“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
― Lao Tzu
I considered this idea years ago, upon first reaching Tzu’s words. I thought the idea to be novel. However, I didn’t consider myself an anxious person. I did not have the self-awareness to identify my anxiousness. The behaviors that anxiety exudes are often identified as personality traits.
That’s just how he is.
She’s a worrier.
She freaks out over everything!
Under closer examination, I see that I am an extremely anxious person. Sometimes it serves me well. Most of the time it does not. On the surface, it is because I am thinking about the future. Worrying.
If I don’t get the results this quarter, I’m must be a failure.
If I missed that detail, I probably miss everything!
If I am late, they’ll think I’m a mess.
I never have enough time!
Here it goes, it’s all downhill, now! (after one unforeseen issue)
I already have too much to do, how do they expect me to get this done too?
These negative thoughts have not served me well. They just opened the floodgates of stress hormones and had a detrimental impact on my life and work. I believed the thoughts were truths.
And this is where we find our culprit, anxiety.
If you’re like me, you haven’t considered yourself to have anxiety. Anxiety differs from stress in it’s duration. Stress can be triggered by any perceived threat. It can be positive or negative. Alternatively, anxiety is prolonged and can be triggered by stress.
Anxiety is characterized by excessive worry, difficult to control, worrisome thoughts and is present more often than not. Essentially, prolonged symptoms of stress. Forty million Americans have a generalized anxiety disorder.2
Common symptoms of anxiety include not be able to control worrying, fatiguing easily, irritability, difficulty concentrating and a feeling of being “on edge”.
Historically, I would downplay these symptoms to myself. And when I tired easily, I just assumed that I was weak. When I couldn’t concentrate, I thought it was because I was … dumb.
Ha, it looks so silly when you write it down.
I’m mostly a grown up, now. Even so, just the other day my boss pointed out an error that sent me down Anxiety road. It was a small but costly mistake.
When my mistake was pointed out, I was not able to control my thoughts. The thoughts were so severe, that I believed in this moment that I couldn’t speak with friends, family or my significant other because I was a failure. And as a result, shunned in their eyes – not worthy. I felt ill, I couldn’t concentrate and I became instantly exhausted.
In reality, I was talking to my brother on the phone (I have no idea what we spoke about) who was supposed to be updating me on some serious events in his life. Distracted, I bought the wrong size shoes. Racing thoughts taking over, I got home and I blurted out my thoughts to my girlfriend. I sounded like a five year old who was upset Billy the neighbor boy stole his GI Joe. And thus, this is how she looked at me.
I feel grateful that I don’t often feel this way. However, I also realized that for most of my working life, I had felt like this. If I didn’t cultivate tools to help identify anxiety, I wouldn’t have the awareness I have now. In the mode of awareness, it is easier to do something about it.
Why Didn’t I Know?
So the obvious question comes, how didn’t I know I had anxiety? The easy response is, I wasn’t mindful enough. Deeper, I didn’t have the ability to put my emotions into words when I was younger. If I was able to identify, “I feel like I am making a lot of mistakes”, and think about it. I would have come up with a solution. “Maybe I should slow down.” Or, “Maybe I should take some steps to get better at this skill.” Instead, I just felt the emotion, reacted. Reaction makes you combative. I would become defensive, trying to hide mistakes, overcompensate and over-highlighting my strengths.
I’ve made a habit of what I call “removing my thoughts from the chemicals“. To me, this means putting how I feel in words outside of the experience of feeling. I do this in journaling. It has proved pretty eye-opening. Often the sources of the biggest emotional reactions were the pettiest triggers.
On the other hand, when a mistake at work triggers thoughts that push to alienate you from your family and relationships, this is problematic.
Another thing, I didn’t want to discover I had anxiety. Consequently, having anxiety played into the anxiety itself. There is a stereotype that having anxiety (or any mental health issue) is a weakness3. I needed to be strong. And so, I wouldn’t ‘look at it’. I pretended like it wasn’t there.
Anxiety has manifested isolation, racing thoughts, inability to focus, anger and irritability in my life. I don’t want to choose these outcomes any longer.
Conversations with the 2015 ME
2020 ME: Wow dude, you’re really intense.
2015 ME: Yeah, I have to maintain this level of intensity so I can continue to be better than everyone else.
2020 ME: How come your house is such a mess?
2015 ME: I have to work a lot. If I start projects at home, I don’t have time to finish them because I have no time. So I don’t start stuff at home until I have time.
2020 ME: You seem pretty stressed out about work. Why don’t you talk to your wife about it?
2015 ME: Talking about it causes me to live the emotions all over again. I just can’t do it, its already stressful enough.
2020 ME: But, she literally has no idea what’s going on with you!
2015 ME: I’ll handle it. Please leave me alone.
2020 ME: Why don’t you invite some friends over?
2015 ME: They don’t want to come. I’m not a good host anyway. And, I work a lot. Our schedules never match up.
2020 ME: Why not call them then?
2015 ME: I don’t like talking on the phone.
2020 ME: You say you work a lot. Do you like your job?
2015 ME: Like my job, are you serious? It’s not about liking your job it’s about working hard and a lot.
2020 ME: Do your employees like working for you?
2015 ME: My employees have to do what I say when I say it.
2020 ME: Hey, buddy it looks like you didn’t start that new work initiative yet. It looks like something you’d like to do…what’s up?
2015 ME: I’m already too busy I don’t have time to do that.
2020 ME: Looks like you got passed up for the promotion…again.
2015 ME: I’m so tired, I haven’t slept good in weeks.
2020 ME: Oh, one of your employees needs to talk to you about their schedule
2015 ME: They always have a problem with their schedule! What is it now?
Maybe you’ve had these types of conversations with yourself. Feels disappointing, yeah? I
The 2015 ME was experiencing severe anxiety. I chalked it up to my personality. But that’s not who I am and it certainly wasn’t who I wanted to be.
Is This You?
If the conversation sounds like you, you may be suffering from anxiety. If you are from the same camp I am, your first instinct will be to deny.
Just know there exists a place where you can come to terms with this reality. You can begin to come to terms with this reality. You can begin to become more mindful and aware of your negative thoughts. These ideas are driving your anxiety.
As always, I recommend a mindful practice. This could be yoga, it could be meditation or it could be some activity that puts you in your flow state. The point is, be in the moment.
Notice your feelings. Consider how the voices in your head are influencing them, even the very convincing ones.