Whenever something feels off in my body, it’s cancer.

Whenever someone says they “have to talk to me,” they’re going to end our friendship.

Whenever something even slightly out of the ordinary occurs, I respond the same way–with an automatic over-reaction. This is anxiety. It’s the most reliable feature of my personality and if you have anxiety, it’s familiar to you, also.

Last week, I gave a big talk and was interrupted from the audience, by the woman running the show, telling me to hurry up and finish because people were walking out (actually, two women were just going to the bathroom). When the event ended, I was rushed out of the hall by another woman and into a smaller room to record a podcast. No one said thank you. No one emailed me the next day or the day after that. Obviously, they hated my talk and they hated me and I should just impale myself on something so that I am unable to ever travel and give talks again.

“TEDxMtHood2016-233-DSC09868” by TEDxMtHood Planning Team is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Not once did it occur to me that their behavior was unprofessional, or even–the horror–rude! Nor did it occur to me that not everyone is gracious, or even good at what they do. Nope, it was me. It’s always me. ME ME ME ME ME. I’m the worst. I’m the ugliest. I’m the dumbest. I’m the most pathetic. These are my first reactions always, and they are not healthy or good for me, and they are never correct (but they sure are narcissistic!)

Anxiety is all about the first reaction, and that first reaction is often never right. And that’s why creating a second response to every situation is important, because most likely the second response is the one that’s more accurate.

Here’s an example: have you ever run into someone you know who has to hurry away, or can’t stop and say hi, or just waves and keeps going and you think: shit, what have I done? Then you worry all day that this person is mad at you for reasons you cannot guess, but you know MUST exist? And then you get an email a day later from the person apologizing, and explaining that they had just left therapy, or had been broken up with, or got rejected from law school or were withdrawing from meds or a hundred other things that happen to us on any given day.

Think about all the times you went to a fantastic party, sang its praises to everyone for weeks after, but for some reason never emailed the host. You didn’t hate the party. You were so caught up in the post-party reverie, it slipped your mind. There are so many things that we let slip that hurt other people and we don’t even know. Just how we become gripped by anxiety at other people’s foibles, so too are we causing others to feel anxious. We just don’t know about it.

Building a second response is fairly easy, and here’s how it’s done: Start writing down all the times you thought something was your fault and it ended up not being your fault (they weren’t mad at me, they were heartsick!) Write down every time you were wrong about why someone was late (they didn’t die! They were just on a stalled subway!) After a while, you’ll see that your reasons and the actual reasons don’t line up, and you’ll come to accept that there are tons of reasons why things happen and you are almost always wasting your time guessing.

Next time someone snubs you, or turns up late, or calls at you from the audience to tell you that people are leaving, you’ll have an arsenal of options for what might ACTUALLY be going on. First responders may be heroes, but for people with anxiety, second responders are who we want to be.


5 responses

  1. Ms. Stern, I want to thank you for Little Panic. I am 42 and was lucky enough to be diagnosed at 18. A single doctor saved my life.

    Even though I’m well informed about anxiety and handle it much better than I did in my youth, there is a part of me that always remembers, that is still raw with pain and fears I am entirely alone in the world, completely broken and unable to face living. I’ve never read such accurate descriptions of what anxiety feels like. You and I have very different circumstances, but reading your memoir made me feel…seen. I thought I was the only one who wished I had a physical ailment so that people could at least recognize my suffering. And I don’t even want to go into how much I related to your search for a partner. Stayed in relationships because I was afraid to leave? Check. Convinced I would always be alone because something was wrong with me? Check.

    Just…thank you for this. I wish I’d had this book so much earlier, and I deeply hope that a young person who needs it will find it.

    1. Amanda Stern Avatar
      Amanda Stern

      I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Thank you. I’m sorry that you suffered in the same ways I did, but I’m glad that you got diagnosed and that you stayed living. Please help me spread the word about the book. I want as many people as possible to read it.

  2. Julie Avatar

    Holy heck Amanda .. I didn’t realise that was anxiety …and I’m guilty also of when you really do find out the real reason why the person is late/sick etc the first reaction is sheer relief that it wasn’t ME , rather than be concerned as to their reason … the insidious nature of anxiety tricks me into believing most things are just me being an invisible person . There is no reason . It’s just me …

    1. Amanda Stern Avatar
      Amanda Stern

      Yup. Anxiety is a tricky motherfucker.

  3. Leslie Avatar


    Wow, I cried as I read this. You wrote everything I’ve felt for as long as I can remember. That secret dark place I go to in my head, that I’ve hid from the world and continue to try to hide. That sense of terror when I think Ive blown it, or that I’ve made an irreparable mistake, and that I will be exposed as not being good enough.

    Thank you!

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