sweat

Acceptance – A Poem on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (“ACT”)

I have been participating in group therapy for people with social anxiety.  It appears to me that the amount I sweat has an uncanny correlation with the social situations I am in.  And I believe the best way to confront social anxiety, is likely within the settings of a social group.

The group focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy, with a particular focus on acceptance.  A main part of the philosophy of the therapy can be found in the book The Happiness Trap – which summarizes the tenants of Acceptance Commitment Therapy (“ACT”).

In short, the theory is premised on the notion that one cannot change their thoughts, but one can defuse them in realization that thoughts are a mere string of words.  After analysis, if a thought is helpful, then pay it mind; if not, then do not fuse with it.  As an “exposure” in my group, I wrote and read aloud this poem:

The Lock In My Mind

If my senses stopped, then I’d stop, in a sense;

From the digging, the wriggling, uncomfortableness

The head wraps and bends, in circles and knots;

Til you wrap your head round, it’s not have but have nots.

The truth is deception, perfection an illusion;

the illusion is perfect, for this world’s delusion.

 

That perfect is real, that it can exist,

Our society of have-nots, yearns for just this;

Tom Brady, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius,

Their shine and their shimmer can only be glorious.

But even they – they cheated – lies, doping and murder,

So the notion of perfect can’t be more absurder.

 

Yet I return each morning, sobering thoughts of being fallible;

the idea- a shame, the disgust, not palatable.

 

The solution’s acceptance,

Not from others but me,

Stop worrying about others,

and you’ll be halfway free.

Whether they accept me or not, I’ve got what I got;

I’ve been blessed, I’ve been cursed; for better or worse.

 

So like me or don’t, I won’t think much of it; Cuz even if I did, it wouldn’t change shit;

And while this talk comes easy, in practice it’s a bitch.

 

Speaking of which, the other part of the equation,

Accepting yourself, unconditionally,

Knowing from practice, that that is the key;

To the lock in my mind, that won’t accept me.

 

Regardless of success, relationships and wealth;

Regardless if I’m a moron, I stutter and smell;

Regardless of career, material things and debt;

Regardless of anxiety, nervousness and sweat;

Regardless of pain, medication and disillusion;

Regardless acceptance must be the solution.

 

Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating in Class (Part II – A Detailed Account of My Time in Graduate School)

Pressure is relative. Everyone has a different threshold. As I’ve mentioned, anxiety predated law school. But I knew when I enrolled that the pressure in law school would test me in ways I’d never experienced. My doubts were overwhelming, and I wondered how I’d cope with the feelings….and with the sweating.

In preparation for this “war,” I had been seeing a therapist. I had a prescription for Paxil which may have been working, albeit minimally, in keeping my mood positive as I approached Day 1.

The first week of class I was anxious, but fighting. I wore undershirts and oversized collared shirts to try to conceal the sweating. For people who sweat a lot, a tight shirt is terrifying. Give me about 4 minutes, and it’s soaked through. Hence, oversized.

While in class, I was distracted. Well, maybe that’s not the word. It was more like I had tunnel vision. In my head, I was back on the plains of the Savannah, staring down a lion. My attention was acutely focused on the professor and the material.

It was between classes, or at breaks, that I’d head to the restroom to do an underarm check. Without fail, I’d be soaked. I’d spread my arms like a bird taking flight, and to me deep disappointment my two shirts would be waterlogged.Flight cancelled for today folks! Inclement weather. Wayyyy too damn much precipitation for take off!

I’d grab paper towels to soak up what I could, but there was no real effective way to prevent the sweat marks. I was the Titanic, with a breach in my hull that could not be plugged…And I was sinking.

I kept trying to reinforce that, no matter the disappointment, I was fighting for myself. I was face to face with my lion – an entire damn pride – and I was holding my nerve (to a certain extent). But it would be disingenuous if I told you that the sight of soaked shirts did not bring me down every time I raised my arms in the bathroom mirror.

About 2 weeks into classes, I was talking to one of my closest friends about my predicament. He gave me what, in retrospect, was such simple, almost-intuitive advice: WEAR WHITE. It hadn’t crossed my mind previously. In fact, I had been more of the opinion that a solid black hue would be most effective at concealing the sweat.

If you are a heavy sweater, perhaps you have already realized the virtues of white shirts. The color simply makes the wetness less obvious…Less visible.

The advice helped immensely. It did NOT curb my sweating. I still sweated a ton. But it was much harder for others to notice. I did not need to be nearly as self-conscious, which drastically reduced the secondary anxiety over whether others would notice my condition. In fact, “secondary” only refers to which comes first: anxiety–> sweating –>anxiety about discomfort, embarrassment, others noticing, etc

In reality, I believe that often times secondary anxiety (the concern that others may notice the condition) can be far worse than the anxiety causing the sweating in the first place.

Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating In Class (Part I – Preparing for a Seemingly Insurmountable Stint in Law School)

I dread sweating wherever and whenever it may happen (the only time it’s welcome is during physical exertion, when it’s cause is not anxiety).  But one of the hardest forums in which I’ve had to manage it is at work.

Whether it’s work or school, most of us have responsibilities where we need to interact with others.  I work as a lawyer.  I know, I know…probably not the best choice of professions for a person with social and performance anxiety.  That wasn’t lost at me when I started the path to attorney-hood.  The rationale in my head was this:   I was anxious regardless of the setting.  Even as a box-boy at the grocery store at 15, I can recall feeling anxiety speaking with customers.  So the idea  was that, if I’m gonna feel it anyway, it shouldn’t dissuade a career aspiration.  
 
Not surprisingly, this road has not been easy.  In law school, there was a lot of performance involved.  The professors often use the Socratic method, calling out students at random with questions on the material.  Just this idea was mortifying.  The forecast for my first week of law school was a torrential downpour of sweat, amidst an unhealthy and overwhelming cloud of cigarette smoke.

I was terrified to attend the first day of classes.  How could I, a person with a clinical anxiety disorder, with uncontrollable sweating, with performance and social anxiety to the Nth degree…How could I, of all people, handle this environment?  Could I handle it at all? Was this something that was just not possible for me to overcome?

I ruminated on this thought in the months leading up to the start of classes.  I went to a therapist.  I got a prescription for an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant.  I believe the flavor of the day was Paxil, although it’s tough to recall seeing as I’ve been through a catalog of prescriptions over the years.

My mentality was that I was going to war.  A war for my world, and to defeat my inner demons: social anxiety, performance anxiety, fear, doubt, and sweating.  Regardless of their origins, I would be facing them head-on.  It was a war I could not lose. I bought brand new bright white undershirts, knowing all-too-well they’d have a severely shortened life expectancy – doomed to yellow underarm stains on account of the sprinkler valves embedded in my ‘pits.  Collateral damage, I suppose.

The questions about whether I could weather the law school storm were bouncing around my head incessantly.  They were pressing.  Could I manage sweating in this high-pressure environment?  How would I make friends if I was always uneasy?  How would I react to being called on in class?  How could I hide my sweating?  If I couldn’t, what then would I do?  Would I quit?  

More generally, the questions were existential.  What was I going to do with my life, in light of the anxious sweat-storm that had befallen it?  Should I head for the hills, and seek sanctuary in some (potentially non-existent) occupation where I don’t interact with others and wouldn’t have daily situations that make me severely anxious?  Or did I need to face anxiety in this laboratory, so to speak, where everyday was yet another round of exposure therapy?

To put things in context, this is not hyperbole.  Every day that I went to campus ended drenched. There were no exceptions. There were days my mood was better, and others more defeated, but always DRENCHED.  So if you believe I am overstating the magnitude of my sweating issue, hopefully that puts it in context.  I imagine there are others who sweat more than me, but I also submit that I may be in the top 1% of sweaters walking the planet.  In fact, I think that’s a conservative estimate.

Anyway, I’d be bullshitting if I didn’t disclose that there were some tears – of agony, of anguish, of hopelessness and self-pity – that were shed that first week.  More than a few.

I recall a conversation after my second day of classes.  It was with my father, in my parents’ backyard.   One of those conversations in your life where you recall every detail, large and small.  I dribbled a basketball to distract myself from the discomfort of the conversation.  The weather was brisk, and there was a slight end-of-summer breeze that, upon hitting my damp underarms, drove home that even in that moment I was sweating about sweating…The irony.  And I recall the view of the horizon as the sun went down, granted it was blurred with tears of despair.  
 
Months of worry and concern had now come to fruition.  My journey through law school had begun.  And I wasn’t so sure it would last past the opening week.

My dad told me this:  “If you quit now, you will be quitting your whole life.”  Now, I don’t know if that is good advice or not.  I don’t know if that’s the proper mentality.  But I do know that every psychologist will talk about avoidance.  If you suffer from anxiety, avoiding the anxious situation reinforces that behavior.  Left unchecked, I suppose one would become a recluse or sorts.

So at the time, his sage advice resonated with me.  I might have been a sweaty mess, but I was standing up for a good cause – myself.  Somehow (maybe I’m masochist) I just thought that if I could do this, I could do anything.

To my surprise, I was wrong.  Had I dropped out of law school, I would have met my anxious self elsewhere, inevitably.  Maybe I would have quit again, or maybe I would have taken up the fight there.  So maybe I wouldn’t have been quitting my whole life.

But I didn’t quit law school.  I completed it.  I also got an MBA at the same time.  And I was relatively successful, finishing in the top 20% of my class.  But, having done it, I realized that doing it did NOT mean I could do anything.  The front had moved, but the war raged on.

Next Up:  Taking Anxiety to School – Sweating in Class (Part II – A Detailed Account of My Time in Graduate School)