On July 4th, 2014 something happened that altered how I’ve lived my life ever since. It was such a visceral experience that I remember the moment it happened like it was yesterday.
Life was dandy. I had an incredible position at Walt Disney World as a full-time musician, a great relationship, and no reason to feel badly about anything. But that afternoon sitting on the couch watching an episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee with my girlfriend I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my stomach. It wasn’t like anything I had ever felt before. I couldn’t tell if it was emotional pain or actual physical pain. It was similar to that feeling you get when you hear terrible news combined with the worst stomachache you can imagine. I excused myself from the comedy and went to lay down for a few minutes. I examined all possible causes and decided it must have been what I ate for lunch. I found some momentary relief in my logical assumption.
Later on that day the feeling returned. The way I described it to my bandmates at the time was, “It feels like my mind is moving faster than my body can handle.” I pasted a smile over my discomfort for the remainder of the evening as it’s all I could think to do. I was hoping that a good night's sleep would be the solution, but alas that was not the case. This whole situation had me quite perplexed. I had been on the positive thinking train for a few years at this point and had gotten pretty good at noticing how my thoughts are linked to my emotions. Why in a time of my life when I was happy and content was I suddenly feeling this intense feeling of panic?
For the first few weeks or so I tried to cover up the feeling with any noise I could insert into my surroundings that would drown it out. I buckled down on my positive thinking tactics: appreciating more, smiling more often. All of this effort just seemed to exacerbate the anxiety. After a few weeks of denial and fruitless effort, I tried the only thing I hadn’t thought of yet which was to slow down. I took more alone time at work and in my relationship. I would sit with my eyes closed and listen to music that provided a blanket of white noise while breathing as slowly and deeply as possible. I found that the pace of my breath seemed to correlate to the pace of my thoughts. This helped and I started to feel a little more sane. When the anxious feeling crept back in, I would take it as a cue to slow down.
This process of slowing down and listening to myself helped me become aware of my habitual patterns of thought. I noticed how comparing myself to others or to a version of myself that I thought I should be was creating a sense of anxiety and panic. I had to start unwinding the habit of compulsively comparing and criticizing myself. Some examples of thoughts I would have on a daily basis: “Why don’t I have the vocal stamina of these other vocalists I’m performing with?” “Look how easily this guy seems to be handling all of these tasks. There’s no way I could do that, I’d become overwhelmed. What’s wrong with me?” Any time I was feeling less than exuberantly joyful I would look around and see how happy everyone else seemed to be and think “I should be happy right now. What reason do I have not to be happy?”
I wish I could say that becoming aware of these habits of critical self-judgement instantly cured me from them but that was not the case. It took a few months of being diligent about my thoughts and noticing when I was being critical of myself. Any time a thought of self judgement would arise and start gaining momentum I would cut the cord to that train of thought. I found that the earlier I caught a thought, the easier it was to change it. I started practicing replacing the judgmental thoughts with ones that were positive and made me feel better about myself. I became my own inner caretaker, soothing myself back from the brink of what felt like insanity at every opportunity. Saying to myself, “All is well.” “It’s okay.” “Be easy on yourself.”
I’m able now to look back at this time in my life with immense gratitude. Had it not been for this challenging phase I may never have come to the sense of independence that I now have. It freed me from the need to weigh every decision against the opinions and judgements of others. And although that voice of self-criticism still rears it’s head from time to time I now have a process to deal with it. I respond lovingly, thanking it for it’s input without allowing it to guide my decisions or to keep me in a perpetual cycle of self judgement.
I think it’s important to state that at the time when I was going through this phase of strong anxiety I had already been meditating for a number of years. This coupled with my naturally introverted and introspective nature helped me to deal with this situation by myself. Had the anxiety or panic gotten any worse or had I not found a suitable solution I very well may have needed to reach out for help. If you’re going through something similar don’t ignore the signs, they’re there for a reason. Be aware of what your body or emotions may be trying to tell you and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t feel you have someone you can turn to there are some great online resources including this one at Lifeline.org.
Thanks for reading and I’d love to hear anything you have to add or share in the comments section.
Helpful songs for slowing down during times of anxiety:
Be Here Now by Ray Lamontagne
Take It Easy by The Eagles