I Can Use My Anxiety As My Strength

(Photo above courtesy of Akiko Toya)

How Akiko Toya, of Odenton, Maryland, turned her anxiety into a career in risk management.

When I was in college, I would lie awake each morning chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo until I could feel enough hope to get out of bed. I would have regular panic attacks, which felt like I was drowning in cold water.

Some of this anxiety was connected to graduating soon and not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. A friend noticed I was having a difficult time and asked me if I had an idea of what I wanted to do in the future. When I responded that I didn’t, she reminded me that Buddhism is about overcoming any self-doubt. It’s about having the courage to dream big, beyond my imagination.

As I chanted with this in mind, my perspective shifted. I realized my anxiety about my future didn’t have to be my weakness. In fact, it had the potential to be of great value.

With my college graduation fast approaching in 2014, I read the annual peace proposal from my Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda and came across this passage: “Building upon this foundation, ties of friendship and trust could be made even stronger through collaborative efforts to strengthen resilience, including disaster prevention and mitigation. Members of the younger generation should take the lead in this.”

I thought to myself: This could be my future career and path.

My friends used to always say to me, “Akiko if an earthquake hit, we would be safe with you because you’re so prepared.” The truth is, because of my anxiety, I would think of every possible outcome that could go wrong and take the necessary steps to alleviate my anxiety. I realized that in disaster risk management, I could use my anxiety as my strength.

After finishing graduate school in 2016, I was hired as a disaster risk management specialist at one of the largest multilateral development banks. I entered a field in which I frequently travel to unstable countries impacted by natural disasters. Given the personal risk involved, it is common for those in this line of work to experience extreme mental and emotional stress.

I now see this crisis as my opportunity to create a totally new world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, all my work trips were canceled, and I wasn’t a part of any response teams. I thought I needed to just wait it out before traveling for work again. Then, a friend in my Buddhist community encouraged me to chant about the situation. I realized that even though I work in a field prepared to address crises like the current pandemic, I didn’t believe that I could fundamentally change the situation.

Akiko Toya posing for the camera while sitting on steps

Photo by Justin Kunimoto

As I started to chant for people’s safety and happiness, and to end this pandemic, another friend in my local Buddhist community shared how difficult it was to apply for unemployment benefits. We decided to start chanting together every day, study Daisaku Ikeda’s encouragement and support each other. Through her consistent daily efforts, she started receiving unemployment benefits!

Shortly after, I received a call from my work that I would be joining a response team specifically focused on building financial resilience in African countries suffering from the economic impacts of COVID-19.

As a disaster risk management specialist, my job is to provide security and comfort for those in times of fear and uncertainty. My Buddhist practice gives me deep confidence that I can do this.

In my work, I now see this crisis as my opportunity to create a totally new world.

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