In the winter of 2012, I was surprised to find that my heart would suddenly (and inexplicably) begin racing at random points throughout the day. At first, I thought it was a bout of the flu. But after several weeks, I began to worry it was some sort of heart problem.
I had tests done. I got a check-up. I had blood drawn. I even spent a week walking around with a mobile heart monitor. All of it was inconclusive.
As the months wore on, my life continued to change, and I slowly came to the realization that I was dealing with a very mysterious case of anxiety. The symptoms got worse, and worse. I couldn’t travel. Social environments petrified me. My life turned upside down.
At my worst, I remember stumbling across a photo of a scraggly looking scuba diver. He had a mop of hair, bright eyes, and seemed not to have a care in the world. It took whole seconds to recognize that it was a photo of myself, taken during the days when I lived out of a truck in the jungles of Oahu.
At that moment, I finally admitted that I had a problem, and needed to learn how to get better. I began a journey to learn everything I could about anxiety, and fear, and how to deal with both. I swore I would come out better than when I went in.
This article is composed of a series of letters I wrote to myself, sharing some of the most important tactics and strategies I learned along the way. The idea was to preserve these lessons so that I could refer back to them next time I was facing something difficult.
I’ve decided to share them here as a way of giving that whole experience meaning. If these words can give one person just one idea that helps them make sense of a struggle they’re facing, then I will consider that whole chapter of my life worth it. It took five years — almost to the day — to write this piece. I hope it remains useful for many, many more.
If this work is meaningful to you, and you’d like to support it, you can share it, or you can get the kindle version. But the full text is offered here for free for anyone who wants or needs it.
If you’re reading this, it probably means you’re feeling anxious again.
After watching you for several years, I’ve found that you routinely slip into old habits which you know cause anxiety. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re doing it. Or you do, but the symptoms aren’t immediate so you continue anyway, knowing full well that the things you’re doing will have negative consequences at some point.
Then that point comes — perhaps it was today — when you wake up after a restless night’s sleep, filled with the pulsing dread of low-grade general anxiety and suddenly realize that you need to get your life back on track.
In those moments I’ve found that you sometimes can’t remember which things cause you the most anxiety, or which actions are most helpful in getting rid of it. So, I’ve decided to write these letters to you, my future self, in the hopes that these lessons learned are never fully lost to your questionable memory.
The ideas shared in this article were hard-won. They came during the most difficult struggle of your young life. A time which wrenched back the layers of your personality, stripped away things you thought were concrete, and left you bare and exposed. They came from great teachers, from lost relationships, from success, and from failure. They came at great cost. Don’t let them fade.
This is a article about tactics; small changes that had a big impact in helping you get past anxiety, and regain a handle on your life. But the tactics rest upon an underlying philosophy; A few key beliefs which you developed over time, and which I believe transfer to overcoming other major challenges you may be facing.
I’d like to begin by sharing the three core beliefs of that philosophy with you in this first letter. If I’ve done my job right as a teacher, you may well be able to navigate away after this section. If I’ve done my job right as a writer, you won’t want to.
Belief #1: Change is Constant
The first belief is also a disclaimer, and it is this: You are in a state of constant change. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is forever.
When it comes to this article, that means it’s possible some of what you read in these pages won’t align with your opinions by the time you read it. Of the two of us, you are the more experienced, and while I think that most of what’s written here will stand the test of time, the only thing I can say for certain is that your experience will lend extra insight that I don’t yet have.
Use this then as a coat-hook. A structure upon which to hang the experiences you’ve been carrying with you so that you can walk across the room and see them from a different angle. Don’t take what’s written here as gospel.
When it comes to anxiety, this state of constant change has two important implications. First, that you are never completely stuck with anxiety. And second, that you are never completely free of it.
You may think it disheartening to hear that you’re never completely free from the possibility of anxiety or similar feelings. But actually, it’s a good thing. It means that if you’re experiencing it, you’re not broken. It also means that if the anxiety goes away, and then comes back, you’re also not broken.
Believing that you’re not inherently, unfixably broken is an important step in overcoming anything. It is key in making use of the second belief of this philosophy.
Belief #2: Don’t Confuse Problems with Symptoms
The second belief is simply this: that the symptom of a problem is not the same thing as the problem itself.
