Undoing Anxiety

In my last newsletter, we looked at curiosity—that state of wonder, exploration, and possibility—as the antidote to anxiety and the key to happiness. And I left you with this question: Exactly how are we supposed to find our curiosity when our anxiety hits overdrive?

I have no quick fix, but I hope this story about my own struggle with anxiety will prove helpful.

Once upon a time during my trial lawyering days, I tried the case of a salt-of-the-earth, 60ish man who was facing the loss of his life savings and retirement funds as a result of his lawyer’s malpractice. I was preparing my final argument when my client informed me that he had a gun in his car and, if we lost the suit, he was going to kill the lawyer, his wife would “take pills,” and he’d then shoot himself. At once, the usual pre-argument flutters in my gut escalated to an entire flock of startled pigeons getting airborne. Holy sh—! What the hell do I do?

Step one was to realize, “this is anxiety.” To solve the problem, I had to name the problem. Step two was to remember that anxiety is often the product of anxiety- provoking thoughts. In this case, the thought was “OMG [well, back then it was actually “Oh my f—ing God”] what if I lose, what if I blow the argument, this guy’s going to kill people and, who knows, maybe even me!”

Next, I centered myself—that step was not the result of a quick fix, but of enough previous practice to have effectively rewired my brain. The process of centering enabled me to be squarely in the present, calm and open to working with the information at hand. Once centered, I could recognize my energy would best be directed toward warning the judge about what was going down and letting him handle that. Then, remembering that if the jury believed what I thought really happened did happen, we’d win, I was able to get into the moment, “the zone,” and get ready for my argument, truly curious about how this crazy story would end.

Next: Centering