I’ve been experiencing anxiety on a daily basis for the past four years. I’ll be doing the dishes or going for a drive, and all of a sudden I’ll notice that my breathing is short, the very air passing through my nose hurts, my heart constricts, and there’s a tightness in my chest. Given the fact that heart disease has plagued all of my male ancestors, it’s a scary thing to go through, almost like my heart is reminding me who’s in charge. Weird.
It happened again this morning as I was cooking, and I pleaded with myself,
|Why can’t I enjoy this? I enjoy cutting up the hearts and the gizzards, I enjoy slicing the tomatoes, I love partitioning out all of my spices into little saucers like I’m on cooking show on TV…so why is my heart racing??|
Luckily, I tried to think of when I first started experiencing these attacks, and memories from my days in Corporate America started flooding back.
Rush Hour, All Day Long
During the busiest period of my life, I was
- Working at an IT company full-time.
- Finishing my business degree at U of T part-time.
- Marking exams and assignments as a Teaching Assistant.
- Gigging with my steel drum band and attending practices every week.
As you’d expect, after doing that for four years, I gained almost 50 pounds. I’m not complaining; I loved every minute of it. I was doing a lot of stuff, getting paid, and best of all, receiving praise and recognition from my friends and family. I had a title I was proud of, a new car, and a girlfriend who was totally out of my league.
Some people talk about how they don’t have enough hours in a day. I was so busy that I didn’t have enough of me in the present! I needed at least one more of me to get everything done.
There’s a certain kind of praise that we place upon busy people. It’s assumed that someone who’s rushing around is someone who’s on a meaningful mission, whereas those who are moving through life calmly are somehow being less productive. It’s probably a North American thing.
Stress Results in a Coping Mechanism
|The biggest problem in American business today is the feeling that nothing is ever finished. There is no satisfaction to be derived from a job well done because there is always another demand to be met. We’re all running on an endless treadmill. – Loehr & Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement|
Today, I realized that those formative work years taught me that I didn’t have enough time to do anything. I was constantly engaged in a task while simultaneously worrying about a heap of missed deadlines that never ended, no matter how long I worked. In fact, the first time that I ever felt depressed was when I worked 24 hours straight and still wasn’t able to take care of everything.
In response to this consistently high level of stress without rest and rejuvenation, I believe that a neurophysiological connection was forged, wherein my body ‘learned’ that when I sat down to work, it needed to ramp up my level of physiological activity so that I’d have enough energy to perform. In essence, my body learned to view work as a threat to my survival.
Problem: The Coping Mechanism Keeps Working
Fast forward to today, here’s the problem: even though I left Corporate America and now have enough hours during the day to live my dreams, that neurophysiological connection still exists. So now, when it comes to work, it’s like my body is living in the past, reacting to a threat that no longer exists.
Rodney Stephens, in Stepping out of Self-Deception, said it best,
|What is astonishing is the validity we give our reality. If we feel or think something, then it must be true, but if the very thoughts and emotions on which that assumption is based are conditioned from past circumstances, how valid can they be? This assumed reality might not be any more reliable than reading last year’s newspaper for today’s news.|
It probably sounds a bit far-fetched, but Perdue University recently released a study depicting how a normally helpful reflex could end up hurting the body. They found that diet soft drinks, filled with imitation sweeteners, didn’t really help anyone to lose weight. As it turns out, when a person drank the soda, the body would detect what it thought was sugar, and in response released insulin to keep the blood sugar at a proper level. But then, because there wasn’t any actual sugar in the system for the body to contend with, the extra insulin floating around in the person’s system served to actually lower their blood sugar to harmful levels, which in turn caused the drinker to feel hunger and to crave sugar!
Luckily, as Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl put it,
|Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.|
Accordingly, with the root cause of the problem exposed, the Silent Observer that I’m cultivating can observe the neurophysiological reaction, appreciate that it’s part of my humanity, and in the spirit of non-attachment, simply let it go.
At the same time, I’m not going to pretend I fully understand the problem. I’m sure there are more layers to be pulled back. How do you guys handle anxiety?