Anxiety is real, but it’s not a disease. It’s a symptom of something else. Your body is capable of anxiety in the same way that it’s capable of pain.
If you fall and break your leg the pain is very real. But the pain is not the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem. The problem is that something is broken, and the pain is there to warn you of that fact so that you don’t continue to make the problem worse.
You would not say you’re inherently broken just because you feel pain. Indeed, if you fractured a femur and felt nothing, that would be a sign that you were somehow misconfigured. The same is true of anxiety.
The goal is not to never feel anxious. The goal is to only feel anxious when it’s appropriate and to respond to that anxiety in a way that’s healthy.
The idea of this article is that anxiety, even severe anxiety, is primarily a natural reaction to habits you routinely partake in but may not be aware of. The anxiety is the symptom, but those habits are the actual problem. If that’s true, then the key to minimizing unnecessary anxiety is understanding which habits are problematic, then dealing with them proactively.
I say that these lessons transfer to other areas of life, and I think this focus on “problems over symptoms” is a good example.
Perhaps you’re not facing anxiety right now. Perhaps you’re simply an old man and you’ve stumbled across this piece somewhere.
If that’s the case, let me take this moment to remind you of how truly good looking you were when you were my age.
Even without anxiety, I’m sure we’re facing some other challenge.
Perhaps we’re broke, or maybe we’re fat (we better not be fat). Those can both be discouraging problems with real consequences. But in the end, both are symptoms of something deeper.
Being broke is a symptom of poor financial judgment. It’s the result of consistently poor financial decisions. Being fat is likewise a symptom of consistently poor lifestyle choices.
Similar to pain, and anxiety, neither one can be solved by waving a magic wand. If you’re broke and you woke up tomorrow with a million dollars in the bank you would not have it for long because the decisions you currently make every day lead you to be broke. You don’t know how not to be broke. We see this play out over and over with lottery winners. The same goes for being fat which is why crash dieters are notoriously unsuccessful.
When you focus on treating symptoms, rather than root problems, any success is only temporary. When the symptoms come rushing back — and they will — it will seem an even greater defeat. In life, and in all struggles, it’s important to be sure you’re working on the root problem.
Belief #3: Look for the Learning Opportunity
The third pillar of this philosophy is that all struggles, no matter how severe, can be seen as an opportunity of some kind. Healing begins when you decide to find the opportunity in the problem. And when you do that, you unlock the potential to walk away better than you were before.
I still remember the moment everything started getting better for me when I first struggled with severe, crippling anxiety.
I was sitting around, thinking about how much my life had changed. Over the course of eighteen months, I’d pulled away from friends, stopped traveling, and was living in my parents’ basement. I couldn’t get on a plane anymore. Even driving people to the airport was enough to send me into a panic. I couldn’t go to parties or even small gatherings with known friends, and I’d begun learning to code because it was the only job I could do without ever having to see anyone.
I was afraid of everything. I spent my days constantly on-edge and on-guard against anyone realizing I was on-edge. I felt as though my life was slipping by un-lived. I knew I was capable of more, but this fear had its fangs in me.
Then, I had an epiphany.
Fear is all that keeps anyone from reaching their full potential. Whether it’s fear of public speaking, or the fear of asking for what they want, fear of failing, or more often, of succeeding beyond their wildest dreams (and then not knowing what the hell to do). More than any other thing, fear is what keeps us small.
That’s all cliche, but here comes the insight: It’s difficult to overcome fear when you don’t experience it regularly.
Most people have to get on stage in order to face near-crippling anxiety. They have to quit their job or wade into a pit of snakes.
All I had to do was sit in the back of a coffee shop, far from the doors. Having a drink with a friend was enough to send my pulse racing, and sitting as a passenger in someone else’s car was almost unbearable.
For months I’d felt as though I’d lost control of my life. But at that moment I realized there was another way to look at it. I could believe I was a victim, or I could choose to believe that I was being offered a master class in fear. If I passed, I would overcome the most difficult obstacle I’d ever face — myself — and would unlock literally untold potential for the rest of my life.
At that moment I decided I would use this problem as an opportunity to learn everything I could about fear and how it affected me. I decided that I would not only get through it, but I would come out the other side better for the experience.
