Millennial culture led to my crippling anxiety. Here's how I turned it into an advantage.

When I harness the edge that anxiety gives me, it makes me feel alive.
Image: Julian Brass had never suffered from anxiety before, but when he went out on his own, it suddenly became the biggest obstacle in his life.
Julian Brass had never suffered from anxiety before, but when he went out on his own, it suddenly became the biggest obstacle in his life.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images
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By Julian Brass

Like any self-respecting millennial, I wanted more. For a recent college graduate, I had a solid job in Silicon Valley, making good money and doing interesting work as a marketing manager for a new startup run by prominent tech innovators.

But as part of a culture that respects originality more than stability, and a generation finally free from the yoke of 9-to-5 expectations and the suburban dream, I yearned to be out on my own. So 11 years ago, at 24, I quit my job and headed home to Toronto to launch a startup that would inspire millennials like me to do their utmost to live a “notable life.”

It was not what I envisioned living my bliss would look like when I lit out of Northern California.

I didn’t realize that the same culture that encouraged me to take risks and pave my own course had a dark undercurrent, one that would also contribute to the biggest obstacle I encountered in building my new life and business: anxiety.

It hit me like a right hook to the face. I had never suffered from anxiety before, but when I went out on my own, I suddenly became overwhelmed. Would I be able to make rent and afford food that wasn’t coming from cans? Would I be able to look my friends and family in the eye if I failed? Was I just a delusional dreamer who foolishly left a job almost everyone told me was a total gift?

Showering and getting dressed only seemed to be preludes to going out and facing the judgment of my family and peers, so I would avoid it by shutting myself in for days at a time. When I was forced to go out for crucial events, like couldn’t-miss networking opportunities at parties with celebrities and influencers, I cloaked my fear by donning a cheap blazer that I thought looked expensive and then downing vodka red bulls, tequila shots and, all too often, drugs.

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When I stayed in, I suffered sleepless nights. I developed a miserable eye-twitch and had a constantly racing heartbeat egged on by my caffeine addiction. It was not what I envisioned living my bliss would look like when I lit out of Northern California.

But one day an angel appeared in the form of a girl who wouldn’t accept my invitations for a date. Dinner, drinks and coffee were no-gos, but she made a counteroffer: I would accompany her to yoga Sunday morning and then she’d consent to having tea with me after.

How civilized and totally lame, I thought, but she said “yes!”

It was 2009 when I walked into my first yoga studio. I was floored by the weird, woo-woo way that everyone seemed to be acting. I had been at a club and after-party the night before, and these people at the studio were the ones who were actually high! Despite the 105-plus-degree heat, they were elevated, naturally, unlike the people I had been hanging out with just a few hours before in some pretentious penthouse.

In that 90-minute class, I endured 89 minutes of agonizing hell and one minute of pure euphoria. The ratio was well worth it, since it was the first time since I’d left my job that I felt my anxiety evaporate from something healthy that I was doing. I felt free. (That also made it worth it even though the girl never said yes again.)

If the millennial culture of overconfidence and fear of missing out had led me into a battle with anxiety, its embrace of the pursuit of a different kind of bliss — a mind-body wellness hack — helped me find a way out. Yoga gave me a chance to get out of my own head for the first time in forever, taking me to a place where how much you're worth, who your clients are and other measures of status were unimportant.

Before that, the inner dialogue in my mind was so loud and the butterflies in my stomach moved so fast that I didn’t stop to ask where all of this was coming from. Why am I feeling like this? What is this anxiety, really?

Now I had a way to release myself from my anxiety for long enough to see it for what it was: My body sending me physiological signals in the form of misguided energy. In contrast to the blaring external messages that I needed to be a unique striver, exuding confidence and excellence in all of life’s many competitive realms, anxiety was actually an honest and loving internal indication of what actually mattered to me: comfort over materialism, balance over nonstop work, self-approval over social media likes.

Drowning that anxiety out — whether through foreign substances or inner put-downs — was making that energy move in a negative rather than positive direction. To use the anxiety as a positive force, instead of leaning into drugs and drinking, I started choosing to do more yoga, meditation, writing and reflecting. And it felt amazing.

My understanding of the essence of what this anxiety is means I can now channel it into a positive place by changing what I’m telling myself about it. I can visualize the energy, imagining that I can see it, and then consciously direct it to the places, people and things where I actually want it to go.

That’s what I had to do when my mother discovered a lump in her breast a couple of years ago.A single mom with me her only child living in the same city, she needed my help. Before those dark Canadian winter mornings when I picked her up for chemo appointments, I was able to convert my anxiety into empathetic strength and resilience. Knowing that I would feel anxious in this moment, I made sure to go to sleep early and, when I got up, practice gratitude, yoga, prayer and journaling while drinking lots of water and herbal tea, all of which helped me flip my anxious energy into compassionate energy.

I haven’t slayed all the demons of anxiety, or unburdened myself completely from the shackles of expectations and influence. But I wouldn’t trade this gift of anxiety for anything.

It allowed me to put on my game face as I held her hand while we awaited test results, to find a reserve of love and support as I shaved her head for the first time as the effects of chemo overtook her body, to keep the nausea in my stomach at bay as I pulled the sticky, blood-soaked bandages off her breast as the first step on her path to recovery.

I haven’t slayed all the demons of anxiety, or unburdened myself completely from the shackles of expectations and influence. But I wouldn’t trade this gift of anxiety for anything. Why? Because, when I harness the edge that anxiety gives me, it makes me feel alive. It empowers me to get “in the zone” like professional athletes playing in Game 7 of the playoffs or famous musicians performing at Carnegie Hall.

It’s a feeling of pure, raw, focused energy and clarity that I can direct to the task in front of me. It’s my morning and afternoon coffee — with 10 times the potency and none of the jitters.