It’s been ten years since I graduated college and decided to play poker for a living. When hitting these type of milestones I usually flash back in my mind about how it all got started (read about that here, my poker story, which I wrote at the end of 2008) and everything I’ve been through to make it work. I also like to “celebrate” these milestones by writing about my experiences during this journey and trying to figure out what I’ve learned along the way and what things I still need to improve upon. I still plan to do that in this entry, however, it will be framed in a different way and based around my experiences over the last year and a half dealing with something that affects approximately 40 million adults in the U.S. alone: Anxiety.
December 30th, 2013
There I was, staring at myself in the mirror of the bathroom at Bobby Flay’s restaurant in the Borgata. I looked so scared. I felt so completely out of control. I felt very short of breath, my chest felt so tight and the pains shooting around my heart were so intense I thought my body was going to explode. Thoughts were racing through my head: I am going to die. I’m not going to see my kids grow up. I’m never going to meet the little baby that is growing in Jody’s belly. I had felt like this before, most notably a few nights prior when I woke up in the middle of the night with a lot of the same thoughts and feelings. I also had been noticing a strange feeling in my throat that would come and go every so often that could only be described as not breathing for a few seconds followed by my heart beating rapidly. I washed my face and tried to gather myself and return to the table where Jody and a few of my friends were sitting, waiting to order. I sat down for five seconds that seemed more like 5 hours before I told Jody that I didn’t feel well and that she needed to follow me outside. The feelings in my body were so indescribably overwhelming and the thoughts in my head were so scrambled. I ran outside while violently shaking and did my best to tell Jody what was going on and that I thought I needed to go to the ER. They rushed me into the back where they did an EKG and chest X-rays to make sure everything was okay with me. After about 45 minutes and some Ativan, I started to calm down a little bit and regain some normal thought. I had just experienced my first full blown anxiety attack.
The next day I woke up feeling like I had been in an awful car accident. How did this happen? I was a very happy and healthy 30 year old guy with a great wife, wonderful kids and a job I loved. What could cause me to feel so overwhelmed with terrible thoughts that the emergency response system of my body was flipped on and the fear of impending death felt so real that I thought it was imperative that I be seen at the ER? I tend to be obsessive when it comes to tackling obstacles and I decided right then and there that this would be no different.
I spent a lot of time over the next five to six months looking for the answers to those questions. I saw my family doctor first and she wrote me a script for Ativan to essentially hold me over in times when I felt like things were getting out of my control. I was very much against taking the prescribed drug route but she thought maybe we should try Paxil to see if that helped at all while I explored other ways to “beat” the anxiety. After three weeks of feeling completely miserable and depressed, I went back and told her it wasn’t for me. I spent a lot of time with Dr. Gaeta, our main wellness doctor we go to for anything and everything health related. I also started seeing a therapist who specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy. All of these things definitely helped but those five or six months were pretty brutal. There were several times when we had made plans to go out somewhere that had to be cancelled due to the way I was feeling including a time where we were seated at a restaurant and had to leave before we even ordered. There were many days that I ended up taking Ativan just to feel like I could function. I was so afraid of having another massive attack. The pattern would repeat itself every day. I’d start to feel some sort of feeling in my body. A lot of times it was that same feeling in my throat but there were various other ones that would pop up including pain in the temple area, chest pains, “anxiety ear”, stomach pains and pretty much any other random pain you could imagine. The pains would get more intense the more I paid attention to them and I’d start to worry that there was something really wrong. I’d also start to feel a type of out of body experience mixed with confusion. It was overwhelming and exhausting. I kept searching and searching for answers to why I was feeling this way and what I could do to make the thoughts just disappear. I just wanted to feel “normal”. The therapy was great for getting these feelings off of my chest and the work I did with Dr. Gaeta to work on my diet and exercise definitely helped as well but there was still something missing.