That decision, more than anything else, is what led to my getting better — to your getting better…
You weren’t fixed immediately. In fact, some of your greatest struggles were still ahead. I’m sure there are more ahead still. But when anxiety got the best of you, you simply looked at the situation and asked yourself what you could learn from it.
Making the decision to learn gave you room to be wrong. It gave you room to mess up. It gave you space to admit that perhaps you didn’t have the answers and couldn’t be held accountable for succeeding every single time.
Somehow, having that space enabled you to succeed more and more often.
Today, just a few years later, your life is completely different. You’ve traveled through Europe living in other people’s houses. You’ve trekked long sections of the Appalachian Trail, sleeping in shacks with complete strangers and shitting in the woods. You’ve taken a job at a tech startup where most of the work involves flying around the country hosting parties, and having conversations with people. You’re unrecognizable from the shadow of yourself you were just a short time ago.
It’s been incremental progress, but progress nonetheless. And it’s hinged on those three ideas:
First that you are in a constant state of change. Nothing is permanent, and everything is malleable. Second, that you must get to the root of the problem and work on that. And third, that every problem comes with an opportunity to learn, and you get to decide whether to look for it or not.
Upon those core ideas, everything else rests. Without them, all success is only temporary. With them, well… your success is still temporary. Because one day you’re gonna die. And I guess that’s the fourth pillar of this whole thing — Don’t take any of it too seriously because, in the end, we’re all worm food.
Speaking of food, let’s take a look at those tactics.
Stop eating like an asshole.
I put this one at the top of the article because I know it’s your weakness. If I had a dollar for every time you swore you were going to turn over a new leaf and begin eating well, I’d be dictating this letter to my personal assistant aboard my personal jet headed to my private island.
It’s not just that shit food makes you feel bad. It’s that the habit of eating like you don’t give a damn carries over to other areas of your life and causes anxiety there as well.
Food is your kryptonite.
There’s an entire industry worth of books that will dive into the details on how and what to eat, and suggesting an “Anxiety-free” diet is not only outside the context of this collection of letters, it’s also gimmicky. I’m not into it.
But I think Michael Pollan summed it up nicely when he said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Vegetables.” Michelle Davis put it even better when she said, “Eat like you give a fuck.”
What both of these comments have in common is the underlying idea that eating healthily is not complicated. We all know what we should be eating.
When Pollan says to eat food, he means to stick with things that will generally die if a twelve-gauge slug passed through them. Mammals, fish, and just about every conceivable fruit and vegetable fall into this category. Poptarts do not fall into this category. Pizza does not fall into this category.
“But pizza’s made from plants!” you say. And just like that, you’ve stopped giving a fuck, and re-become an asshole.
Heroin is made from plants. Cow shit is made from plants. Oil from the deepest wells in Saudi Arabia was at one time nothing more than a plant. But you don’t eat them because they aren’t plants anymore. You know what counts.
Pollan’s advice is not just nutritional though. It has wider implications.
For example, when he says not too much, he is at once advising that you do not stuff yourself and that you temper your need to consume.
The more you eat, the more you must eat in order to maintain a feeling of calm. And if you must eat often, then your decisions are driven by the need for short-term gratification, rather than long-term success.
I’m reminded of a story from Sidharta when a merchant asked him how useful it was to be able to fast. He said it was very useful indeed. For if a man needs food, he said, then he must work, and work for whoever is willing to hire him so that he may eat. But if he can fast, he can take his time. He can make decisions about what he wants long-term, rather than in the immediate moment.
If you temper your need to consume, you live free. Free from the fear of going without. Free in the knowledge that your money, however much or however little, can carry you through because your demands are even fewer.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t own things. Sitting here as the younger version of yourself, I sincerely hope we own at least a few nice things. But you should be ruthless in differentiating between what’s truly necessary for happiness, and what’s simply nice-to-have.
Both Ben Franklin and the great Roman playwright, Seneca, offered further advice on this.
The old story goes that Franklin was once asked to publish the work of a client that he felt was “scurrilous and defamatory”. Rather than simply take the money and do the work, he went home that evening and slept on the floor, eating nothing but cheap bread and drinking a mug of cold water. When the experience didn’t kill him, he decided he’d never take on work he was ethically opposed to, knowing that so long as he had a coat to sleep in and a floor to sleep on he could make it through to the next client.
