I remember learning a great life lesson in managing intense emotions from a time I felt some of the deepest anxiety of my life.
I also finished the project on time and on budget in the process.
Two weeks from the deadline on a two-year project, I was coming to realize I didn’t see how I could complete it. People I told I could deliver had put themselves out for me. I feared making them look bad for having believed in me.
When I told them I could do it, I believed I could, but with two weeks left out of two years, I couldn’t solve a core problem. I was going to look bad and, worse, make people who believed in me look bad.
I felt as much anxiety as I’d ever felt to the point that I couldn’t fall asleep for the first time in years because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I realized not sleeping wouldn’t help. Normally when my mind races, I can calm it by focusing on my breath and letting the thoughts pass. Calmness crowds out the anxiety and eventually I fall asleep.
This time I did something different. I noticed that my anxiety’s intensity made it interesting. I began to get curious about it. How often would I feel such extreme emotion? What made it different and how did that difference manifest itself?
Instead of seeking calmness to crowd out the anxiety, I explored the anxiety, not trying to deny or crowd it out. I noticed how it affected my breathing, my tossing and turning, my thought processes, and so on. I’m not sure how to describe the feelings, but I can tell you I observed things I hadn’t before.
I felt like a curious child or scientist observing and playing with something new. inadvertently I got the emotions of curiosity and wonder to crowd out the anxiety. So I learned new things and got the rest I wanted.
I mention this experience because since then I’ve never reached that level of anxiety again and since I could handle that time, I never have problems handling lesser levels. Understanding the emotion raised the bar forever on what intensity anxiety would need take me out of commission like that, like a ratchet.
You could just call this ratcheting “experience.” Certainly you expect people with experience to handle more challenging situations. But I don’t think I would have gained as much experience if I had simply endured the anxiety without playing with and observing it or merely calming myself (or taking a sleeping pill, which would have been completely counterproductive). I think understanding the emotion better helped raise my bar for what I allow to incapacitate me. As a result I can solve problems better and I live a calmer life.
An effective way to handle intense but debilitating emotions is to observe them without judgment. Not only do you learn in the moment, you build long-term resilience.
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