“Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.”
“Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.”
— Anxiety and Depression Association of Amerika
Nearly one fifth of the Americans suffer from anxiety every year. And those are diagnosed cases, the unrecorded cases will be much more. I take the US as an exemplary western society. The Europeans won’t be off much better. This is sad because anxiety is anti-proportional to happiness, well-being and contentment. Usually it appears in a bearable dose where you remain functional, but deep down there is layer of tension and pain.
There is a wide array of causes for anxiety. Some are biological, but as I see it, most stem from our western fast-paced, neurotic culture and our socialization. I am not going analyse the wrongs of western society for now because that wouldn’t fit into this article. Today I want to focus on some practicable steps to reduce the anxiety in our lives so we can live more relaxed and more content. To do so, we first must look into what anxiety is in our direct experience. When we understand it on an experiential level we can act with skill and effectiveness.
What Is Anxiety?
I see anxiety as a cycle of negative emotions and negative thoughts that feed into each other. They amplify each other and in a sense stem from each other. Either one, negative emotion or negative thought, can start the cycle.
For example, if you have a bad night you wake up feeling like garbage. Your energy levels are low and your stress levels are high. This diminishes your self-esteem and overall well-being. This is the perfect breeding ground for negative thoughts. Negative thoughts, especially worries, point out rational and irrational threats. If you stress levels are high you are already in a defensive, alerted state. In this state you are much more likely to buy into your worries. This is crucial to understand. You emotional state has incredible influence on your thinking processes. When you feel like crap the world you see gets tainted darker than it really is.
When you buy into your negative thoughts your emotional state gets worse. This pushes your alertness level even higher, which in turn makes you worry even more. And there you have it, the perfect vicious cycle.
The same mechanics apply when you are feeling well but a negative thought crosses your mind and you make the mistake to buy into it. If you let it, it will pull you in and the cycle will start turning.
How Does It Feel?
Again, we need to understand anxiety on an experiential level. By that, I mean we need to see how it manifests itself in our direct experience, how it feels. Otherwise, we are just shuffling ideas around without real life traction. This is where your part begins. The next time you feel anxious, nervous or fearful I want you to pay attention. Stay focused. There is something to learn here.
Anxiety is a sneaky bitch. There are other emotions, like anger, which are obvious to spot. Anxiety is one of those that linger in the background. Usually, it manifests itself as an unconscious tension in the body and feeling of restlessness. It feels unstable and slightly out of control, like a leaf in an unpredictable wind. As I feel it, there is also a certain coldness and a hollow, disconnected component. But this is what I feel, now you need to introspect for yourself.
I call anxiety a sneaky bitch because it pulls its manipulative strings without you really seeing what is going on. Like I said above, it does that by influencing your thoughts. The negative thoughts arise and point out all kinds of problems. The catch is, that those problems are not really real, they got created by your anxiety. It does that to shift your focus towards those fake problems and away from the anxiety itself. It muddies the water so it can remain unconscious and in control. Sneaky bitch!
How To Break The Cycle.
As I see it, there are two approaches to nip anxiety in the butt. The first one is to change your emotional state. When your stress levels subside and relaxation moves in you can wash the negative thoughts away. A good feeling in your body will give you the needed backbone to confront those thought. When you have confronted them once it will be easier the next time the arise.
You know best what makes you happy. Think about it now and pick one. When the anxious cycle starts turning you’ll know what to do. Here are some of my favourites:
Talk to a good friend and share a laugh. Easiest way is just to call them and say “Hey ya bloody chap, what are you up to? I could use a silly pun or two.”
Look for a funny and interesting video on YouTube. There are a lot of interesting talk-show hosts out there that produce quality content to enjoy. I really like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)”. Use this in controlled doses though, I don’t want you to go on a 3 hours-stupid-video-binge, because after that you will feel even worse.
Conscious, focused breathing. This is incredible simple, yet very powerful. It is important that you stick to the rhythm and time frame. Do at least 20 breaths, no fewer. Go as follows: 5 second in-breath, 5 second hold, 8 second release. Count while you breath. Do not question if this will work or not, it will, but you gotta do it right.
Exercise. This one should by common knowledge by now, but it deserves a spot on the list. Start running, go to the gym, do push-ups, sit-ups or squats. If you’re feeling funky, pull out some dorky dance moves. Even a brisk walk in the park will suffice. Endorphins will be released and you will get out of your head and into your body. Works ever time.
Good food, warm drinks and a cozy blanket. This one is my favourite. Treat yourself with some nice, hot tea. Grab a snack, roll into your bed and say “fuck you world, imma’ just feel good now”. Making silly faces and/ or noises is also recommended.
The second approach focuses on the thoughts themselves. This one is more advanced and will require lots of meditative training to be good at. But when you get good at it, boy, there will be nothing to ever shake your cool again. As with every meditation this is simple, but not easy. What you want to do is to get some distance between you and the thought. This way you are no longer entangled in the thought but watching it from birds-eye view. Usually, most thoughts stay in the unconscious or semi-conscious mind. I want you to drag them out into daylight and shine your awareness onto them. Examine them like a scientist. Ask the following questions:
- What am I thinking?
- Is what I am thinking true?
- Why am I thinking that way?
- Are there other ways to think about the matter at hand?
- Am I harming myself by thinking that way?
- What would be a more healthy, more empowering way to think?
This will put your thoughts to the test. You will see that your thoughts tell you a bunch of self-harming lies and that there is no need to believe in them. You won’t be able to force them out of your head, unless you’re super experienced in meditation, but that’s fine. They can jabber and yap all they want, you no longer buy into them.
To go further we should first answer the following question. “What is negative thinking?” Seems pretty obvious at first, but the mind is a deceptive thing and it won’t be obvious to you when you are stuck in negative thinking. Watch out for those indicators of negative thoughts:
- The thought causes uncomfortable feelings in your body.
- The thought is recurring without resolving itself. You fear the thought recurring.
- The thought isn’t practicable. Thinking should give us an action plan on what to do next. It should encourage action instead of paralysing us. When your thoughts keep you stuck in a miserable place, I guarantee that you are caught up in negative thoughts.
Once you’ve identified them as negative thoughts, it is time to distrust and dismantle them. Use all the scepticism that you can muster and rip them apart. Notice the patterns in your negative thinking. Once you have made them conscious, you get control over them. It will be like “Aha, gotcha! This kind of worry again. I have analysed and disempowered it before, so there is no need to get stuck in it this time.” A good way to do that, is to keep a “worry journal”. Here you write down all the stuff that keeps distressing you. Once it is in there, you have dealt with it.
To really get a hold on your negative thoughts you need to do meditation or a similar mindfulness practice. If you are new to meditation, you should check out my comprehensive guide on meditation. It teaches you everything you need to know to get started right away. Meditation is the most important habit to set you up for a good life. Its benefits pay into nearly each pillar of what I call The Good Life. Give it a try!
That’s it for today. Make sure you hit follow and subscribe, so you don’t miss out on future posts. I will expand this post at least weekly with new practicable insights into psychology and self-help to make life more enjoyable. Stay with me and make it a habit to develop yourself. Small steps every week will lead you to great results.
Thanks For Reading!
Here are some more posts that will interest you:
- Depression: Its Deceptive Nature.
- Depression 101 – An Emergency guide.
- Happiness 101 – Emptiness Is Where You Start.
- Emotions 101 – When Logic Flies Out The Window.