How To Deal With Anxiety - And Use It To Your Advantage
Everyone deals with anxiety - to one degree or another.
Some of us squash it down, some of us develop coping strategies, but nonetheless all of us know that gnawing feeling in the pit of our stomachs. That sense that things could go wrong.
It's exhausting. It takes away from the quality of your work, and more importantly, the quality of your life. You wake up on days you should be excited with a sense of dread, and it wears at you.
But anxiety doesn't need to be your foe. In fact, you can use the same mechanisms that cause anxiety to drive you towards what you want. The brain functions that cause anxiety are incredibly powerful, you just have to know how to use them.
I train my clients not on how to cope with anxiety, but on how to use it to get what they want.
It all starts with understanding where anxiety comes from.
Your Anxiety Is Driven By Fear and Overwhelm
There are two drivers of anxiety, and they form a mental circuit. They are:
-Overwhelm: This is the physical sensation you have when your brain recognizes it is trying to process too much. You are suddenly aware that you are out of your depth.
-Fear: This an emotional reaction to the possibility that things will go poorly. You can't stop thinking that you might not be able to finish everything, or to reach your goals.
These two drivers result in a never ending cycle. You are overwhelmed, and you have too much on your plate. This makes you fearful of the future, where you believe you will fail.
Your fear of the future leads you to imagine the various scenarios in which things go poorly, giving you more to process, creating an even greater sense of overwhelm.
It's a painful, debilitating, and endless cycle, and it only gets harder to break as time goes on.
However, if you dig deeper into these drivers, you'll see that they are just the product of a very basic mental function. One that you can harness to great success, if you know how.
Why Anxiety And Confidence Are Nearly Identical
At its core, all anxiety comes from the same thought process:
You look into the future, and you see something bad.
Think of your brain as the world's most powerful film projector. It is constantly playing mental movies, and if that footage is distressing, your body reacts accordingly.
You're months away from bonuses and you're behind at work. You look into the future and see yourself getting "screwed," and so you put your head down and work late every night.
While you're working late every night, you start looking into the future and you see yourself missing dinners with your spouse, not being there for your children, losing all of your close relationships because you're consumed by work.
You can't win in that scenario. You will always be miserable, because, like watching The Kardashians, you are filling your mind with terrible thoughts.
But what if you changed the movie?
What if instead of seeing horrific failures, you saw a successful, happy version of yourself? What if you knew - with the same absolute certainty you currently have about your bad future - that things were going to go extremely well for you?
That's what confidence is: looking into the future, and seeing something you like.
Anxiety and confidence are both products of the same mental projection booth, they're just different films. Your TV can project the worst possible junk, or something wonderful, and your brain is exactly the same.
The trick is figuring out how you condition your brain to change the film.
How To Beat Anxiety By Conditioning Your Brain
Despite the popular message of the legal drug dealers, you don't need a pill to overcome anxiety, and, in fact, you don't want one. You can lose weight by dieting aggressively, but it's exercising that actually makes you healthier.
Anxiety is the same way. Your brain can learn to beat anxiety, it just takes practice. To help my clients with this mental conditioning, I created a system called the House of Flow that helps them visualize a positive outcome, and then re-engage with the present moment.
There are 4 steps to the House of Flow:
Stop thinking about everything else.
Regardless of what you have on your plate for today, right now you are just reading this article. Nothing you are doing right now is affecting those other things, so stop thinking about them.
This can be hard, but it's a matter of focus. You may be afraid of letting the thoughts go, and that's alright, but decide to face that fear and release thoughts that get in the way of what you are doing right now.
Visualize the task at hand going great.
Right now you're reading an article on how to overcome anxiety and empower yourself. Imagine yourself at the end of this article going forth and putting all of this into practice.
Imagine that you immediately begin overcoming anxiety, and that each day after today is lived with more and more confidence.
Ask yourself how that future feels.
Looking into a future where you are confident, where you live without overwhelming self-doubt and anxiousness. What does it feel like to live with such ease?
Practice this feeling and "wire it" into your neurology. Let that feeling inspire you, but also reassure you that everything is okay. If that is your future, what are you worried about?
Absorb fully into what you're doing.
