When the Anxiety Becomes Unbearable

medium_11130236015I used to be anxious. Anxiety is a funny thing, because from the outside, you’d never know that I was anxious. In fact, people perceived me as being very calm, even keeled, and thoughtful. The fact that people couldn’t see my inner anxiety only perpetuated the pain. Granted, I worked hard at my exterior facade of calm. After all, who would want to hire an outwardly anxious lawyer?

I suffered from chronic insomnia, headaches, backaches, and racing thoughts.

The anxiety (and stress) manifested itself in different ways. I suffered from chronic insomnia, headaches, backaches, and racing thoughts. It felt like I was a prisoner of my life. I wasn’t exactly unhappy, but I wasn’t happy either. I felt numb, except of course, when I was feeling anxious.

My body started doing something I could not ignore. I started losing hair – clumps of hair.

I was very good at ignoring my anxiety even though my body was very clearly telling me that something wasn’t right. Then one day, my body started doing something I could not ignore. I started losing hair – clumps of hair.

That was enough to have me to running to my doctor. He ran every test, trying to rule out any physical cause. All the tests came back negative. I was in perfect health. He suggested that perhaps the hairloss was psychosomatic.

This was the beginning of my journey to health – to mindfulness. I went through several treatment programs to understand and work with my stress and anxiety. I started with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which helped tremendously with the intense anxiety I felt whenever I was in certain social situations, such as, public speaking. Then I signed up for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at Stanford University. The science behind the effectiveness of MBSR was undeniable. Plus, the fact that it was being taught at Stanford to students from undergrad to medical school convinced me that there must be something to this program.

The MBSR program reawakened a old meditation practice I started while I was in law school. It also reawakened me to my life.

It was in the MBSR class that I started to see how truly anxious and stressed I really was. I also started to heal. I saw a possibility of being a lawyer that wasn’t constantly stressed or anxious. It opened up the possibility of cultivating a joyful law practice.

That was over 3 years ago. Since then, I’ve completed 3 MBSR classes, MBSR Teacher Training Curriculum, and Compassion Cultivation Training, among other courses.

Had you asked me back then if I was content, I would’ve said, “absolutely.” I had just gotten married to the love of my life, and our law practice was going better than we could’ve ever imagined. My life was good. Yet, inside, I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’d get up each morning and my mind would already be going at 150 mph, thinking of all the things I had to accomplish that day. I’d hop in the shower and run through my client list or the hearing I’d have to attend later that day. I was always living in some other moment – in the past, or in the future, but rarely in the present. I was running as fast as I could without an understanding as to what I was running towards.

When I look back at that person before this journey, I feel a deep sense of loss. I was constantly fearful of failing, not being good enough, or making a mistake. I was afraid of stopping because it felt as though if I wasn’t constantly progressing forward, I’d be a loser. No wonder I was anxious!

After many years of practice, I still have occasional anxiety and stress. Although, far, far less than before. The goal of the mindfulness practice is not to never experience stress or anxiety. After all, these are powerful emotions and they serve an important  function. Stress and anxiety is an alert system that lets us know that something isn’t right and we should pay attention.

I simply practice taking deep inhale and exhale, then observe the sensation until it passes.

What has changed is my relationship to stress/anxiety. When I notice myself getting anxious, I don’t fret. I simply observe myself getting anxious with curiosity and openness. When I notice my heart beating a bit faster, and I can feel that anxious energy pulsing through my body, I pause and pay attention to it. I don’t try to “fix” it or change it. That just makes it worse. I simply practice taking deep inhale and exhale, then observe the sensation until it passes.

On the rare nights when I can’t fall asleep (and this is truly rare), I don’t stress about the fact that I’m not asleep. I focus on relaxing my body and mind. Eventually, I fall asleep.

The beauty of the mindfulness practice is that it’s so simple. I also think because it’s so simple, it’s easy to dismiss it. When I explain to people what mindfulness is – which is the simple act of being in the present moment without preference or judgement, I often get the sense that the person is disappointed. They were hoping I’d give them a different  answer – one that’s far more complicated, because something so simple as being in the present moment couldn’t possibly have all these amazing benefits, right?

I feel at ease. I feel comfortable in my own skin. I feel stable in a way that I never experienced before. I can savor the small and big moments of my life. I can be in the moment, present to what’s happening. I feel happy and joyful. I began this journey wanting to “fix” the pain in my life. What I found is a way to better live my life.

If I didn’t experience these benefits myself first hand, I probably wouldn’t believe it either. But I’m not asking anyone to take what I say on faith. I say go see for yourself. Try meditating for a few minutes everyday for a month and see what changes you notice in your life.

photo credit: -Reji via photopin

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