It’s an interesting experience, writing a book called The Anxious Lawyer. Most lawyers sort of grunt and say something like “I need your book. I feel anxious all the time. ” The non-lawyers love to tell me about the anxious lawyers they know. I have spent the past few years immersed in learning more about my own anxiety, and also studying/researching it, both from clinical and non-clinical perspective.
The word anxiety comes from the Latin word “angere.” It means choke, distress or trouble. The latin definition is useful in putting into context the clinical definition. Most people think about anxiety as existing in the external world (e.g., a pending job review or public speaking engagement) and the mind’s reaction to the event that we interpret as anxiety. What is often left out of the discussion is the physical reaction to anxiety. As is made clear in the Latin definition, choking whether literally or figuratively would understandable cause anxiety in most of us.
Frequently, when we experience anxiety, our first reaction is to ignore, dismiss, or to deny. This reaction to our anxiety, may temporarily make the feeling and somatic experiences go away, but long term leads to unhappiness, depression and additional anxiety.
Many lawyers view anxiety as a necessary part of life. It’s what fuels their motivation. And at the same time, it’s also an annoyance. This sort of unwelcomed feelings of anxiety, which frequently shows up coupled with other somatic complaints such as insomnia, backaches, headaches, etc somehow becomes an acceptable state of being.
Personally, I didn’t admit what a problem anxiety had become until I started losing clumps of hair. I ignored all the other warning signs – persistent looping thoughts, pain and other strains in my stomach, regular backaches, headaches, and insomnia. When I refused to sign-up for anti-anxiety medications, I was left with only one other option – to look deep into my anxiety and befriend it. Yes, I know you’re probably thinking “why on earth would I befriend my anxiety? I want it to go away.” I totally get this feeling. But hear me out. Anxiety is something that lives inside of you. It’s an internal reaction to some actual or imagined external threat or situation.
The anxiety is unique to you. Something that may cause a very high level of anxiety for me may not even register on your anxiety scale and vice versa. Therefore, it’s important to get to know our own anxiety. To see the circumstances that leads to trigger of anxiety and to break this link.
So, how do we begin this process of getting to know our own anxiety so that we can choose our response to the situation instead of going into autopilot and reacting with anxiety?
- Understand the trigger. As you go through your day, notice those events (or thoughts) which triggers the anxious feeling. For example, getting a call from an opposing counsel you have a difficult relationship with.
- Tune into the inner dialogue. When you see the opposing counsel’s name on the caller ID and you begin to feel anxious, can you tune into the thought pattern? What is your brain’s interpretation of the situation? Is there some other feeling that you can identify? Frequently, there are many other layers of emotional experience below the anxiety such as anger, frustration, feeling helpless, fear, etc.
- Tune into the body. What do you feel or notice in your body when you’re in an anxiety triggering situation? Is your heart beating really fast? Are you holding your breath? Are you clenching your jaw or your fists? Where does this sense of anxiety live in your body? Experiencing anxiety as a somatic experience, therefore uncoupling the link between the physical experience and the mental thought pattern allows us to see the anxiety for what it is – our reaction to a situation, experience, or thought.
Slowing down enough to notice and pay attention to our own internal state and anxiety can feel frightening. It’s hard work but certainly no more difficult than peeling back the layers to a complicated client matter. Final word about the process of understanding our anxiety – there is a certain degree of surrender that must take place. Unlike book learning, there is an organic unfolding that you must allow. Just like a butterfly will only emerge from its cocoon on its own timeline, your less anxious, better self also can’t be rushed.