A little anxiety is good for you

There are times when I can almost feel the cortisol surging through my blood, times when my blood pressure rises and I can hear the thrumming of my over excited heart.

I ask myself why, when already I know the answer.

Performance anxiety: the thought that next week I will speak on the radio on a topic that’s dear to me – mental illness and fiction – and the fantasy that the interviewer will ask a question and my voice will seize up mid sentence.

I tell myself it’s okay to be apprehensive, a little anxiety is good. It means you care. It means you’ll sharpen up your senses in readiness.

Have you noticed when people are bored in their presentations, these people have given up caring about the topic or the people to whom they present? They don’t feel any anxiety, only the dull emptiness of a long yawn.

No such yawns for me.

‘You need to take your anxiety seriously,’ my mentor said to me many years ago, and for the first time in my life I began to wonder, did I have a problem?

Up till then, those times when my heart raced, my blood ran thin and my breath grew short, made sense to me. There was always a reason to feel anxious. It was all about feeling scared.

Scared of what I might find when I opened the front door. What state my father might be in, sober or drunk, jolly or in a rage.

At school, I worried that my uniform would not stay clean enough, the safety pins that held up my hem might be visible, a torn sleeve obvious.


All these were signs of my not being satisfactory, but they made sense.

When my mentor told me to take my anxiety seriously, she planted a seed.

There was something wrong with me for being scared.

A reasonable person would not tremble at a sudden crash. A reasonable person would not be alarmed when the car speedometer rose to over one hundred kilometres. A reasonable person would not worry about what was over the next hill.

But I worried about these things, and still do.


‘You drive and I’ll navigate,’ my sister said last Saturday when we arrived at the car hire depot at Canberra airport.

I had wanted to drive. My navigational skills are appalling, besides I like to take charge of the wheel when I’m in the car, except when my husband drives. His driving I trust, more than my own.

Last week, my sister and I drove from Canberra through Queanbeyan on our way to the coast. In most places the road was narrow, two lanes only with several points where there was opportunity for speedier drivers to pass the slower ones.

It wasn’t an easy journey, winding roads that demanded complete concentration and all the time my heart racing as it is now, my hands clammy on the wheel and my sister beside me chatting away as though oblivious to my distress.

I complained to her about the drivers on my tail, the ones who wanted to get past but could not, given the double lines. They had to wait till we reached an overtaking section and I pitched myself into their heads: ‘Old woman driver, bad as a learner.’

The hire car we’d selected, a small white Mitsubishi, had no stamina. Getting up hills I needed to flatten the accelerator and often times the car sounded as though it might conk out before we reached the top.

Going down hills was just as bad. The steering wheel felt loose under my hands, as though it might take off in either direction. Many times, I imagined us running off the road or onto on-coming traffic.

We arrived at the Holiday Inn in Broulee in good time for lunch. My sister was starving but the nearest place we could find sold fish and chips and pizza. She settled for grilled fish, while I elected to have yet another hot chocolate, my stomach filled with acid from the journey.

Various family members who were also staying in the hotel arrived over the course of the afternoon in readiness for an evening barbeque at the home of distant relatives in Mossy Point.

My sister and I shared a room in the Holiday Inn.

We were up early on the Sunday ready to strike out to Broulee Island, keen to sort out the distance and time it might take to reach our destination, the reason for this trip in the first place. The scattering of my niece’s ashes.

I write this here now and an image of my niece flashes before my eyes. There are tears behind them.

It’s too soon to be writing this.


Are the connections evident to you?

Performance anxiety, speaking on the radio, your voice carried out across the airwaves can be as frightening as travelling along the Kings Highway over the mountains, up steep hills and down, through multiple hair pin bends.

To travel along an unfamiliar road, terrified you might lose control of what feels like a tin car on toy wheels, when you lack experience at both.

And death, my beloved niece’s death. A death that came too soon.


10 thoughts on “A little anxiety is good for you”

  1. Yes, there are connections. Yes. I am sorry to hear of your beloved niece’s death. I am sorry for your anxiety and for whatever experiences you’ve had to cause it. I actually like the directive to “pay attention to your anxiety” as it suggests a sort of mindfulness of the feeling — that perhaps you can pay attention to it, to those bodily effects, and not judge it or them or you. And yes to the connections — to the unknown, to loss, to past loss, to present loss, to possible future loss.