Of course, it never came to that. He died one of the wealthiest men in America. But perhaps one of the reasons Franklin did so well was because he did not live in fear of poverty. As a result, he was free to follow his own path.
This is the freedom Sidharta was talking about. The hungry man must work for whoever is willing to hire him. He doesn’t get to live by his own ideals. He is a slave to his hunger, or more often, his fear of hunger.
Hunger itself is not so bad. But fear of hunger antagonizes us before the hunger comes, and long after it leaves. Only when we’re free of this fear can we live our lives truly, as free men.
And like many fears, there is only one way to get over this one: Practice.
This is where Seneca weighs in. In his moral letters to Lucilias, Seneca recommends setting aside a few days each year where, like Franklin, you practice true poverty.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”
Practice the things you fear most, and you rob them of their power over you. Speaking of practicing uncomfortable things…
Take Cold Showers
Take cold showers. The colder the better.
I don’t have much for you here, except a reminder that cold showers are an opportunity to do one thing early in the day that you find uncomfortable. Proof that you’re capable of doing other things you might not want to do.
There are other documented benefits to cold showers. But this one is the one I find most valuable.
After a week or so of consistently cold showers, you begin to crave them. They never become comfortable, but there is an after-effect, a buzz, which is addictive.
More than that, there’s something freeing about preferring something the simple way. When you don’t need hot water, there’s no such thing as a bad shower. It doesn’t matter how crummy the hotel is, or how many people shower before you, you always get a perfect shower. There’s something very neat and satisfying about this.
Seneca mentioned something similar about simple food in his letter to Lucilius on practicing poverty.
“For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of Pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away. Even prison fare is more generous; and those who have been set apart for capital punishment are not so meanly fed by the man who is to execute them. Therefore, what a noble soul must one have, to descend of one’s own free will to a diet which even those who have been sentenced to death have not to fear! This is indeed forestalling the spearthrusts of Fortune.”
I don’t know about a noble soul. But I do like the sound of this forestalling the spear thrusts of fortune business.
This is the dirty little secret of discomfort. While most people fear it, you can learn to love it. And when you do that, you set yourself up for success. Discomfort is inevitable. The people who can deal with it best are the ones who win. Stephen Pressfield put it this way when talking about the Marine Corps in The War of Art.
“The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable… Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockies, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because those candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable.
The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not, he will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. The artist must be like that marine: he has to know how to be miserable.”
I believe the same applies to anyone struggling with anything big. Whether you’re reading this because you’re anxious again, or because you’re tackling some other problem, the truth is that there’s a hard road ahead. You can tip-toe along, always fearing the discomfort that’s just around the corner. Or you can practice enjoying misery and step-to.
The hard knocks will come either way. As Pressfield put it, “because this is war, baby, and war is hell.”
Call It by Its Name
I’m sitting on the balcony at Mozart’s Coffee Roasters looking out over the lake as the morning begins here in Austin, Texas. I’m sipping a caramel cappuccino.
The air is warm, despite the fact that it’s November, and the coffee shop is still quiet. There are just a few people out here with me. It’s early. There are birds sitting on the railing. They’re looking out over the water the same way people look out over water as the day begins — calmly. Reflectively. As though they’re considering the possibility of the day.
It’s quiet now, but based on the sheer number of tables here — dozens from what I can see, spread across several balconies — it won’t be quiet for long. This place is going to be a mad-house, and my job today is to hang out here and socialize.
Nothing seems to inspire trust in the wholesome opportunity of a day like a warm cup of dark roast poured steaming into a heavy ceramic mug. To sip this, and to watch silently as the sun comes up, is to be momentarily at peace. And as the rays of sun spread slowly over the landscape, so too does the warmth from the cup work its way into every corner of your soul.
It is one of the few totally enjoyable experiences on Earth. To be placed in the same category as strolling apple orchards in the fall, and being with a truly beautiful woman. A pleasure to sight, and smell, and taste.
