Two days ago, I was in court all day. I was also battling intense anxiety all day. I tried to stay aware of my feelings, and today, I attempted to revisit those sensations to make sense out of the experience.
Anxiety is weird. We all experience micro-doses of it throughout our week. Small urgent matters, to do lists, and regrets about how little time is left in our day: these are little, bite-sized, and usually manageable forms of anxiety. We all handle these each day, and they often don’t even warrant a mention to our loved ones for their specialty.
But for me there is a fixed point where anxiety ceases being a trivial nuisance and takes up residence in my body, so that I can literally feel it. From the reading I’ve done, this happens to a lot of people. For me, I get a tightness around the upper left part of my chest: right over my heart. When trying to convey what’s going on, I often say, “My heart is heavy”, and I mean it in every way it can be meant. When I experience anxiety, it feels like an anvil is sitting on my heart. So, that’s what I have termed the sensation: the Anvil.
One of the more diabolical features of the Anvil is how it behaves like a black hole, sucking all the energy from the other parts of my body and mind, and focuses it all right on top of my chest. It’s laser-like in its precision to disrupt normal bodily functions. My motor skills diminish when the Anvil is present. My thoughts slow down, and my spatial perception takes a hit. Simple tasks like driving or navigating the corners in my office become more difficult. I’m aware of my body at all times, and this makes fluid, normal interactions with reality a challenge. I stammer a bit, and sentences don’t come out right. No expert dancer thinks through each and every step, throughout their routine, and feels the weight of each and every move. And yet that is what the Anvil does: it makes me feel the weight not only of its presence, but of each of my thousands of individual actions throughout the day. It eliminates the flow state.
The Anvil also alters my perception of time. Think about it: we coast through most days. Our routines ease us from dawn till dusk, and time flows from one moment to the next. Even the bad news that greets us falls in line behind Time’s eternal drummer, and we soon forget the impact of the previous moment. Not so for me when the Anvil is around. Each moment becomes heavy, burdensome. I greet every new experience as if emerging from a bog or the La Brea tar pits, with mud still clinging to my garments. Everything is weighty. I feel this bog-bodied sensation of moving from the present over and over and over again. The horror is on a loop. I feel like the patient in surgery who is awake though under anesthesia: powerless to stop the forces that contribute to the pain I’m feeling.
While the Anvil makes entry into the future a thing to be dreaded, it also eradicates any memory of the bounty of the present. This stinks, because when I experience the Anvil, I often break my day down into bite sized chunks. I make it my goal to move through the day like someone in Alcoholics Anonymous — one moment at a time — and cross off the tasks I complete as I go. I do this to gain steam, to get some control back in my body. But because each moment is so weighty and so strangely unbearable, it’s impossible to feel the thrill of accomplishment of a good deed just done. Doing tasks or accomplishing endeavors doesn’t release the same good feeling in my body. I catch myself shaking my head in disbelief often, noting that after doing a certain task which required mammoth effort or focus, I often feel no different than when I started. It makes the relevance of everything questionable.
This most recent occurrence of the Anvil leveled me, because I felt that in the weeks and months prior I was just starting to kick ass. My fiancé Catherine and I have been doing well. The wedding we have planned for later this year is coming along nicely. I’m spending more time reading, writing, thinking about life, business, and how to help others. And I’m hanging in there with diet and exercise. And then: BOOM. Cessation. Well, my progress might not stop, but it sure feels like it. All of those feelings of kicking ass. Of inertia. Of progress. Of nimbly navigating life. Gone. Though I can remember at recently as two weeks ago feeling the wind behind me. I was going somewhere with life! Now all I can remember is The Anvil and what it does.
In this way, the Anvil alters my identity. I can even see myself acting like someone I’m not, and I’m powerless in the moment to change it. It happens in conversations with Catherine all the time. I know I’m not being as nice or friendly or bubbly as I can be: but I don’t have the ability to change either my visage or how I’m experiencing the moment. I often feel like an imposter.
I feel alien sensations. I’m jumpy. I’m scared. Since when am I scared on a random Tuesday in August? And yet I find myself afraid. I’m afraid the anxiety will never leave me. I’m afraid I will never regain the form I felt a few weeks ago. I’m afraid my faculties will not return, or that I’ll always move from present to future as if trudging through quicksand. Most of all, I’m afraid that I’m a fraud. I’m afraid that my progress over the past weeks and months has been an anomaly. Something that never happened. A mirage. And this is the Real Andy: Anvil Andy. The one who will need supervision and allowances made to him in his personal and professional life. I don’t want anxiety to do this to me. I’m Andy, for crying out loud! I do things, care for people, write, help, and have energy left over for leg presses on Fridays! But no, The Anvil hollows me out and makes me a shell of the self I was beginning to love.
