.
But before we wade in, a reminder of the distinction between anxiety and an anxiety disorder: At its core, anxiety is a survival mechanism that alerts us to threats in order to help keep us safe, Danilo explains. In an anxiety disorder, like GAD or social anxiety disorder, this survival mechanism becomes unhelpful and in fact impairs day-to-day functioning.
An anxiety disorder diagnosis has its benefits, validating your experiences and providing clarity on how to manage your symptoms, Danilo says. Leaning into a diagnosis can motivate you to look into what triggers your anxiety, what messages it tends to bring up (which might be related to past threatening experiences), and how to distinguish between real and perceived threats.
My therapist’s affirmation that yes, I struggle with anxiety, and later, my primary care doctor’s GAD diagnosis, pointed me toward concrete steps I could take, whereas previously, I felt I had little choice but to live at the whims of my fear. Now that I knew I had anxiety, I could learn and practice strategies to manage it, like discerning the messages it surfaces about my abilities and worth, as well as challenging them. Embracing an often stigmatized diagnosis also felt empowering.
That said, you might be leaning too much into your diagnosis if you begin to feel stuck in your anxiety, Danilo says. You might even use your diagnosis as a crutch. This can look different from one person to the next. In my case, I’ve definitely avoided social situations — like walking into a room where only one other person is present, or saying goodbye to the host of an event — rather than nudging myself to overcome my discomfort “because anxiety.” To cut myself some slack, I’d cling to what my therapist said about how GAD makes life a little harder for me.
This avoidance makes sense, when you consider its possible origins. If you’ve been bullied or ridiculed, you might steer clear of social situations to protect yourself from similar experiences Danilo says. But leaning too much into anxiety can be debilitating and lead you to avoid what you actually want and need, but perhaps feel unsafe approaching. Past awkward social situations have made me hesitant to reach out to others, even if, deep down, I want to. Hiding behind my anxiety brings me a sense of safety, but at the cost of the human interaction and meaningful relationships I so deeply crave.
When you find yourself reluctant to push past your anxiety, Danilo encourages being gentle with yourself. “I think we all have our own process, and we all move at our own pace.” Today, you might feel too overwhelmed to strike up a conversation with a neighbor, and that’s ok.
But if you do have the resources to manage the stressors associated with whatever scary situation you want to avoid, Danilo suggests asking yourself what's holding you back from taking the next step? Whenever I’ve posed this exact question to myself about a social situation, my response — something along the lines of, “saying something stupid, which will make everyone hate me”— usually has so little basis in reality that I can calm myself enough to take the plunge. Knowing that I have the tools and bandwidth to handle my anxiety in the moment also helps.
Earlier on in my therapy journey, I also hesitated to disentangle my identity from my GAD diagnosis because, ironically, I feared what life would be like once I learned to manage it. I’d carried the weight of anxiety for so long, I couldn’t imagine myself freed of it, much as I wanted to be. Danilo notices this resistance in her clients, too — the idea of life without the constant struggle of anxiety “is quite scary to people because it’s foreign.” Relief may feel better, but it also feels unfamiliar, and for those of us with anxiety, unfamiliar situations can be scary.
What this change might mean for you can be unnerving, too, Danilo says. I personally worried about whether I’d be the same person without my anxiety. As dramatic as it sounds, I felt like I had to start saying goodbye to the person I was before I started learning to manage my symptoms, which made me not only scared, but a little sad.
Danilo reassures her clients who express similar concerns that their anxiety will still be there, but they’ll be able to better manage it when it does appear. “You can still lean into it. It still serves a purpose,” helping them avoid situations that might not serve them, she says. “They’re still going to be the same person without the anxiety being present at such great levels.”
She suggests reminding yourself that your experience of anxiety is unique to you. Hearing this reassures me that even though I’ve learned strategies to manage my GAD, I still carry all the qualities and experiences that shaped it. And honestly, I still feel like myself even after five years of therapy — but a more present version of myself, who’s more capable of responding instead of reacting. The relief and ease did take some getting used to, but it’s been worth it. And even if I’ve grown from the Melissa constantly at the mercy of her anxiety, I know she’ll always be part of me. I wouldn’t be where I am now without her. Plus, managing anxiety is a process, with good days and bad (see: avoiding social situations, above). I doubt I'll ever completely rid myself of it.
Danilo tells me it can also help to see anxiety not as who you are, but “a response to an experience you’re having." Creating some breathing room between yourself and the diagnosis can make it easier to get curious about what’s triggered your anxiety and what you need to feel safe.
It comes down to trusting yourself — that you can navigate anything that comes your way, even without the overwhelming anxiety you might be used to, Danilo says. “You’ll be ok without anxiety.” I’d even dare to say you’ll be more than ok.