I still remember how horrified you were when you realized that coffee was the direct cause of so many of your symptoms. They came two hours after drinking, almost like clock-work. First your pulse would begin racing, then your stomach would turn, and finally, you’d feel sweaty and panicked, unsure of what was happening to you.
It took years to learn this, and when you did, you decided to cut coffee (beloved coffee) out of your life.
For the longest time, your rule was “Skip the coffee”, which seems a strange thing to write about in a coffee shop over cappuccino. But I’ve been trying to write this letter for weeks now with no success, so hell with it, maybe this is the perfect place for it.
Because the more I think about it, the more I realize that the point is not to skip the coffee. This — thriving through anxiety — isn’t only about avoiding the things that cause you worry. Especially when those things are as enjoyable as this coffee is now. Far from it. To avoid the things that you love simply because they cause you anxiety is the ultimate failure of the anxious person.
It’s about learning to live even though it makes you anxious. Breaking down the barriers between you and the things you enjoy.
When it comes to coffee, you found that the symptoms weren’t so bad once you knew what was causing them. A big part of anxiety came from not knowing why your pulse was suddenly racing. Why you felt nauseous. Once you knew the culprit, knew what to expect, things never seemed as bad.
Similar to the old tale of Rumpelstiltskin, when you can call a demon by its name, it loses power over you.
And so, the rule changed.
It’s not always easy to call a problem by its name. It can be difficult to identify the root cause. Our culture is a prescriptive one, and we tend to try and search for solutions by looking for what we can add.
Have a health problem? We add a pill. How about a people problem? Let’s add a policy or a law. We add layer upon layer, building armor against the uncertainty of the world.
When it came to your personal life, you used to think that more armor was always the answer. But all the armor in the world won’t help fix the stone in your boot.
Oftentimes you can’t add a solution. You have to peel the armor back, layer by layer, until you get to the root of the issue.
But now, my cappuccino is almost empty and the birds are getting feisty, and it’s time to start my work for the day.
Get a Dog
Get a dog.
Dogs are incapable of living with anxiety, and they’re wonderful teachers to learn from. Some people will say cats are better at soothing fraying nerves or horses perhaps.
But cats are too independent to provide the kind of support that a debilitatingly anxious person needs. They are happy to know you. But if you fell down the stairs tomorrow they’d walk over you on their way to the food bowl.
Horses are exceptionally attuned to your emotions, it’s true. But they are prey animals, and so can’t relate to humans the same way other predators can.
Fish are damned out of the question. Good for nothing but food.
No, you need a dog.
But make sure it’s a real dog. Nothing under thirty-seven pounds. Anything under thirty-seven pounds is likewise a prey animal, and prey animals survive only through anxiety.
Dogs were put on this earth to teach us how to live. Of this, I’m sure.
They focus only on the things that matter, namely eating, sleeping, screwing, and vigorous play, and cannot be whipped into a frenzy over anything as trivial as bills, or deadlines, or other people’s opinions. To care for a dog means you must once again make time for the important things. And taking time for those things will put the others back in perspective.
They are nonjudgemental. You cannot disappoint a dog. There’s something surprisingly refreshing about a companion who’s willing to yell at the top of their lungs out the window and lick their own butt in public. They’ve got a very high bar for what it means to be unsociable. Since your anxiety has a large social component to it, it’s nice to have a friend who doesn’t notice when you’re being weird.
It’s not that they don’t think you’re strange. Walking on two legs is very strange. But they decided to love you a long time ago, despite your obvious strangeness, and they will never un-make that decision.
They also don’t seem capable of fully disappointing other human beings. Dogs are guilty of some of the most horrific social faux pas. They throw up on the carpet, shit on peoples lawns, screw complete strangers in public, lick dead things they find on the ground, and have terrible breath. Despite all this, we love them. We happily feed them and house them, and lounge around on the couch with them. Indeed, once they’ve entered our lives, things don’t seem quite right without them around.
Perhaps these things aren’t flaws, per se. Perhaps they are simply what the human soul yearns for, and we’ve just learned to view them as flaws so that civilized society may exist.
If that’s the case, then the charming thing about a dog is their complete and utter sincerity. They greet you at the door utterly happy to see you. They bark at the mailman utterly willing to die protecting the house. They eat with utter gusto, even if the food has been the same for three nights, or three weeks, or three years.