With that joyful confidence that the future will work itself out, allow yourself to engage fully in the present moment. You're reading an article right now, and that's it. Just absorb.
Afterwards, there will be another task at hand, and you will be 100% mentally engaged by it as well. Living right now in this moment is the antithesis of anxiety, and a major key to success.
Master this system, and you are training what we know to be the most important emotional state for peak happiness and performance, Flow.
How Anxiety Almost Derailed My Career - Until I Beat It
If I can give you an example from my own life, the House of Flow has changed everything for me.
I sat down to write my first book after spending some ten years compiling notes. When I was ready to write, I was looking at an unmanageable mess of 3,500 pages.
Overwhelm kicked in, and then Fear followed suit.
Every time I sat down to write I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task, and I immediately imagined it going badly. My book being terrible, or unfinished, and my whole project being a failure.
My problem wasn't that I had too much information or that I had too big of a task in front of me, it was that I was allowing my brain to project a future that scared the shit out of me, and I wasn't losing myself in the present.
For years I struggled with this, painfully forcing myself to write, while at the same time building the tools that I personally needed to keep driving my work, doing very hard things, yet feeling more and more amazing.
This eventually evolved into the House of Flow, where it all became very easy. I saw myself with a finished, amazing book, and that feeling got me excited about writing and reassured me that it was all going to work out.
Every day I sat down to write, I wasn't thinking, "I've gotta write this book today." I was thinking, "I'm going to spend 8 hours writing today - and I'm going to enjoy the hell out of it."
I've written a lot about moving forward in life by focusing on the step right in front of you - asking what action moves the needle for you right now - and this is the same.
If anxiety is a problem of obsessively looking too far into the future and fearing disaster, then obsessively living in the present and looking forward to success is anxiety's cure.
It's also the outcome the House of Flow is guaranteed to ensure.
Your Anxiety Is Your Superpower In Disguise
There are a lot of articles on anxiety out there, and most of them are awful.
Yeah, you should eat a good diet, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. But that's not anxiety-specific advice, that's just important for general health.
At the same time, anxiety isn't some great motivator you need to inflict on yourself to get results. Think about cramming for tests. A lot of people believe that they need to put themselves under this level of mental stress to force themselves into action.
They aren't actually that pitiful, they just believe they are. They fail to understand motivation, and instead use the pain of anxiety as a tool.
Anxiety doesn't happen because your brain or body is weak, it happens for the opposite reason. Your mind is powerful enough to imagine your entire future, and sometimes that future is scary.
You don't need to resent that strength, you need to admire it and leverage it to your advantage. The ability to project your future is a superpower, you just need to learn how to use it.
Mod Note (Andy): Best of 2016, this post ranks #9 for the past year
This is an excellent post. Thanks.
As someone who has anxiety, this post is awesome. Thank you.
Great post! Had a lot of crappy monkey at the office and I realised that my mindset was really defining my day. If I think it's shit - it probably will be.
For those who do want a pill, I highly recommend ashwandhaga in the morning and some L-Theanine when overdosing on arabica. If you're into Russian scientist developed noots I'd throw SELANK in there for kicks.
I've also heard about L-Theanine. Is there a noticeable difference when you combine it with caffeine vs. it alone? Or caffeine alone vs. both of them?
It's really the synergy between the two that makes it useful. L-Theanine will relax you, make it easier to focus and cancel out any nervousness and jitters associated with the energy boost of Caffeine. That being said L-Theanine alone is probably also useful, however can't really comment on that as I've never not had a cup of joe in the early mo'.
I can definitely relate. I'm not a smooth talker and have quite a bit of social anxiety. Basically stumbled my way through speeches and presentations throughout school, but the chickens came to roost when I had to give a 20 minute presentation as an intern in front of about 60-80 people in my company including VPs and directors.
The first part of feeling anxious is thinking you'll do bad. Thinking you'll screw up. Most of that can be overcome with better preparing yourself for the future. But the other half of it is a bit trickier, and that's having confidence in yourself to do well.
With enough preparation and conditioning, I gave a hell of a presentation and co-workers tell me it was one of the best intern presentations they had seen. A few directors wanted to talk afterwards. Honestly though I had so much anxiety and emotion going into it, I kinda blacked out and have zero recollection of giving the presentation.
