I come from a long line of nervous people.
Every time there’s a storm outside my grandmother stares out the window, groaning and praying that someone she knows isn’t on the road. She knows a lot of people.
My childhood memories are filled with images of my grandfather sitting in his rocking chair, lower lip protruding, sighing deeply. Worrying, incessantly, about everyone.
My sister has a nervous breakdown when she sees spiders. My mother is afraid of many things. Mice. Driving. Calories. Her children; mostly her children.
I have inherited my own nervous nature from many relatives. Though my anxiety has improved a lot over the years, I can name many phobias, past and present.
Agoraphobia. Emetophobia. Mild claustrophobia. Also driving. Planes…
But this isn’t about me.
I think it’s safe to say that everyone on planet earth has anxiety in one form or another. To declare “I have anxiety!” is simply to identify yourself as a human being. Hell, my dog has anxiety. It’s a side effect of living.
And I want to challenge what it means to be nervous–maybe not just run-of-the-mill nervous, but something a tick above that. The kind of nervous that can easily rule your life. The kind of nervous that, to the outside world, looks like weakness.
Nervousness shouldn’t be equated with weakness. As a Certified Nervous Person, I believe it’s a strength, even a magic power. Here’s why.
A Threat Around Every Corner
A nervous person is fine tuned to threats. Emotional, physical, existential. Real and imagined. Things you would never even think of.
What if I have too much soda before the plane lands and then the plane gets stuck on the tarmac and the flight attendants won’t let me go to the bathroom, and if I defy their orders and go the bathroom anyway the air marshal tackles me and I end up on the news?
What if I’m standing in this line forever, so long that I start getting hungry and then I miss lunch, so my blood sugar plummets and I start to feel dizzy and nauseous, and I cause a scene because I either faint or vomit on the person standing in front of me?
What if I walk through that tall grass and a tick latches on to my ankle and I don’t notice for a week, and by the time I do, it has given me Lyme Disease and I end up developing celiac disease?
Are these reasons to be overly nervous? Not really. They’re silly worries, unlikely scenarios, and only serve to add undue stress to a situation that might not be stressful at all.
But the important thing to remember, before you laugh at a Certified Nervous Person, is that all of these scenarios are possible. Who do you think is going to take the proper action to prevent such a crisis: the calm fellow who never worries about anything? Or the nervous Nelly who has imagined exactly that chain of events?
The nervous Nelly, of course. She would drink soda sparingly as the plane reached its destination. She would pack a protein bar in her purse before heading to the DMV. She would wear tall socks and tick repellent before going hiking.
Nervous people are always prepared. We expect the worst, and worse than the worst. So when a crisis arrives, we’re not upset. We don’t falter or cave. Instead, we give that crisis a dirty, unimpressed look and ask why it arrived so late. We were born ready.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
Every waking moment of a nervous person’s life is a struggle.
We are constantly fighting an internal voice that points out new things to be afraid of. We have no control over it. We also talk to this voice constantly, telling it to shut up or telling ourselves not to listen.
When I’m nervous, I feel like I have two minds: the rational one and the irrational one. One side tells me I’m not in danger and I don’t need to fret over something so silly, while the other maliciously reminds me that I should be very scared of everything.
It’s a back and forth that doesn’t give up. A prompting to be scared, fighting with a determination not to be.
And that inner battle is perfect preparation for any real life obstacle. Nervous people possess expert coping mechanisms and stress relieving techniques. Our brains may be a tad fragile, but they’re protected by emotional callouses formed over years of fighting.
We’re also used to crawling through and over our nerves to get what we want. The nervous person knows very well that if you give in to every single little fear, you’ll never do anything at all.
And this makes us are unstoppable.
I believe that nervous people are simply people with overactive emotions.
We experience the difficulties of everyday life on a higher frequency. Call it Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill Syndrome: we have a hard time distinguishing between an actual big deal and something that we just think is a big deal.
After a social function, my mother will lie awake at night recounting every single thing she said. As the hours in the dark tick by, she gradually convinces herself that she insulted someone or made herself look like a fool. And of course, she did nothing of the sort. But it doesn’t matter, because she’s worked herself into a nervous state and will end up falling asleep, finally, at 5 a.m.
There is no calm for a Certified Nervous Person. Quiet moments are just free, undisturbed moments to fret about something. Our base line is bothered. Our emotions are always on the surface.
And these emotions aren’t always directed at torturing ourselves. We direct this energy at other people, in the form of constant worry. We agonize over what can go wrong in the lives of the people we love, following that “if, then” thinking to its terrifying conclusion.
With our minds attuned to every emotional stimuli–internal and external–nervous people often absorb the emotions of complete strangers. When we see anyone suffer, we feel it, too.
Nervousness and empathy, in my personal experience, go hand in hand. One causes and feeds the other, allows the other to exist. And the ability to intimately understand and appreciate the internal lives of other people is the most powerful skill you can possess.
Of course, there are plenty of Certified Nervous Persons who are held captive by their over-active nerves. There are certain aspects of my anxiety that I can’t overcome.
But perhaps if we look at nervousness as a unique way of seeing the world and a special struggle that makes us tough, we can convince other people that we’re not weak at all.
We are stronger than they–and we–think.