Everything they do, they do with complete focus and total sincerity. And perhaps there’s a lesson there for us.
And if I’m wrong, and dogs are just four-legged scoundrels, then our love for them is at least an interesting mirror of the human capacity to see beyond weakness. If dogs can be loved with so many flaws, surely you can be as well.
Learn to Say No.
Learn to say no.
This is so hard. Your tendency is to say yes. You tell yourself that you’re saying yes because you’re a nice person — because you want to help people, or because you don’t want to let them down.
But the truth is that when you offer a blind yes, it’s anything but helpful.
To begin with, it doesn’t help the other person much. In fact, it puts them at extreme risk. This is because you’ve agreed to help them without being sure of whether you actually can.
If you don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to devote to them, then at best they’re going to get your partial attention and effort. At worst, you are going to begin helping them, only to find that the situation is unsustainable. Then you’ll have to cut them loose and leave them to find someone else anyway. Only you’ve wasted some of their time, and maybe their money.
Even less bueno — when you offer someone a blind yes you are really making one of two assumptions; Either you think they are too fragile to hear no, or you think you’re not valuable enough to say no without losing the relationship. Both of these deserve further questioning.
The worst part about saying yes blindly is that every time you say yes to something, you say no to a hundred other things you might be doing instead. Though it may not seem like it at the time, each yes comes with a huge opportunity cost and takes time and attention from something else.
Saying no gives you the space to do an amazing job on the things that matter most. It offers you the clarity, time, and energy to focus more on the people and projects you care most about. Success starts with no.
This is such an important concept that Tim Ferriss devoted entire sections to it in his book Tribe of Mentors. There he asked 130 of the world’s most successful people how they handle saying no to things, and the answers are always worth revisiting.
“But those people are different. I can’t possibly say no!” This is where anxiety comes in. I’ve come to believe that many of the negative physical symptoms of anxiety are directly related to your habit of doing things you don’t want to do.
After years of saying yes to things you don’t want to do, your body takes over and shuts down.
Anxiety forces you to say no. Through crippling fear, pounding heart, nausea, and more your body demands that you take a stand for yourself. It forces you to figure out how to say no where previously you didn’t think there was a way.
It forces you to say no to everything. To the things you like and dislike. And only after you say no often enough, once you know in your bones that you can say no to anything you truly don’t want to do, only then will your body begin to trust you again and allow your symptoms to subside.
So on those mornings when you wake up and your heart is kabooming, ask yourself if there’s anything you’ve said yes to recently that really deserved a no. Is it too late to say no now (hint: it’s never actually too late if you’re willing to deal with the consequences)? How might you avoid giving a blind yes next time?
Anxious or Excited?
Are you anxious, or excited?
Anxious? Are you sure?
These feelings are close cousins. Sometimes, when you’re feeling anxious, you can trick yourself into thinking that you’re actually excited. It helps to ask yourself what you might be excited about. What would make this time exciting?
I will often use this technique when preparing for a flight somewhere.
I don’t much like flying. More accurately, I don’t like all the hoops you have to jump through in order to fly. The long lines, the rigid schedules, the recycled air. I don’t like being told what to do on a good day. Air travel is bossiness refined — wait here, line up there, please remain seated, etc, etc… — so I’m not a huge fan.
But there are parts of air travel that I enjoy tremendously. I like meeting new people. I like chatting with strangers. I like browsing airport gift shops, and I love those little Lotus Biscoff cookies.
So when I’m preparing to get on a plane, if I find I’m jittery or anxious, I’ll just ask myself whether I’m anxious or excited. And if I’m not sure, I’ll imagine a version of myself that was really excited, and try to copy what he’d do.
Other times, if I feel like I’m skirting the edge of anxious and excited, I’ll ask myself how I could use a renewable resource (like money) to tilt the scales.
To use flying as an example again, when I can, I will pay to upgrade my ticket to first class. First class passengers skip the security lines, and the boarding lines, and are generally bossed around less. In short, they aren’t subjected to most of the things I hate about flying.
If I can trade a finite amount of money in order to avoid a day or two of anxiety, indeed to look forward to something that would otherwise cause me stress, I’ll make that trade every single time.
