What is it like to experience anxiety?
You’re on top of the world in the morning, feeling like nothing can get you down when BAM! A random thought or an event triggers a horrible feeling. Logically, you know you shouldn’t worry, but you just can’t get your mind to understand that.
In that moment, your mind has been hijacked.
We’ve all been there in one way or another. Even if it the actual anxiety passes soon, you are often left with that weird feeling inside. You know, that thing where you feel like you are supposed to feel bad about something, even if you can’t remember what.
Sucks, doesn’t it? Fuck yeah, it does.
I’ve been there a lot of times myself and, as I focus on overcoming these moments, I noticed there are certain patterns of thinking that enable anxiety to surface or evolve.
So here are the critical rules you must follow to kick those anxious thoughts out of your mind.
RULE #1: You are not your thoughts!
The Art of War is an ancient military guide that dates back to, like, a very long time ago. ((Specifically, it dates to 5th century BC, but I just wanted to make fun of people who, like, talk like this.)) It was compiled by a Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and its lessons are still applicable today; not just in regard to warfare, but to anything that requires strategic thinking.
Why am I bringing this up?
Because you should approach anxiety from a similar perspective. Generally, it is unhealthy to see your own mind as an “enemy”. This approach can easily lead to further self-hatred because you end up seeing yourself as an enemy who needs to be defeated.
However, in this case, it can be an incredibly powerful strategy because we are taking the potential problem out of the equation: you need to differentiate yourself from your anxiety.
Take a moment, get up, and find a mirror.
(I know similar requests are often used as cheap feel-good tricks but trust me: this is something entirely different.)
Once you’re staring at your own face, look at your forehead. Stare deeply, beyond the layers of the flesh, pass the bones of your skull underneath. Stare as deeply as you can in that one spot until you realize the single most important, fundamental, and irrefutable claim of self-improvement:
YOU are NOT your thoughts!
When intense emotions overflood you, they replace your thoughts. They make small problems seem like big problems and big problems seem like impossible-to-solve problems. It really feels like you’re under attack and that there really is an enemy that needs to be defeated.
Your mind gets hazy, your body starts shaking, and you are unable to interact with the world around you because the intrusive thoughts get so loud you cannot even hear your own thoughts.
At that moment, you would give anything for peace of mind.
Once that extreme phase passes, you carry on with your life, but anxious about the possibility of it happening again. So you worry, and worry, and worry, until one day your worries come to fruition; your constant worrying about feeling anxious has become yet another reason for feeling anxious. ((Mark Manson referred to this as The Feedback Loop From Hell))
Your anxiety may be less or more severe than what I’ve just described. In either case, it’s crucial to remember that the level of your anxiety is not constant. In fact, it’s very fluid.
There’s a silver lining to knowing this.
If the anxiety levels are able to jump so high, so suddenly, you have the ability to hack that process and push the lever in the opposite direction instead.
Instead of increasing the level of anxiety, you can decrease it.
By doing so, you are exposing an enemy that has been hiding inside your own mind. Like Dorothy unveiled the Wizard of Oz and exposed him for the fraud he was, you will realize that your anxiety does not define you.
You are not your thoughts. You only think you are.
RULE #2: Anxiety works in mysterious ways… if you let it.
It’s a sunny, beautiful day.
You’re sitting at your desk, working on that super cool project, sipping your coffee, and enjoying every minute of it. You feel like nothing could upset you right now.
Suddenly, a spider drops down on your hand, causing you to jump up and unexpectedly shriek. Your heart rate skyrockets, adrenaline floods your body, and your brain initiates the fight-or-flight response.
After a few moments, when you catch your breath and calm down, you realize: “Huh, it was just a spider”. You deal with the insect, return to your desk, and go on with your day.
Pretty simple, right?
For most people, yes. After all, spiders gross most of us out, especially if they suddenly drop on you like a well-trained spider ninja.
However, someone with arachnophobia — an extreme and irrational fear of spiders — will have a much more drastic response. If this same event happened to them, they would likely experience complete dread, nausea, and shortness of breath, possibly having a panic attack. They would surely run out of the room and refuse to come back. ((Arachnophobia on Wikipedia))
Reading this, you may think they are simply overreacting and that they need to grow up. But the reason they have such a drastic response is that they have a phobia — which is an anxiety disorder.