  2. Anxiety. Stress. Worry. Fear. They all overlap and eventually coalesce so it’s hard to tell what you’re feeling. Feelings in real life aren’t like feelings in a book. Maybe that’s why I prefer the purity of fiction to reality which is easily contaminated. I’m unsettled all the time these days. It’s a matter of degree. But I’m never comfortable, not fully comfortable. There’s always pain, the achy kind, and the unknown, the things that might go wrong. Nothing runs smoothly. We got a new boiler a few months back—I have no idea how many but less than a year, I think—and the night before last it started making a noise, the kind of noise you get when you boil an empty kettle. I called Carrie—she’s the engineer—and she looked at it, filled it with water and then we turned it off. We’ll need to call a man. Not having a working boiler is no big issue—my entire childhood was spent that way (the emersion heater was only turned on for baths on a Sunday)—but having to call a man in does bother me. I’m bothered now. Things are supposed to work. My Windows 10 update should’ve arrived by now. Carrie shouldn’t have to go back to the States this soon. Suppose this happens, suppose that. I write about it in my new book:

    “Truth is like fear: it only gets to you if you lie down to it. He was scared spitless. He’d known fear before: he’d known the fear of displeasing his father; he’d known the fear of failure, the fear of the dark and he wasn’t that keen on clowns come to think of it. This was a fear of the void. There was nothing to fear, the nothing that was not there and the nothing that was.”

    I’ve never had to speak on the radio. I wouldn’t like that. I have spoken in public many times but I never improvised. I stuck to my script which I’d rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed. I still have some of my old talks somewhere. They’re like musical scores, nothing left to chance. No matter how much you prepare there’s nothing you can do about performance anxiety. And that’s not a bad thing as you say. Your senses will be sharper. But it’s a fine balance. If you’re not careful the anxiety can become a distraction and that’s not its job. But then that’s being human I find; there’s a downside to everything and very little wiggle room. I should say, “You’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” It’s what us friends are supposed to say. We’re supposed to be supportive. So, don’t worry. You’ll do fine.

    If only emotions listened to reason.

  3. As the day of the radio panel draws nearer, Jim, I find myself a little less anxious, more resigned. This morning I’m more troubled by a stench in my writing room, whose cause I cannot fathom. I fear one of the cats, unable to escape during the night, turned a hidden corner of the room into a toilet but I can find no evidence. Until I can get to the bottom of it, there’s no resting for me. But that’s better. I prefer a worrisome stink to anxiety. Thanks, Jim, your thoughts remind me of one Gerald Murnane who also rehearses his public presentations to death, never leaving anything to chance. As for the unknown and the things that go wrong unexpectedly, well we all know about that. But as I often console myself: good things happen, too.

  4. Uncertainty seems to be the dominant state of our existence. Making peace with it has been, continues to be a life-long challenge. I just didn’t know it was the challenge until a few years ago. My mind spent most of its time in the unknowable future or unchangeable past, feeling always overwhelmed. I am sorry for your niece’s death. How could an event such as this, with grief almost too new to feel, not leave one under a cloud. In my experience, every great loss seems to bring with it every other loss I’ve ever known, grief takes over. There are so many connections. (I feel I’ve wandered off the trail here, that my thoughts don’t want to come back to center.) Paying attention to our anxiety may be the way to befriend it. Loving the least lovable parts of ourselves. I am glad to have found you again. You have never been one to do anything but wade right into the middle of feelings and situations that many of us would prefer to sidestep. Always things that matter, clear exploration of the human condition. I admire you and your courage. xo

    1. Such beautiful way of putting it here, Marylyn. Embrace the uncertainty and with it those states of overwhelm and anxiety. Loss is the killer and yet it’s inevitable, something we all much bear. I wish I was better able to manage at times like these, when yet another loss has slipped under my door.

  5. I finally changed your blog address so now I can see updates on my sidebar. I appreciate your comment on my poem.

    This anxiety is so much a part of our makeup. I think it weaves a rigid web that’s partly responsible for keeping us upright. I’ve aged into a realization that most people don’t think about me on a regular basis, therefore, I needn’t worry about how I’m coming across performance-wise. I’m a flitting, fleeting moment in most people’s selfie-driven awareness. And actually, I like it that way. Along with Jim, and everyone else, I’m thinking you’ll do fine.

    So terribly sorry about your niece.

  6. As I write this, swirls of anxiety surge through. But next time I look at this post it will have passed. I’m about to leave for that radio interview, Kass. Wish me luck.

  7. I’ve always been plagued by anxiety. It’s almost my second nature. Thus, the temptation is to avoid any situation that might bring on anxiety. Of course, then there’s the danger of letting opportunities pass by that may bring fulfillment, that may make me a more fully realized human being. Anxiety may be my second nature, but it’s not my true nature. It’s been imposed on me (and I admit I’ve allowed it to be imposed on me) by outside events, by other people.

  8. The event that triggered this post, the radio discussion, is over now, Kirk, and a huge weight is off my shoulders. I agree some level of anxiety is imposed on us by circumstance. the issue of course is how we deal with it, and we need help for that. Often times we don’t get the help soon enough or often enough and can then develop all sorts of unhelpful ways of coping. It’s lovely to see you here again, Kirk. Lovely to be past that interview.

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