It can help to purposefully plan things every so often that you’re actually excited about. That way, even if you’re headed off to do something you don’t want to do, you have something on the other side of it that you are looking forward to.
Of course, sometimes you can’t trick yourself into being excited. Sometimes you’re simply scared out of your mind. And when that happens, I lean on the last, and most important lesson I found over the last few years…
Go with the Flow
Go with the flow.
Let me be clear: I hate this sentence.
Alone it’s very abstract and woo-woo. It always felt like a way to justify failure. But it’s become such an integral part of you, of how you deal with hardship, that it must be mentioned here.
I will try to make it more concrete.
At its core, anxiety is a preoccupation with the future. Specifically, it’s the fear that the future will be unpleasant. On this, I think you and I can agree.
A close examination of this fear shows that it’s riddled with a number of faulty assumptions. First, you are assuming to know that things will go wrong. Which itself means that:
- You believe there exists a right and wrong way that things should go (which there isn’t), and…
- You think you are reasonably good at predicting the future, which experience has shown, you are not.
So anxiety makes no logical sense. But then, we already knew that and experienced it anyways. So we cannot rely on logic to solve our problem.
Instead, we have to rely on the cultivation of two other character traits: resilience and openness.
Resilience is the knowledge that you are capable of handling hardship.
Many of the tactics discussed in these pages are designed to help cultivate resilience. When you learn to eat well, you learn that you can survive cravings and other internal conflict, and are thus more resilient. When you step into a cold shower first thing in the morning, you learn that you can live through physical discomfort, and are therefore more resilient. And when you learn how to tell someone no, you learn that you can deal with interpersonal conflict, and you become more resilient.
Each trial you survive makes you more resilient for the next. Much of the success of life is simply accumulating a list of things that didn’t kill you. That way, when you begin to fear the next new thing, a small voice in your head can point to the list and say See? We shall endure.
Resilience is the ability to face a hardship, and believe, even if it’s only a tiny belief, that you can endure.
Openness, by contrast, is the ability to live with uncertainty and to accept what may come with grace and poise.
At its core, openness is the understanding that you do not actually know the future. It’s the belief that, though a situation may be painful or unpleasant in the short term, you do not actually know for certain whether it will be good or bad in the long term. It’s the ability to experience things as they are, rather than as you think they should be. And it is commonly known as going with the flow.
You were not raised to go with the flow. Growing up, your parents literally used to greet you each morning with the question “So, what’s your plan for the day”. This was code for “I have a bunch of chores for you to do”, so you quickly learned to plan as much as possible in order to escape work. And for years into adulthood, you were a prodigious planner.
You had to learn openness. And as with many of life’s most useful lessons, you learned it from a beautiful woman who no longer speaks to you.
I’ve tried to write about her before. So far, I’ve failed each time.
Nothing shows just how poor a writer you are like trying to describe a woman you’ve loved and describe her in a way that sparks the same fondness in the heart of the reader. Even if the reader is only your future self, it’s damn near impossible. The only thing which I think comes close is this poem I found, dubiously attributed to Roman Payne.
She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess,
a drop of free water in the parched sun.
She knows nothing of borders,
and cares nothing for rules.
Time for her isn’t something to fight against.
Her life flows clean, with passion,
like fresh water.
Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water. I love that line, and I think it’s the best way to describe the way you saw her. So I suppose, in retrospect, it’s no surprise that her parting advice to you was that you needed to learn how to go with the flow.
You’d known this for years. Planners are never oblivious to their nature. It’s just that learning to go with the flow is so fluffy, so hard to get your arms around, that it doesn’t rank high on the priority list.
But there’s nothing quite like the words of a woman you admire to spur action. If she thought you needed to be more flow-y, dammit, you were going to be like a drop of water in a river going over Niagara Falls. You set about immediately to create a plan to learn how to go with the flow.
The plan you opted for was to literally go with the flow — to climb into a kayak, and shove off into a river with no paddle, going where fate may take you. That seemed like a very concrete way of testing the philosophy. What was the worst that could happen?
As it turns out, quite a lot. In the days that led up to the experiment, you were stunned by your mind’s ability to invent creative and lively ways in which things might go wrong.