Understanding what anxiety is, what it isn’t, and how it can escalate over time is crucial for overcoming it.
At first, you may think: “Why would I need a definition at all? I mean, I’m reading this because I have a problem with anxiety. Surely, I know what anxiety is.”
But let me ask you: how would describe anxiety in one sentence?
Your answer will probably sound something like: “Uhmm… it’s when, like, you know… you feel bad, but not like sad, it’s more like… fuck it, you win.”
So what is anxiety really?
Let’s start with what it is not. Anxiety is not the same as fear.
Fear is the response to a real or a perceived immediate threat, whereas anxiety is the expectation of a future threat. So if you hear a weird noise at night, you will experience fear, as you will think that there is possibly a real threat, right now.
On the other hand, if you sit on your couch and worry that a mole on your hand is a sign of cancer and that you are going to die, that is anxiety because you are focused on the possible threat in the future — not at this moment.
The reason why anxiety manages to have such a control over our lives is that it eventually leads to avoidance behavior. That is, it forces you to avoid doing certain things or visit certain places because you worry they might trigger your anxiety. ((Avoidance coping on Wikipedia))
In addition, it is common to give in to your anxiety and perform certain compulsions that ease the stress for a short period of time. When the anxious feeling comes back, you perform the compulsion again, causing you to strengthen your anxiety, so you perform the compulsion again, and again, and again, ultimately making everything worse. ((In a nutshell, that’s how OCD works.))
It is estimated that about 1 in every 5 people will, at some point in their lives, be able to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. At the same time, only about 37% of those people will seek some form of treatment. ((Facts & Statistics – ADAA))
Face it: you most likely have an anxiety disorder. And that’s completely fine. ((In case you’re wondering, yes, I do as well. More on that in another article.))
Mental health is still, sadly, a very taboo subject. It can be hard to open up and get others to understand what you’re going through and, because of that, it will seem like there’s something wrong with you. That you’re the weird one.
But that is simply not true. And the better you understand anxiety, the less mysterious it feels. Suddenly, you will realize that a lot of people go through the same things as you do.
But just like you, they’re scared to talk about it.
Tim Ferris, author and entrepreneur who suffers from bipolar disorder, provided a great analogy for understanding this:
“No matter where you are in terms of anxiety, depression, or darkness, there are thousands of people in the world — probably millions — at that exact same moment, on the frontlines with you, fighting the exact same battle.”
RULE #3: Anxiety never goes away.
This is the last thing you want to hear. I get it.
Nobody wants anxiety in their life. The severe it gets, the more you grow to fear it coming back and the more you want to make sure it never affects your life again.
That’s not only impossible, but unhealthy as well.
The most common pitfall when battling anxiety is thinking that the war is over at some point. That you have seen it all, won every battle, and you are feeling so strong, like there is no way anything or anybody can bring you back down.
As a consequence, you stop focusing on controlling your anxiety because, well, you don’t feel anxious anymore. You slowly forget about all of those times that anxiety has crippled you simply because those times seem so distant.
Never assume victory.
Even though you may think that you will never be this confident, you will. There will come a period in your life when you will feel like you have finally turned your life around. You will feel completely invincible.
It is in those moments that you need to take extra precautions not to lose that edge.
Just like your muscles get weak if you don’t work them out, your mind gets weak if you forget to train it. If you allow your mind to get weak, anxiety will come back faster and stronger than ever, and you will be knocked right back to the beginning.
If this happens to you, don’t despair. I have been there many times and you can always climb back up. However, it is going to take the same effort and energy that it took the first time.
So it is much better to avoid falling in the first place.
If you end up in the gutter once again, don’t beat yourself up. Get up, dust yourself off, and start climbing back up again.
Solution to overcoming this pitfall is very simple, though it will never seem like it at the time — just do what you need to do.
Allow yourself to feel bad. Don’t try to fight it or figure out how you managed to get yourself here. There’s no logic behind feelings. Logical thinking follows a certain pattern. Emotional reasoning simply happens.
Anxiety is always going to remain there, lurking from the trees, looking for a moment of weakness to strike again.
Don’t give it that moment.
P.S. This is an excerpt from “Develop a Mind of Steel”, the complete guide to a strong mindset. Learn more here