Transforming Struggles into Strengths: Overcoming Anxiety and Finding Purpose

Transforming Struggles into Strengths: Overcoming Anxiety and Finding Purpose

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Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

As I sit down to write this, I’m reminded of the winding road that led me to where I am today—a journey marked by struggle, growth and, ultimately, healing. My story begins in fifth grade, at a band recital, where I experienced my first encounter with anxiety.

I remember it vividly: the anticipation building as I waited for my flute solo, the fluttering of nerves in my stomach, the beads of sweat forming on my brow, and the relentless pounding of my heart. I excused myself before my solo, overcome by a wave of panic that left me gasping for air and desperate for escape. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening to me—I just knew that something felt terribly wrong.

The aftermath of that attempted solo, which never materialized into an actual performance, deepened my struggle with anxiety. Standing there, paralyzed by fear, I couldn’t bring myself to step onto the stage. As I stood there, unable to utter anything beyond “I can’t do it, I need to leave,” my parents’ reactions only added to my turmoil. Instead of offering comfort, they bombarded me with questions, dismissing my feelings as mere silliness. Despite my inability to face the spotlight, they still handed me a gift—a DVD of my favorite movie, Peter Pan—as if to compensate for a performance I never gave. The guilt gnawed at me, knowing I was being rewarded for something I couldn’t accomplish.

What stung even more was the nonchalant attitude my parents adopted afterward, treating the incident as something to be swept under the rug. Surprisingly, my teacher didn’t probe further, likely due to my parents’ convenient explanation that I had felt sick. The whole experience left me grappling with conflicting emotions, unsure which was worse—the overwhelming anxiety or the feeling of being misunderstood and brushed aside.

Little did I know, that moment would be the first of many battles with anxiety that would follow me throughout my life. As my anxiety worsened, even my parents, who had little understanding of mental health issues, couldn’t ignore the signs. It became a constant presence, darkening every aspect of my life. Anxiety forced me into isolation, caused me to miss numerous school days out of fear of public embarrassment, and pushed me to the edge of academic failure. Recognizing the gravity of my situation, my parents turned to my primary care provider for help. After ruling out any physical ailments, my doctor attributed my stomach pains and dizzy spells to anxiety and recommended seeking support from mental health professionals.

​At just twelve years old, I found myself thrust into the world of psychiatric medication. My doctor prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) commonly used to treat anxiety disorders and depression. While the medication was intended to alleviate my symptoms, it offered little relief, leaving me grappling with the same overwhelming sense of dread.

In addition to medication, I was also enrolled in therapy—a decision made by well-meaning adults who hoped to provide me with the support and guidance I desperately needed. However, as a child thrust into the unfamiliar territory of therapy, I struggled to make sense of the experience. Forced to confide in a stranger about my innermost thoughts and fears, I felt confused and alone.

As I grew older, my experience with anxiety evolved in ways I never anticipated. Sure, the classic symptoms like stomach aches and sweaty palms stuck around, but they were joined by a whole new set of challenges—like my brain going a mile a minute with “what if” scenarios and the constant dread of inferiority.

It’s wild to think about how anxiety can shape-shift like that, right? But understanding these shifts is crucial because it means we need different approaches to tackle anxiety at different stages of life. It’s all about adapting and finding what works best for us as we navigate the ups and downs of mental health.

Fast forward several years, and I found myself standing at a pivotal crossroads. Depression had taken hold, and I realized that fear was dictating the course of my life. Determined to reclaim control over my own story, I made a bold decision—to step out of my comfort zone and enroll in college far from home. It was a daunting leap, but it proved to be the first step toward reclaiming my life from anxiety’s grip.

College was a whirlwind of new experiences, challenges, and growth. I threw myself into my studies, determined to excel despite the lingering shadow of anxiety. And while there were moments of doubt and insecurity, there were also moments of profound development—moments when I realized that I was capable of so much more than I ever imagined.

 

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And let me tell you, college played a significant role in my journey. Taking psychology courses opened my eyes to a whole new understanding of anxiety. Learning about its commonality, giving it names, and realizing that others were experiencing similar struggles made me feel normal and understood—something I had been searching for ever since I was a little girl.

But it wasn’t just academic success that propelled me forward—it was also the relationships I formed along the way. From supportive professors to understanding classmates, I found a sense of belonging that I had never experienced before. And it was in these moments of connection that I began to see the power of empathy, understanding, and human connection in overcoming adversity.

During that period, I reached out to the counseling center at my college to address my anxiety. While it was a positive step, I later decided to switch to a therapist at a nearby facility who was a better fit for me. This shift highlighted the importance of personal effort alongside professional help. My academic studies became a resource for self-improvement; as I learned about various psychological concepts, I applied them to my own experiences, essentially becoming my own “client.” I tackled my tendency towards “what if” thinking by scrutinizing and reframing my thoughts, examining them closely for evidence and truth. This process of self-reflection taught me to create mental space and slow down my thinking, granting me greater control over my emotions. As a result, I began to notice a positive change in how I felt—an outcome of my dedication to self-growth and introspection.

As I approached graduation, I found myself faced with a new challenge—what to do next? It was then that I had a revelation: my experiences with anxiety and depression had given me a unique perspective and a deep empathy for others struggling with similar challenges. And so, I made the decision to pursue a career in therapy—a decision rooted in a desire to use my own journey to help others find their way through their struggles.

Today, as a therapist, I draw on my own experiences to connect with clients on a deeper level. I know what it’s like to feel lost and alone, and I’m passionate about helping others find their way through the darkness. Whether it’s through individual counseling, group therapy, or community outreach, I’m committed to making a difference in the lives of those struggling with mental health issues.

In my practice, I’ve found additional ways to integrate my personal experiences with anxiety into my work. I’m not afraid to share my struggles with clients, helping to normalize and validate their own experiences. I gauge the appropriateness of sharing my experiences with anxiety based on the client’s state and needs. When clients are visibly confused or overwhelmed by their anxiety, feeling deeply controlled by it, I see it as a pivotal moment to share my story. By offering glimpses of my journey as living evidence of overcoming and transcending anxiety’s grip, I aim to instill hope and possibility. Sharing personal anecdotes becomes a means to illuminate the path toward empowerment, showing that it’s feasible not only to conquer anxiety but also to transform it into a meaningful tool. This approach allows clients to envision a future where anxiety doesn’t dominate but instead becomes a catalyst for growth and purpose.

One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned is that anxiety may be a part of our experience, but it doesn’t define us. Through therapy, I help clients learn to accept and overcome their anxiety, empowering them to take control of their lives and rewrite their stories.

Of course, my journey is far from over. There are still moments of doubt, fear, and uncertainty. But there are also moments of hope, healing, and growth. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this journey, it’s that healing is possible—it just takes courage, determination, and a little bit of support along the way.

 

 

​EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman

 

 

Erin Ullman is a licensed therapist specializing in anxiety and depression counseling. With a holistic approach to mental wellness, Erin provides personalized support for introverts, individuals navigating life transitions, stress management, and building self-esteem. Erin is deeply passionate about advocating for mental health and spreading awareness, recently extending her expertise and knowledge through writing for various blogs and platforms. Erin's writings are published through her private practice website, SoothingSpacesCounseling.com, and other platforms like Goodtherapy.org and HealfromAway. You can also find insights and updates on Erin's work by following @SoothingSpaces and @therapy_with_erin on Instagram.