'I Transformed My Life After Years of Crippling Anxiety'

I was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania, called Dover. My mom gave birth to me when she was 19 years old, and raised me on her own. This meant that managing the pressures of working, alongside having a child was difficult for her. Due to my mom's long work hours, I spent some time with my grandparents, and a lot of time alone, as I was growing up.

Because I felt that I had to do a lot to raise myself, I began developing perfectionist tendencies. I'd come home, have a snack, do my homework, and call my mom, asking her if I could go outside to play—at the time, my routine became rigid as it allowed me to gain a sense of control.

My mom worked long hours and I did not want to add any more stress to her day-to-day life, as she would arrive home exhausted. My grandparents also had their own children, so I didn't want to be a burden—something else that somebody had to worry about. So I learned from an early age to be silent.

This soon developed into people pleasing, as I felt that unless I was excelling, I wouldn't get noticed. I thought that if I did everything right, my family would be proud of me and it would soothe all of the rejection that I had felt.

I constantly felt a need to be perfect, which is why I joined the Girl Scouts in elementary school. My mom was a girl scout and my grandma was a girl scout leader—I felt that they would be proud of me. I also joined the cheerleading team when I was twelve because my mom was a cheerleader, not because it was something I truly wanted to do.

Amber Benziger
A photo of Amber Benziger after starting her program, The Anxiety Lab Amber Benziger

When I was 12, my mom gave birth to my sister and got married a few months after that. I remember feeling a sense of panic, which then morphed into a feeling of rage. I felt that I had done everything right, yet still was not being noticed. It was during that first year of high school that I had truly experienced the bodily sensation that comes with anxiety. I continued to push down these feelings of rage, panic, and rejection and mask them further by keeping a rigid routine and burying myself in my studies.

In college, it seemed that everything came crashing down. I had my first panic attack in my freshman year at East Stroudsburg University. I was sitting in a psychology class and remember feeling that everybody was staring at me. I was extremely hot and I could not breathe. I thought I was having a heart attack, so I ran out of the classroom, and into the bathroom until l had calmed down.

Following the panic attack, I felt like something was wrong with me—I truly believed that I was dying. I had called my grandmother on the phone at that time and got the message that I was being dramatic. The constant words that I heard while growing up were, "dramatic," "sensitive," and "emotional." This in turn increased my anxiety further, as I felt that I had to conceal my emotions as they were not normal, or justified.

A year later, when I was 19, I began working at my college counseling center, as a receptionist. My major was in psychology as I was interested in the human mind, and have always had the desire to help people. The counseling center became a safe space for me, as I was also able to undergo therapy there, while completing my senior year internship.

After speaking with a practitioner and explaining that I was having panic attacks, she informed me that I had high-level anxiety. This was a relief as it allowed me to realize that nothing was wrong with me—there was a logical reason behind the panic attacks and I did not need to be afraid of them. I felt safe enough to speak about my anxious emotions and my childhood, knowing that they would not be dismissed. I realized that I carried a significant amount of shame and guilt in regards to not being perfect, and I realized that perfection does not exist—it was an illusion that kept me trapped in a never-ending cycle of wanting to overachieve. The more I kept moving the goal line more, the harder it became to reach. After I spoke to the practitioner, I realized that I could start making decisions based on things that I cared about and my values, which prompted me to ask the question, "What do I like?"

I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology in 2007, and after working in the mental health division of an insurance company in Philadelphia for a year, I moved to New York City and did my internship in a grad school, at Long Island University in Brooklyn, in 2011.

I began counseling clients for the first time, which allowed me to delve deeper into why I wanted to become a therapist. I realized that I truly wanted to do this because it is my passion. Of course, my own anxieties and fears resurfaced, as I still often questioned whether I was good enough to offer someone else guidance.

Amber Benziger on The Beach
A photo of Amber Benziger on the beach in New York, August 2021. Amber Benziger

As a therapist, I also began to realize that it felt difficult for me to speak to a professional while counseling others due to the misconception that others may think that I do not know what I'm doing. Yes, I'm a therapist, but I'm a human first. Although I know all of the techniques and skills that I teach my clients, sometimes, when experiencing heightened anxiety, it can be hard to remember them.

During the pandemic, I joined a social networking app and began facilitating a support room there for users with a friend, Nikki. We noticed that people needed a safe space to speak about their anxiety and to confide in others. So, Nikki and I decided to create a podcast called, The Managed Mind, a place to have raw and open conversations when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. Our first episode aired on 12 September 2021, and we have finished our second season and are preparing for the third.

People have enjoyed listening to the podcast. One viewer expressed that prior to listening, they had felt embarrassed about experiencing anxiety, but now, they feel comfortable and more aware of addressing their emotions and not being ashamed of them.

I have now been a therapist for ten years. It has been a privilege and an honor to listen to people share their unique stories with me, it not only humbles me but allows me to put things into perspective, mainly that I have become more aware of myself and my own triggers.

Over the years, I have learned to take more frequent breaks during work, as well as to have healthier boundaries with myself. I have been journaling since I was 10, and I still continue this practice. I've also adopted a routine for myself at night, where I will forgive myself for one thing throughout the day, which is a helpful practice for self-compassion. Though I am a therapist, I am still currently in therapy as I think that it is helpful in allowing me to deal with the triggers that may resurface within my work.

One thing we need to note is that everyone experiences some form of anxiety. It is a natural response to our brain detecting danger. It's when anxiety becomes constant that self-reflection can be useful. Over the years, I've also learned that black and white thinking may sometimes be harmful. When I was younger, I had no room for gray areas. I would usually ask myself, "What is wrong with you?" rather than, "What has happened to you, to make you react like this?" That simple shift in language is key.

I wish that therapy was more accessible than it is, as I truly recommend it. But even so, I will always encourage the people around me to utilize what they have access to, whether that may be an online course, talking to a friend, or writing in a journal.

Amber Benziger is a licensed psychotherapist, anxiety coach, and speaker located in southern New Jersey. She is the owner of Vitality Behavioral Health where she specializes in anxiety disorders, burnout prevention, and trauma therapy. She is also the founder of The Managed Mind Podcast.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Carine Harb.