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What I Know About Fear Now That I'm In My 20s

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Courtesy of Nina Bahadur

In her new book "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg notes the ways in which fear can hold women back and the importance of pushing through that fear. She writes, "This book is what I would do if I weren't afraid." We asked women of different ages to share what they've learned about fear so far.

There are people who experience fear because terrible, life-altering things have happened to them, but I think I was just born scared. Scared of the dark, scared of some formless, impending catastrophe, and scared -- in every way -- of being trapped.

The generalized fear I experienced as a child got worse when I reached adolescence, and manifested itself in a variety of ways -- trouble sleeping, an unpredictable appetite, and a fear of something utterly banal, something that it seemed like everyone else in the world could handle: something where, either from being confined or feeling social pressure, it wasn't possible for me to get up and leave.

Car rides, plane trips, lectures, examinations, ceremonies and performances all became Major Events. I would work myself up over them for days and concoct elaborate ways to avoid them, frustrating and disappointing my family and friends. My anxiety was compounded by worry that no one would be able to understand, and that people would judge me for being so cowardly. Instead of trying to explain that certain things filled me with dread, I just said I didn't like them.

It became clear to me, eventually, that this wasn't going to go away on its own. I couldn't talk myself out of it, even if I had known how to. My fear was ruining things that should have been joyful -- a prize ceremony, a singing solo. It was the kind of fear that required talking to a professional, taking some anxiety medication, and opening up -- just a little -- to people around me.

My specific anxiety revolves around spaces I can't get out of, but the tendrils are far-reaching. There was a point in my life where a low-level terror had an effect on everything I did, and I was too ashamed to talk about it -- even with people who were close to me. I have been writing this piece for a long time, and each time I come back to it, I reach a point where my heart is racing and I have to x out of the window. I wonder how I can tell this story with my name attached to it, when there is the possibility that people I know, who mean a lot to me in some way or another, will read this and think less of me. I wonder if this will come back to bite me in the future, however carefully I try to explain what goes on in my mind. But that is one fear I am asking myself to let go of.

I think that I lost a lot of things, not just by being anxious, but by being afraid to talk about my anxiety. Instead of being gentle with myself and asking others to understand, I was furious with myself for letting anxiety limit me. Every time I lied or flaked out or acted indifferent because I was too anxious to do something, I mentally punished myself. I felt like I had to make it up to myself by working as hard as I could to be as perfect as possible in ways I could control. I took on as many responsibilities -- formal and informal -- as I possibly could while still avoiding the situations that felled me. Maybe I couldn't be the perfect performer, the road-trip buddy, or the friend in the front row on opening night, but I could be other things. I pushed myself to compensate for my fear by working harder, when I should have sat down and been honest with myself and with others.

Some of the things I lost through anxiety are quantifiable -- experiences and opportunities that could have been wonderful, or could have been unmemorable, but that either way I didn't think I could sit through. A performance of "Macbeth," a road trip to Maine, a Noam Chomsky lecture. There are other things I cannot quantify. I lost a great deal of self-respect and unbelievable amounts of time. And there is someone in particular, who loved me very much, who I just couldn't bring myself to be honest enough with. It felt easier in the moment to leave the situation than to explain my fear. I still wake up thinking about it.

I would imagine that most young women my age are anxious. I see it in friends and acquaintances -- the anxiety linked to pressure for perfection, wondering what comes next, and which decision is "right." A constant concern with letting people down, and an unwillingness to admit to being afraid of anything. It's fine to be angry at your roommate, or your terrible boss, things you can vent about. Anger makes it seem like we are in control. But it's less fine to admit that you're worried about your job or your friendships. There is this idea that anxiousness is weakness, that fear lessens us. We are only "allowed" to be afraid of something dangerous, not of life itself.

I am still not as forthcoming about my anxiety as I would like to be, especially because at this point I am the least anxious I have ever been in my life. It is not something I feel the need to tell everyone about -- it doesn't define me, much as it may sometimes change me. I have brought it up to people who I think would benefit from knowing, casually stating the facts in a relevant conversation, and no one has ever responded negatively. Intellectually, I understand that a chemical imbalance is out of my control and nothing to be ashamed of. Still, I will never forget how the behaviors that anxiety manifests itself as can feel so limiting. To be fighting against yourself over the smallest of activities is exhausting -- no wonder that I would rather pretend that everything is fine, and carry on striving to be as perfect as possible. But I have arrived at a point where I understand that my anxiety is something I will probably always carry with me in some way, and maybe just speaking about it will resonate with someone who is struggling. I speak about my fear because I am tired of it, because I am reaching a place of peace with it, and because I want other people to hear what I'm saying -- being anxious is not the same as being weak.

We all experience it in different ways, but here is what I know about fear now that I'm 22: We don't always have the option of saying "no" to feeling it, but we do always have the option of opening our mouths to say "I'm afraid." And that could make all the difference.

Around 18 percent of Americans aged 18-40 will experience disordered anxiety in any given year.

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