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3 Things I Learned About Anxiety by Giving a TED Talk About Anxiety

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For the last few years, this was the talk I most feared: standing in front of a 1,000 people doing a TED Talk about my panic disorder, and exploring its relation to the domestic violence I saw in my home as a small boy.

I finally gave that talkIt was among the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and I learned something important.

First, some background. 34 years ago, at the height of a three year-long struggle with panic disorder, I sat on a brown and gold shag carpet at two in the morning and hit bottom. I saw no way out and I marked that moment by screaming a weird, breathy, nightmarish scream. Then, just a few silent minutes later, a door opened – and instead of finding a way out, I found a way in. My life took on a completely different character.

What I learned that night led me to dedicate my career to exploring the concept of psychological flexibility and to developing a form of treatment — Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) — to help teach it. You’d think a whole career’s worth of work would have made it easy for me to share this journey with the TED audience.

It was anything but easy. It was full of anxiety, but not just that. Sadness. Feeling overwhelmed.

Here is what I learned from this experience.

1. Time does not heal all things, it just covers things up.

I was determined not just to tell a story. I wanted to revisit that very moment of hitting bottom – not by talking about it, but by going there.

I had not heard that scream nor made that strange sound in 34 years …but I could hear it in my mind. There was something almost sacred about it. It was the pivot point of my entire life.

I did not want to sully the moment by practicing it as one might a performance, so when practicing the TED talk, I skipped the scream. I would do that scream one more time in my life, and one more time only. I wanted to touch that moment of hitting bottom, and having nowhere to go. 

As the time for the talk and that scream arrived it loomed over me like a Death Eater from Harry Potter. My churning insides told me in no uncertain terms this was hard, regardless of how many years had passed.

2. Underneath anxiety is something even harder, and it is not enough just to know what that something is.

About 10 minutes before I had to go backstage, I asked my wife if I could share a few private moments with her. “I think I see something important,” I said. “It’s not the anxiety of this talk that I’m afraid of.” She looked at me quizzically, since she had seen me freaking out about this talk for months. “It’s that I’m afraid I will just get up there and cry so hard I won’t be able to give the talk at all.” She hugged me tight. “Even that,” she whispered “would be OK.”

The talk tells how that moment on the carpet led me to a long-suppressed memory of hiding under the bed as a child while my parents fought violently in the other room, and deciding “I’m going to do something!” and then, wisely, retreating farther under the bed, and crying.

Now I was going to tell that story, fully and openly. Even when I rehearsed the talk alone, I cried almost every time I told this part of it. Looking out over 1,000 people who would soon be listening to me, I wondered if it was possible to walk inside that sadness with open arms, and to hug that traumatized little boy while I listen to what he has to say.

3. Turning toward pain and suffering in a loving way is a precondition to turning toward meaning and purpose.

As I walked backstage, I opened my computer and made a few quick notes, just moments before I had the “Madonna mike” put on me. Here is part what I wrote down:

This is not for you, this is for others. Let your story go out into the world. It is OK if great sadness is there. Focus on the suffering in the room and in the world; be present; bring what you have to give, and give it.

Turning toward pain and suffering as an act of loving-kindness empowers bringing love and meaning into the world. That is my life’s work. ACT is one of the most researched forms of mindfulness and acceptance-based psychotherapy, with nearly 200 randomized trials and hundreds of studies of other kinds.

That doesn’t mean it is easy. In giving this talk I relearned the basic lesson of that night on the carpet 34 years ago: Anxiety is not my enemy. What we know about suffering helps us see the suffering that is in others; and taking the time to be present with ourselves allows us to focus on what we have to give, and to do our best to give it.

All rights reserved. A version of this article originally appeared on as “What I Learned About Anxiety by Giving a Talk on Anxiety.” Reprinted here with permission.

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Originally published: March 31, 2016
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