I’ve suffered from anxiety since adolescence, including a very serious issue with panic disorder that used to be much worse.
I still have fairly grave anxiety from time to time and am working on treating it in various ways, including professionally.
I have experienced significant success in reducing my anxiety as well as learning to accept the fears that are just part of being alive.
This is not going to be your standard “calm down and meditate” guide, because that is not (at all) what has worked for me in reducing anxiety.
But I can promise to be honest and give you real solutions that work.
Let’s get to it…
1) Stop trying to feel calm or ‘normal’
Stop right now.
Everything in you is telling you that this anxious, sh*tty feeling needs to be beaten or solved as soon as possible.
This fixation on getting better is hurting you.
I get it, because I’ve been there. I was there for years, begging for the torture to disappear no matter what it took.
I needed to make it go away, to feel “normal,” to have an off switch I could press to be like other people.
I needed to be able to walk long distances in open spaces without feeling like my soul was being shredded into a million pieces and slowly torn out of my body.
But this desire to feel normal was actually misleading.
Trying to feel calm or beat your anxiety is making you more anxious, I guarantee you.
2) Why fighting anxiety increases it
There are two main reasons that trying to “stop” anxiety increases it:
a) Your root anxiety comes from an overreaction by your limbic system, which is your survival instinct.
Your limbic system holds the master switch over everything in your body and immediate emotional reactions.
Sensitive, highly perceptive and creative people have a higher chance of their limbic system going into high alert and feeding into an anxious cycle.
Don’t hate it, though! It’s also keeping you alive…
It is faster and more powerful than your conscious mind.
When you jump out of the way of a bus before consciously registering there was a bus and feel a sudden surge of adrenaline, that was your limbic system that just saved you.
Your limbic system doesn’t sleep.
When you tell yourself to stop feeling anxious or worry about feeling anxious your limbic system gets the message that you have a problem that needs to be solved as soon as possible.
This increases your adrenaline and fear, creating a feedback loop which increases your anxiety.
b) When you try to stop feeling anxious you divide yourself.
There is the “normal” and “positive” part of you and then the scared, “freak” part.
This creates what author and healer Tara Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness.”
It convinces you that you will only be “good enough” or whole once you finally get rid of these “negative” and painful emotions and experiences.
But think about it:
Your anxiety is part of you. It may be overstaying its welcome and making your life a living hell, but at the very least, try not to see it as something alien, random or totally evil.
It is an experience you’re having…
It may be an experience that makes no sense.
It may keep you up all night.
It may have been triggered by abuse or mistreatment by others…
It may have been triggered by combat situations or relationship stress and heartbreak…
But your chance to own and learn from it now is what is within your power, rather than to label it as “bad” or alien and hostile to you.
3) Approaching anxiety effectively
As anxiety recovery specialist Charles Linden teaches, anxiety spikes and can become a disorder when creative and intelligent people aren’t sufficiently challenged and engaged by life.
It comes in many forms which the “psychology” field has pathologized as separate and unrelated disorders but which are all, at root, anxiety disorders, including:
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Dissociation and derealization
- Hypochondria and health anxiety
- Mental health hypochondria (worrying you may be “crazy” or going crazy in a way nobody has yet diagnosed or understood)…
- And many more…
Don’t get me wrong:
These are all very real and very potentially debilitating issues.
Linden was so bad for years he could barely walk from his bathroom to his bedroom without collapsing in pure panic. His entire body and mind was consumed by pure existential panic that many people can barely even comprehend.
But it didn’t get better until he stopped trying to get better and started forcing himself outside for a few minutes per day to take some photos.
The reason why is that Linden began turning away from trying to solve his panic and health anxiety and began turning toward doing something he loved to do:
Taking photos of nature and birds.
Slowly, his mind began to reset…
Which brings us to the next point:
4) Do things you love
As I mentioned, Linden turned a corner when he stopped focusing on his problem and distracted himself with something he loved: photography.
What you love may be different and all of us has something that gets us “in the zone” and losing all sense of time.
It may be:
- Playing or watching sports
- Construction projects
- Old cars and engine work
- Sewing and alterations
- Cosmetics and makeup
- Playing music
- Acting or doing standup comedy
- Fighting in the back alley MMA circuit in your town
- Going to slam poetry events
- Becoming a publicity agent for a local business
- Protesting a pipeline
- Training for a new career
- Thousands of other things
The seemingly random nature of the above list is the point.
Whatever you love to do that’s legal and gets your mind or body involved, try to do it!
You need to get out of that creative brilliant analytical cycle of yours and start using that sharp mind and body for something else.