It is strange how quickly The Anvil takes charge in realms I used to be able to control easily. Deep breathing would give me peace. So too would closing my eyes for a spell, or turning the lights off. Now, these are all last ditch attempts to regain a semblance of stasis.
Through this past manifestation, which started about 10 days ago, I have tried to study when it hits hardest. When it’s there, it’s always THERE. But sometimes I feel it more strongly than others. For example, the Anvil is heavy in the mornings. This could be because I wake up, hope it’s gone for good, only to realize with horror that it’s still there. When I discover it’s still sitting on my heart, I get a bit morose. As I get ready for work, arrive at the office, and interact with co-workers, I notice the feeling wanes a bit. Sometimes a good bit. Noon and beyond gets tough: these often feel like the Doldrum Hours, as I yearn for evening to come with its promise of rest. And the evening is usually a sanctuary: everyone in the world is getting ready for bed, and I can join in with their ceremony and call it a day.
There are things I can do which I know are good for me in the midst of the anxiety. Working out vigorously makes me feel good. Drinking alcohol does not. It’s funny: you know that feeling you get when you have had a long day at the office and need a drink to celebrate it, or memorialize it, or take the edge off? That’s how the Anvil feels from 8AM onward. But, as alcohol is a depressant, it doesn’t help, disturbs sleep patterns, and generally makes me more off-center. So, I try to not have a glass of wine or a beer when I get home. But sometimes I have a glass of red wine. I’m not perfect. Too much coffee after 9AM keeps me up at night. And alone at midnight is a bad place to be in this state.
I don’t have a solution for the Anvil. I try to accept its presence. To breathe into it. To welcome the feelings and all of their displeasure. Trying to uproot the Anvil, or wish it gone only seems to make me more distraught over its presence. I also try to be very purposeful with self-talk, and being gentle with myself. I got this tactic from author Kamal Ravikant, who has a practice where he tells himself with each passing breath, “I love you.” I do a variation. I tell myself to be gentle with myself. I consciously accept the uncomfortable reality and don’t place blame for its presence. It’s here. Unless I’m going to try to manually uproot a physical sensation (not sure how that would look), the only course of action seems to me to be one of acceptance. Allowing the Anvil to exist, and not judging its presence. It’s no one’s fault it’s there. It’s just there. I’ll be honest, I describe this practice better than I live it. Every breath is a struggle. I’m barely holding on, through much of the day.
You know what’s strange though? Anxiety makes you feel alone, and yet many of our co-workers, classmates, friends and loved ones are going through the exact same struggle you are, right now. During some down time in court, I asked another attorney if they ever struggle with anxiety. This attorney told me that not only did they suffer from it, but they had struggled with it so severely for the past month that they had to seek medical attention to be sure they weren’t suffering a heart attack. Wow.
This gave me pause. I think we suffer from our own personal battles and act as if we are the only ones who know what it feels like to be in the heat of the moment. But, obviously with anxiety this isn’t the case, because books about anxiety fly off the shelves, millions go to therapists every month, and still more take anti-depressants. Secretly, a lot of people are going through this awful dance, each and every day. Day in. Day out.
I wish I could do something to help. I share my experience. I try to provide resources (like Kamal’s books) that have helped me. I encourage people and law students to be comfortable talking about anxiety and depression. Even if that means being comfortable admitting to yourself that you are hurting, and then seeking help. There is no reason for anyone to suffer in silence anymore. The internet is full of resources and people ready to help. So is your law school. So am I. Email me through the site and I’ll do my best to help.
Continue sharing your experience. Continue being curious about it. Learn all you can about yourself and your struggles. Be kind to yourself through anxiety. It’s so tough: I know. But nothing has changed. You are still you. And you are awesome. You are not anxious because you are a wimp, or not as strong as others, or because you are a sinner. (That hearkens back to my upbringing in fundamentalist Christianity. Another article for sure.) Anxiety is just your body reacting as it moves through time, from one stressful circumstance to another. It’s a mystery even to me, and I’ve been going through it since I was in 3rd grade.
You are going to get through anxiety. It often takes time, and very often, longer than we would like or think we can hold on for. That’s the nature of life. Take some deep breaths. Google how others deal with their anxiety. And learn all you can about yourself and your condition. The more you know, the more you can be on the watch for flare-ups in the future.
Have a wonderful day, and remember (stealing from author Seth Godin): you are much more powerful than you think or give yourself credit for. Truly.
You can reach me on Twitter @andrewbrink or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.