Most of us come to anxiety from the same road. The story usually goes something along the lines of, “Everything was fine until…” Anxiety disorders usually appear to pop up out of nowhere, as if one day we were “normal,” and the following day, we were “abnormal.” Others may experience anxiety at a very early age (and it appears that this is becoming more common). Regardless, the anxious often speak in terms of normality, as in, “I want to be normal.” In the practical sense, this means that we want to be able to handle anxiety in the same way that most people do. Unfortunately, many anxiety survivors fail to realize that most people don’t handle anxiety very well at all, even though most people experience less anxiety than we do. They’re just better at denying it, avoiding it, or distracting themselves. In this article, we will examine the simple question: What makes you different from them?

For many anxiety survivors, there are two stages of life: pre-anxiety and post-anxiety. Once we pass into the post-anxiety phase, we tend to romanticize the pre-anxiety stage, as if it were all flowers and hummingbirds. We easily forget that pre-anxiety, we suffered just as much, but in a different way. The transition from pre-anxiety to post-anxiety is usually made when we discover something unsettling about ourselves, our family or friends, or even reality itself.

This “discovery” is often caused by a tragic or painful event that caused severe and inescapable anxiety. It could be a death in the family, a diagnosis of a disease, a change at work or in a relationship (with the associated feelings of insecurity), the birth of a child, or any number of things. Regardless, these events or realizations have three characteristics: 1) The feeling that you are more vulnerable than others and, therefore, weaker; 2) The feeling that your well-being and your life are out of your control; and 3) The belief that something must be done to prevent or avoid negative change.

This event or realization was like a pressure cooker. It slowly cranked up the heat and pressure until you could no longer avoid it, deny it, or distract yourself from it. Even if you think your first panic attack or bout of chronic anxiety happened overnight, it had probably been building up for a while. The primary distinction here is that prior to your first acknowledgement of debilitating anxiety, you were doing a damn good job or avoiding, denying, or distracting yourself from it. Once you were no longer able to keep up the fight, your defenses crumbled and the anxiety came rushing in unchalleneged. The results were severe anxiety, panic, and a confrontation with some scary facts of life. These facts, in summary, are as follows: 1) You can and will get sick and, eventually, die; 2) You cannot control everything that happens to you and your family; 3) Loss, impermanence, and change are inherent features of life and are, therefore, unavoidable.

Pre-anxiety, you weren’t anxiety-free, you just ignored it in the same way that most people do. You weren’t as sensitive to it. You didn’t have that sense of critical vulnerability. You thought you were virtually invincible solely because you hadn’t been exposed to — or didn’t acknowledge — death, disease, old age, and loss. You didn’t die, other people died. You didn’t get sick, other people got sick. You didn’t go crazy, other people went crazy. You went through life without truly realizing its fragile nature and how vulnerable you really were.

Once we discover the fragile nature of your own existence, it scares the hell out of us, and now we’re left trying to cope with it. This realization is nothing to scoff at. It only takes a moment to recognize that our entire lives are sometimes built like a house of cards, ready to come crumbling down at any moment. Different people experience this in different ways, but the underlying fear is always the same: uncertainty. Unfortunately for us, uncertainty cannot be avoided. It too is a fact of life. To protect our house of cards from the winds of uncertainty, we often go to great lengths, and we suffer tremendously. We could tape, glue, or bind our house of cards, hoping that it will withstand time and the changes it brings. But nothing will protect it forever. Change is inevitable. The true path to recovery from anxiety is to dismantle the house of cards and rebuild our lives with a solid foundation based upon the knowledge that we are fragile. Instead of fighting natural change (which includes death and illness), we must coexist with it and learn that every moment is precious. Be here now. Right now, as you read this, you are living your life. Your life doesn’t happen tomorrow or when you get a promotion or when you buy your dream home. Your life is in this very moment. Take it as it is and stop wishing for it to be something that it is not. Acknowleding this is easy, but developing a symbiotic relationship with uncertainty is very difficult. It requires an entirely different perception of the world. We cannot continue to think in the same way, act in the same way, or live in the same way. It requires change, acceptance, and insight.

So, the next time you find yourself wishing to be “normal again,” think on this: you were never normal, at least not in the sense you think you were. Yes, you could handle anxiety and get by in life, but you were avoiding reality. You were living in ignorance of reality. As a result of this, you never developed a peaceful relationship with death, disease, old age, and loss. Instead of wishing to be normal again, it is slightly better to wish to be normal for the first time. Wishing, however, will only get us so far. We must work for recovery. The difficulty is in determing what must be done and how to do it, and for each of us the path may be different.

So, intead of going back to the “normal” delusion, the best solution is to learn to cope with reality. It is, in fact, the only solution; no matter how hard you try, you cannot change reality or protect yourself from harm forever. It’s time for you to free yourself from the bonds of chronic fear, and the only way to do this is to tighten your belt and to march straight through it.