My greatest anxiety and how it calmed me

October 31, 2016 by Joshua
in Stories

I led a team of students from NYU’-Tisch’s School of the Arts’ ITP program to install a temporary art display in Bryant Park. It feels like it was yesterday, but it was 2009. Here’s a video of the display:

The story of coordinating the MTA, NYU, Submedia, and the student-artists was one of my first great hustles that benefited everyone, which I’ll save for a later post.

This post is for telling about the incredible anxiety that hit me as the installation day approached.

It took close to a year from my proposing the display to the MTA to installation. Part of what made the arrangement possible was that Submedia, the company I cofounded, had a spare digital display we had built. It didn’t work yet. We had planned for an engineer to make it work, but the recession killed our budget, so it was lying around. It had a computer and all the optics to work but needed programming to get the hardware working.

I told the MTA what I believed, which was that getting the display to work would be easy. The challenge was coordinating students.

Over the year we worked together, the students and I developed images for the display, but always making it work by hand, never getting it to work automatically. To have it work in the subway station for the six months the MTA was allowing us to use the space, it would have to work automatically.

With a few months to installation, I was confident we’d get the computer working.

With one month to installation, I was starting to worry. It occurred to me that the MTA might see not just me in this project, but me representing my company, and that if I promised something I couldn’t deliver, they might see my company that way, not just me. I started to feel more responsible than I wanted to and didn’t see a way out.

With a couple weeks to installation, I was seriously worrying. For nearly a year I had told the MTA something I thought was simple wouldn’t be a problem. I tried every solution I could think of but none worked.

Around then is when I found my mind racing so much that I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind would try to solve the problem even though I couldn’t do anything while trying to sleep. Instead, my mind ran in circles.

Not sleeping wouldn’t help me solve the problem. It would exacerbate it. It created a new problem of how to get to sleep, which got my mind working more, which made it harder to sleep. You’ve probably experienced self-reinforcing stress like that.

By then, I’d learned and practiced meditation. I figured I could use meditation techniques like focusing on my breathing to calm myself.

I started to try those techniques when I had a different idea. I thought about how this stress was greater than I’d felt in a long time. It led to interesting reactions in me. I breathed more shallowly, couldn’t lie still, went around in similar thought patterns, and so on.

I thought about how I hadn’t felt such intense anxiety in a long time and didn’t know when I would again. I thought it might be interesting to learn more about how my body responded to such extreme emotion.

So I decided, instead of overriding my stress, I would pay more attention to it with curiosity. So I did. I noticed many little details of my breathing, my focus, and so on. I found myself lost in curiosity. In fact, after paying attention a bit, the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the morning. So trying to indulge in the emotion must have led me to calm, despite my interest in staying stressed.

Another side effect that is still enduring to today is that since then, I’ve never felt the same level of anxiety. I think situations have again arisen that would have evoked as much stress as then, but since that situation set my high water mark of stress and it didn’t kill me, in fact, I emerged successful, my mind forever would say to itself when it felt stressed that it had handled more and emerged successful, so it would handle this case.

As I see it, paying attention to that stress led me to create skills to handle it. I’m glad I decided to observe it instead of trying to override it. Several times I’ve faced intense stress in the seven years since, and instead of the self-reinforcing spiral up in stress, I just see stress as something to handle as part of solving the problem, in particular, something I’ve handled before.

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