Mining joy from anxiety’s depths


The 6pm train from Cavendish to Observatory is usually late and always overflowing with commuters racing against the setting Cape Town sun to make their way home.

Pushing your way into a packed carriage takes gumption and making it out takes very real courage. But it’s nothing compared with the mental preparedness it takes to make the relatively short journey through the underpass from one side of the tracks to the other after the sun has already crept behind Table Mountain.

One of the mantras of a podcast I listen to is: “Pepper-spray now, apologise later.” It’s a phrase I find myself turning over in my head whenever I’m walking alone in the dark. I wouldn’t call myself skittish in these situations, but determined — poised to do more or less anything to survive.

I was listening to that same podcast when I heard something that fundamentally changed my attitude to an aspect of myself that I’ve often felt ashamed of: my anxiety.

The hosts of that podcast talked about the evolutionary links of anxiety to the instinct to survive. What many of us experience today as modern-day anxiety could really just be a set of impulses left over by our besieged ancestors and woven tightly into our DNA.

It seems to be a popular theory, and was crystallised by American psychiatrist Myron Arms Hofer in his 1995 study An Evolutionary Perspective on Anxiety.

Anxiety, Hofer found, is “a behavioural state that occurs in response to signals of danger and that entails a special set of response tendencies that have resulted in avoidance of similar dangers during events in the organism’s past development and in the evolution of the species”.

This side of anxiety — the idea that it might not only make you fall to pieces but also move you to action — is rarely explored in the way we talk about mental health.

As Australian comedian Jordan Raskopoulos puts it: “See, the nuances of mental health are often lost on people. When people hear mentally ill, they think ‘crazy’. When people think depressed, they think ‘sad’. When people hear anxiety, they think ‘very, very scared all the time’, and for some people it is true — but not for me.”

Raskopoulos and I live with what has become known as high-functioning anxiety. For me, this manifests as a persistent humming in the background of my mind. Sometimes the humming becomes so loud, it is all I can hear — but a lot of the time it’s just there.

This is very different to the way others might experience anxiety. My father, for instance, says that his anxiety is like “acid” — a thing that exists only to totally annihilate.

And so it is strange for me to say that the contours of my anxiety have never been utterly negative. Sure, it often sees me withdrawing from the world, making it difficult for me to connect with those around me. But it is also usually the part of me that pushes me towards bravery.

When I was much younger, and at family gatherings, there would be times when I wouldn’t speak for hours on end. Everyone would assume that I was painfully shy. But there were other times when I’d get everyone together and make them watch me dance in a pink leotard to Tina Turner’s Simply the Best.

So you see, in moments in which many people would feel very uncomfortable, I’m often able to mobilise a surprising amount of confidence and take charge. It’s just the small things — how my arms move when I walk, or whether I’m making too much or too little eye contact — that can feel like a massive effort.

Melissa Broder put it best in her collection of essays, So Sad Today, when she wrote: “For someone with anxiety, dramatic situations are, in a way, more comfortable than the mundane. In dramatic situations, the world rises to meet your anxiety.”

Part of what makes this possible is that people with anxiety are often incredibly adept at controlling that “the world is going to end” feeling, because that sense of dread is already so hardwired in how we relate to the world.

I’m hyperaware of how that fear can manifest — uncontrollable jitters, sleeplessness, nausea, abrupt bouts of sobbing — so that most of the energy my body can muster goes into keeping my anxiety in check.

My anxiety is the part of me that is there as a constant reminder that I am sometimes too moved by the world. I have, after all, very nearly fallen apart in a Woolworths after seeing a police officer buying doughnuts, simply because the image was too perfect for me to handle.

But it is also true that my anxiety, so aware that there are far more terrifying things out there, signals to me that, should I let myself be moved, there is very real joy there — and indeed that joy itself is almost always preceded by what can feel like great struggle. 

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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