The ontology of panic

I was a mess the first time I spoke up in my English class last week.

Seconds after I raised my hand, my heart beat painfully with increasing anticipation. The words I drafted in my head fell out of my mouth like putty. I was powerless. I held no control over my tongue, which was stuck in knots, or the ears that were hinged on every hesitated word.

Millennials are no strangers to anxiety. A new survey by the American Psychological Association reports that adults ages 18-33 have the highest levels of stress. My most ambitious friends detail the mild to severe panics they suffer, the symptoms that can arise during new social situations or the ones that prompt days of bed-stricken fear.

As I contemplated the anxiety people my age suffer on a prolonged basis, I posited the following: Anxiety begins to make more sense if we view conversations as exchanges in an unspoken power struggle.

If an exchange between two speakers is a transaction of power — one between a person who speaks and another who is silent — then learning how to relinquish just a little power will make you a more socially gracious person.

The difference between the person who is successful socially and the one who is crippled by anxiety is the willingness to let go, to lose a bit of power.

It’s like what Marjorie says to Bernice in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: “The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you have.”

Those who aren’t good with other people are engaged with their own thoughts to a point of paralysis. They have trouble forgetting the “parts” of themselves they perceive to be inadequacies.

Those with the social prowess I admire win their peers over by learning how to submit themselves to a position of lesser control.

They’ve dampened their own desires to be heard and speak only to cater to the emotional needs of their companions, quickly raising questions and thoughts to address the needs of other egos: "Well, how does that make you feel?" or "No, no, I want to hear what you think."

Giving little personal details away, well-liked acquaintances are the ones whose speech becomes an extension of the thoughts and feelings of everyone around them. They know how to lose their voice in a crowd and turn their speaking power into a medium for others’ use.

It’s perhaps why people my age feel so much more socially apt when we drink heavily at social gatherings.

The alcohol intoxicates our neuroticisms. We lose our senses to the world before us, becoming more attuned to the requests of others. We supplant our own power into the hands of another person.

Alcohol is self-medication in a world that makes saying the right thing all the time so important. It pacifies the anxiety we feel and loosens the power grip we hold over our introspection.

When I had a hard time speaking in my English class, power and panic became inextricably linked.

Perhaps having social grace is as easy as just letting go, surrendering a sense of control even in the most unforgiving spaces.


Reach the columnist at or follow her on Twitter at @ce_truong


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