I think it was around the beginning of June when Jody told me I should check out a TED talk she had watched about meditation. This guy Andy had a pretty simple idea: take ten minutes out of your day to refresh your mind through meditation. Our minds are constantly bombarded with information, emotions, expectations and round the clock stressors that can easily just pile up. I had never meditated before but it was always something that I found interesting. I immediately bought his book and read it cover to cover and then downloaded the Headspace app. Using the app, I started meditating ten to fifteen minutes a day and slowly but surely started seeing a difference in the way I was feeling. Meditating allowed me to see my thoughts and the feelings in my body in a different way. They were the same thoughts and feelings that had been there before but my relationship with them started to change. I will get into this deeper in a little bit. Even though things had started to improve, I wasn’t out of the weeds yet. I still had times where I got completely overwhelmed and the anxiety seemed like too much. After two or three pretty good months I hit a rough patch due to many factors and overall the last 3-4 months of last year were pretty tough. When things in life get tough, its easy to focus on the negative thoughts and emotions and forget about the positive habits that you need to practice in order to be at your best. The freedom of poker has always been one of my favorite things about my job but it also makes it easy to lose a sense of structure and routine.
Understanding Stress and Anxiety: Attachment and Awareness
At the start of the new year I decided I needed to really devote myself to the meditation as well as the other things that I know that I need to do to keep my mind and body operating at 100%. As of today I have meditated for 137 straight days (the headspace app keeps track of your progress) and I haven’t had any major anxiety issues at all this year. So what have I learned from the meditation? The first thing I learned is to recognize that my emotions, my thoughts and the feelings in my body are nothing more than emotions, thoughts and feelings. It is very easy to attach more meaning to them and to try to control them. The funny thing is when you try to control them or to force your will on them they can steer you down a gloomy path of stress and anxiety. A very simple exercise is to just note the thought, emotion or feeling, apply some genuine curiosity and maybe even give it a little definition and then bring your awareness back to your breath or whatever task you were working on. One of the most eye opening moments for me during this time was understanding what stress really was and understanding the best way for me to deal with it. I define stress as the feeling that arises between where you are and where you want to be. Think about it for a minute: This is the case no matter what kind of stress you have in your life. You want something to be different. In order to rid yourself of that stress you either need to get to that place that you want to be in the situation or if that is not possible you need to be aware of the attachment you have to the situation and recognize that you feel that way and that it is okay to feel that way. This all sounds so simple when written down but in reality its obviously a lot more difficult to apply in real life. Meditation through headspace has allowed me to practice these tactics and many others every single day. The world today is intense and overwhelming for most of us. Our brains are constantly working to process information, thoughts, emotions and feelings. It’s easy to forget that your brain needs a rest sometimes and its easy to push all of those thoughts down until they come bubbling up to the surface. For me, I know that the anxiety that I experienced was brought on by a variety of factors most notably the fear of dying. I would begin to feel those physical symptoms of anxiety and then my mind would start to race. The thoughts would all come so fast and I didn’t know how to process them. I’d imagine that I was going to die or have a heart attack or pass out. I would try anything to get them to stop and they would only get worse until I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I still get these physical feelings, the thoughts still pop up but as I said earlier, my relationship to them has changed. I know that I still have a lot to work on and the journey is never ending.
Meditation has had a significant carry over in many other areas of my life, especially poker, and there is no reason that it can’t help you in all areas of your life. We are all fighting a battle with ourselves and the limitations that we think we have. It took me about three weeks to write this post and I had many doubts about writing it along the way. I was fully convinced this was something that I needed to do after reading Tim Ferriss’ article on suicide two weeks ago. There are many people out there dealing with mental health issues and I felt that if sharing my experiences with anxiety could help someone then I should write about it. I ask that if you got this far you could share this post with your friends on Facebook or retweet it on twitter so that it could potentially be helpful to someone you know. If anyone has any questions about Headspace or my experiences with anxiety or if you just need someone to talk to please don’t hesitate to contact me. I need to thank my loving supportive wife and family for everything they have done for me and continue to do for me. I also need to thank myself for putting in the work and Headspace for being there to guide me in the process.
I’m extremely proud of the fact that I’ve made it for ten years as a professional poker player. It has been a fun and wild ride and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me and my family.