Your anxiety will thank you as your brain begins to repair neurons and reset the system back to regular levels of alarm.
We will all die one day, and so will most of those we love.
That’s absolutely terrifying if you ask me.
But if you find things you love to do, this kind of existential anxiety and panic (or any other kind) will cease being your 24/7 focus and you’ll begin to be able to relate to fear in a more healthy and less hostile, ever-present way.
Fear exists, it always will.
But you don’t need to be sitting beside it at all times with fear in the driver’s seat.
5) Get an agenda
You may be stressed as hell and have almost no free time. You may have so many responsibilities you can barely see straight.
Or you may be alone, trapped in a small place or living somewhere you hate with almost no responsibilities or obligations.
Whatever your situation, invest in a small agenda book and a pen or pencil.
Part of the problem with anxiety is that it hits you when you’re feeling overwhelmed and lost.
Life, love or work has just become too much (or too little). Nothing is making any sense, and one day you wake up and it feels like a train hit you and everything is just a completely miserable grind.
Having an agenda, you can write out your goals for each day and come up with a plan for each day.
It may seem like a very small thing, but having a list of things you need to accomplish will slowly and surely begin to reduce your anxiety.
The more you begin to focus your mind on tasks (even small ones!) the more than your limbic system and unconscious mind will get a very clear message:
Limbic system here: all systems reset to normal, regular life is back. Will report back if any changes.
Nervous system, endocrine system, brain, adrenal gland: roger that. Keep in touch.
6) Work hard
If I look at getting better from anxiety, I can trace the path in drops of sweat.
All the spiritual and personal work I did still pales in comparison to three very big items:
- Hard work (boring work, sh*tty work, grueling work)
- Hard work (great work, inspiring work, work that helps others such as this work)
- Hard work (lifting weights, running, challenging myself until near collapse)
Part of how I found ways to work on what I love and follow my dreams was discovering my core values.
I especially recommend the free values exercise from Jeanette Brown of Life Journal.
This free exercise helps you determine what’s driving you in life and what values guide your approach to everything.
It’s extremely valuable for your personal and professional development and I can’t recommend it enough.
7) Challenge yourself
Related to the last point, it’s crucial that you challenge yourself.
Most of our growth is done in our discomfort zone, and addressing anxiety is no different.
Calming cosmic music and a yoga mat doesn’t heal anxiety, hard work and challenges heal anxiety.
When you get in your body in the heat of dance or workouts or other vigorous activities is when your mind begins to heal and let go of its fixation on being “sick.”
You are human and you may have suffered much more than the rest of us.
Your anxiety and the reasons for it may be terrible beyond anything I or most others can comprehend.
But this anxiety will subside and fade as you begin exploring new chapters of your life and finding new challenges.
You are more capable than you realize and as you become more self-aware your confidence will grow and your fixation on the problems with anxiety and the unpleasant sensations will begin to recede.
8) Leaving therapy behind?
I’ve had debilitating anxiety three times in my life for a few years each time.
It’s been especially frustrating because having “anxiety” as an identity has become very fashionable for some Millennials and Gen-xers, so any mention I made of it was misunderstood as being some nervousness or general feeling of unease that I had pathologized.
That’s not what it was. It was a living hell that made me reach the breaking point many times.
I don’t like to speak about it or compare battle scars, but I can now see the blessing in learning not to try to “prove” how bad it was to others.
Because apart from people respecting your basic boundaries and challenges what’s the point?
What will you get from convincing others that you’re truly suffering beyond what they understand?
No, the goal is to improve and begin to resolve it…
I can also see the blessing in being disappointed by therapy and various psychologists I went to during the height of my anxiety struggles.
These included people in many fields of psychology including the trendy (and in my opinion very mistaken) cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) school of thought, as well as “exposure therapy” (counterproductive and unscientific in my view).
I currently go to therapy based on the system developed by Wilhelm Reich, but not because it is trendy, and not because of my anxiety but due to depression and emotional issues.
Going to therapy for anxiety or panic attacks is something I personally do not ever recommend, although that is not qualified medical advice and readers are absolutely free to take it or leave it.
Fight vs. flight
Our basic reaction to a fearful situation is threefold: fight, flight or freeze.
Most of us do one of these or some combination of them.
Your goal in recovering from anxiety is to begin doing none of them.
Feel the fear and then do something else you love, or get back to work.
I’m not saying to be fine with feeling anxious, I’m saying to change the channel entirely.
Will the anxiety ever be fully gone? We can hope.
But the best answer for now is to get on with things in life which occupy our full attention and give us some moments of peace from the feelings of dread and worry.