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Breaking Open But Not Breaking Apart

My journey with anxiety

My journey with anxiety and stress began a long time ago, but became intense about 10 years ago.

I was sitting among a group of very good friends in my monthly forum meeting as a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), a high powered group of type A overachievers. During our meetings, we each give an update on whatever we choose to share with the group. 

It was almost my time to give my update. I’d been feeling a certain kind of nervousness and intensity for the past few months during these meetings, but this meeting was different. As my turn approached, I could feel my heart beating faster and my body heating up. I began to sweat from my forehead and my mind began to race.

Throughout the years, I had developed a habit to look for cool spots in any room in the event I had to deal with that explosion of heat. I became a master of studying and evaluating patterns of cool air based on the positioning of the air conditioning vents on the ceilings. I did that cold air surveillance because I wanted to avoid getting flushed…which, out of all of the reactions, was the worst. However, on that day, I couldn’t find the cool I needed. I was on my own.

My internal voice began its barrage of criticisms: “What is wrong with you?, Why can’t you stop this?, Do you realize how weak and foolish you look?” Looking back, it’s hard for me to believe how dreadfully destructive those questions were.

Finally, it was my turn to speak and all I could think of was getting out of the room. I felt as though a wild, dangerous animal was in the room and was about to attack. I’d read about Fight or Flight responses, but I was there experiencing the Flight response in the fullest way I could imagine. It was horrifying for me. While everyone looked at me (a significant catalyst for me to feel this way), I just looked straight ahead. What was supposed to be a 15-20 minute update became a few words, “I don’t know how to deal with stress.” I still don’t know why I blurted that out. It was a lie and it barely touched what I was feeling. But I suppose it was the only sentence I could mutter that I thought would be “acceptable” in that moment. The meeting moderator, Bruce, looked at me with a combination of curiosity and worry and simply said, “OK, let’s move to the next person.”

It was a towering act of kindness I will never forget and a moment that began what has become a deep transformation in the way I view the world and my place in it.

Over the years since that moment, I’ve spent time learning about how our minds work, the impact food and exercise has on our brain chemistry, and how the most important journey for me is how I create a path of inner engineering. This journey has led to several observations about the lens I’d been using to see the world and how distorted it had become. This lens had bent under the weight of expectations, arbitrary rules, and other misunderstandings – all of which were self-imposed. Ironically, as the years since that terrifying moment have unfolded, I’ve learned that I don’t need to become anything. It’s been a long journey of unlearning or pulling certain ideas or mindsets out by their roots. Over time, I think I am becoming simpler with fewer rules, knowing less, and even returning to my childhood presence where everything was an undiscovered land.

There are times when that energy returns and weirdly, I am grateful for it. I know now it’s alchemy happening within me. It’s not to fear, but to embrace, however difficult in the moment. What seemed at the time like a moment of breaking apart, was in fact a moment of breaking open.

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