Having anxiety can be a good thing if you use it right. Sure you're stressing over all the ways you could mess up. But if you find your confidence, find your stride, the anxiety is going to make you more aware of your environment, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to better prepare for what you're going into that day. On the opposite end of the spectrum some people have "stupid confidence" and just assume they're prepared for things they're not.
Remember though my fellow monkeys: Anarchyz11 solution is preparation. It's true, there is no better way to solve performance anxiety than to prepare yourself like a madman.
But, that's not the point of the article.
Preparation takes time. Lots of time. Learning to go direct into those thoughts and feelings in your body/mind and change them is an entirely different skill.
When you master this, you separate the preparation from the negative state of anxiety. So, even though you want to do the preparation to be your best, you don't need it to get beyond the brain.
Instead of "convincing" the brain to get over the performance anxiety through loads and loads of preparation, you program it to feel prepared. This can be done immediately.
I know that might sound like magic, but that's why I'm into this stuff. We need more magic!
This post is my transition to College and Work in a nutshell.
Stress has been extremely helpful in pushing me to accomplish things I never imagined.
You did a great job of articulating that
Who needs anxiety when you can have alcoholism?
If there anything I learned from WSO it's this.
PSA: if you study for a test anxiously you are going to have a bad time.
Anxious studying is the worst studying.
So many lost hours.
Great post! Thanks OP
Not to jack this post, but something I've noticed post-election this week that is related: a LOT of people skipping classes (I'm an undergrad) and just neglecting responsibilities because the anxiety resulting from Trump's victory. I understand where they are coming from, as a person of color myself, but neglecting your duties because of an altogether uncontrollable outcome is a weakness IMO. I've seen people report professors to Deans on multiple occasions throughout college for campus-wide incidents or even national events that are triggering. I've dealt with some incredibly bad anxiety in my life as well as blatant, direct racism and have used it as a reminder to keep pushing and get better than everyone around me. I just don't understand the need to take "mental health days" for random events; if you have a long-standing medical condition, that's an entirely different story.
Gimme the loot
tl;dr How to deal with anxiety? Grow a pair.
This is a well written article, but unfortunately I've tried stuff like in the OP and it usually doesn't work for me...ie ignoring your problems through present distraction, or pretending like they're not problems at all through positive visualization
Here's what works for me:
1) simplify problems to their bare bones essence, figuring out what is absolutely most important. A lot of times this leads to the conclusion that your anxiety is unjustified
2) create win-win scenarios for yourself, ie determine what are the benefits from an outcome not going your way. This leads to you becoming almost indifferent to the outcome itself
3) build momentum. If you have several obstacles or steps to a goal you're nervous about achieving, tackle the easiest ones first. As you experience these small achcievements you acquire a self-reinforcing energy that lets you power through on the more difficult barriers
4) keep your brain generally happy. Lots of sleep, good food, sex, exercise, positive socializing, alcohol...whatever it takes
Every line so beautifully written. Thank you so much!
Great post! Can relate 100% I have to constantly consider every possible turn of my future (e.g. what happens if I get this internship, masters, gmat score...). There is so much uncertainty involved, nobody could predict it accurately. My concern about the future really bothers me and often leaves my so deep in my thoughts that I am detached from social conversations.
I think what you said is on point - just deal with the now and it will improve your chances of a good future. Overthinking will only make you worse off.
Still this sounds a bit superficial to me and probably I am on my old train of thought tomorrow...
Very inspiring post, Geoff. If I could just sum up your post into one word, it would be: perspective. The human brain is our most important organ. Our thoughts dictate the actions for both our successes and failures.
It's so easy for us, as humans, to think one way and get stuck in that way of thinking. Like you said, learning to train and condition our brains to use our anxiety to our advantage could be our greatest asset.
Thanks for sharing!
great post,thanks for sharing
Thank you very much, this is what I am just facing now. It will definitely help me from now on :)
Great post, especially at this time of year!
I remember Anxiety, it used to cripple me, until one day I after a long lecture from someone who I think highly off, I learned to channel that energy. Now I am arrogant. Not sure which is worse
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