Today, I wanted to share my experience on living with anxiety.
“We moved you into the main conference room because so many people signed up for your session,” says the conference organizer when I got to the Golden Gate Club, located in San Francisco’s Presidio. It’s a beautiful room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. I smiled and noticed that familiar feeling in the stomach. It’s my old friend, anxiety.
I was at the Golden Gate Club to give a talk titled 10 Tips in One Hour for Reducing Stress, and Increasing Happiness Through Mindfulness. What was expected to be a small group of 30 – 50 people had grown to 100+. Luckily, I had over an hour before taking the stage.
In 2011, I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder.
Wikipedia defines Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) as:
“An anxiety disorder characterized by an intense fear in one or more social situations causing considerable distress and impaired ability to function in at least some parts of daily life.”
During the peak of my Social Anxiety Disorder, what I did — standing up in front of a group of people to deliver a speech — would have been unthinkable.
Anxiety is painful to live with. It’s the constant fortune-telling, trying to foresee all the things that can go wrong in every situation. It’s the fear of screwing up. Trying to predict the future. It’s the feeling of never being at ease because your mind is constantly catastrophizing — on high alert.
Most people fear public speaking. Supposedly, most fear it more than death. But what started as a “normal” fear of public speaking was seeping into practically every area of my life and into just about every social interaction. I hated talking on the phone and avoided groups of more than two. Also, there was a constant, low-grade anxiety that never seemed to pass.
When I was diagnosed with SAD, that was the low point in my life. I was so stressed and anxious that I started to lose hair — clumps and clumps of hair.
It is often said that people start practicing meditation because of an unbearable pain. That was true for me. After all, practicing sitting in silence every day — there has to be some compelling reason for putting yourself through that.
I had a choice — resort to anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants, or try this alternative treatment called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Admittedly, I was very skeptical but I decided to try it for two reasons: (1) there are over 3,000 peer-reviewed studies which show the effectiveness of MBSR, and (2) it was being taught at Stanford University. I mean, how “woo woo” can a course at Stanford be?
When I started on the journey, searching for a “cure,” what I expected was that the treatment program would stop the feelings of anxiety. Just like taking an Advil for a headache, I expected the symptom to disappear.
After four years, here is what I’ve learned about anxiety.
I’ll never be anxiety free. What can change is my relationship to the anxiety. Instead of having my brain go into complete freak-out mode, I can catch the anxiety much earlier on. I have a much better awareness of how anxiety works. When there’s an anxiety-triggering event, I notice my stomach tightening/turning, heart racing, and other somatic experiences. At this point, I can start to panic and interpret the somatic experience as “anxiety,” or I can simply recognize it as a set of physical experiences and work on calming the body.
Practice. Practice. Practice. In addition to three MBSR courses, an MBSR Teacher Training Practicum, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I also took two public speaking classes. I joined Toast Masters. Yes, every step was excruciatingly painful. But as with everything — what you practice gets easier.
After learning that the audience would be much larger than expected, I walked outside and found a bench in the beautiful Presidio Park.
As my time to speak neared, I noticed my old friend — anxiety. In that moment, what I recognized was that anxiety is neither bad nor good. It’s just a physiological experience plus unhelpful, unproductive thought patterns. And I can survive with the slight tightening of the stomach, a feeling of swelling in the chest, and tingling in the arms, without the narrative (“I’m going to fail,” “This is going to suck,” etc.)
I was simply able to accept that this is my body’s way of letting me know that something important is about to happen, and to pay attention. Anxiety turned into a friend I can rely on.
P.S. Read my post on Anxiety Management for Lawyers.
This article previously appeared on Above the Law.