You might get sucked out to sea, or get wedged under the boardwalk. You could crash into someone’s yacht then owe them a million dollars in repairs. You could drift too close to a navy ship, and they’d blow you out of the water thinking you were a terrorist with a kayak-bomb. And what if, worst of all, you washed up on shore and were stuck there looking really, really foolish?
Dread pooled in your chest as your mind wheeled.
Ultimately, it was an interview with the great comic John Cleese that provided the solution. When asked about creativity, he said that it’s very difficult to be truly creative when you have all day. Being creative requires letting go. Your brain doesn’t want to let go. It wants to keep you alive. If you simply let go, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever come back. Just like you and your little imaginary kayak, you may be swept away.
It’s much better, he said, to set a timer. During that time, you’re free to be as creative as you wish. Afterwards, you can return to being responsible. That time limit, counterintuitive as it may seem, gives your brain license to let go.
I liked this technique and decided I would bring a paddle, but I wouldn’t touch it for a full hour, no matter what. After the hour was up, I’d be able to paddle back to my car, easy as pie.
As you’ll recall, the whole thing went better than you possibly could have planned. Far from a disaster, you pushed off in the boat, drifted through sun for about a half mile before coming to rest along a quiet stretch of shore far from anyone.
You didn’t hit a yacht. You weren’t swept out to sea. You sat, soaking up the sun for about forty-five minutes and then it was over. As far as pleasant boating experiences go, it literally couldn’t have gone better if you’d planned it. And it was only when you began the upstream slog back to your car that you ran into any hardship whatsoever.
This lesson was so profound, so tangible, that it has seeped into every area of your life. Indeed, you could probably write an entire book on this alone. But for now I’ll leave you with a few trusted tools:
First, remember the book The Tao of Pooh, which first introduced you to some of the concepts of Taoism, and helped you to be less judgmental. More flow-y. Also, remember that regular meditation (using the Calm app) has proven to be a life-changing habit.
When all else fails, and you find the anxiety building up inside you, ask yourself whether you’re trying to force something, and if it would really be so bad to let the cards fall as they may. Are you sure that your plan is the best possible outcome? You shouldn’t be. And if you’re stuck in a pattern of trying to force outcomes, grab a boat, and a stopwatch, and remind yourself of the value of going with the flow.
Anxiety was a challenge that would find me, at various points, unable to get on a plane, a boat, on trains, or in cars, movie theaters, restaurants, or even friends’ houses as long as there were other people around.
Before anxiety, I was a social person. An adventurer. I had lived on boats, out of cars, and had criss-crossed the US nearly a dozen times by land and air. Less than a year after I first began feeling symptoms, I came across an old photo of a scuba diver, and it took whole seconds for me to recognize the guy in the photo (me).
I had a very long way to fall.
And that’s the way people who experience anxiety sometimes feel, especially if they’re not typically anxious.
For driven people, life is like a race to the summit and when crippling anxiety suddenly descends upon you it’s easy to feel as though you’ve gone careening off a cliff while others have continued to climb.
But you haven’t fallen off a cliff, and this was the realization that had the biggest impact on my long-term recovery.
Life is not a race to a single summit, it’s a journey through the mountains. Sometimes you’re headed up, sometimes you’re headed down, there are summits and valleys, and everyone makes their own way. When you’re struggling with something big, you’re the one who’s marching for the summit. It’s just that that’s the hardest route.
It was Shakespeare who said that there is no right or wrong, only thinking makes it so. What he meant was that nothing in life is inherently good or bad, our perception defines that. Most people see anxiety as a bad thing, but if you change your mind and think of it as an opportunity, then that’s what it becomes. An opportunity to grow, to learn about fear, to get in touch with yourself and your feelings, and overcome the largest obstacle to success and happiness you will ever face: You.
Anxiety gave me far more than it took away. I am happier, healthier, stronger physically and mentally, wealthier, more sensitive, and calmer than I’ve ever been before in my life, all thanks to my struggle with anxiety. I’m writing this to you now from my seat aboard the train, Southern Service to Brighton across the south coast of England. I’ve been traveling for a month now, and I came here by boat. I had to go through hell to get to this point, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
If you’re reading this now, it’s probably because you are headed for one of life’s summits. While it’s a hell of a climb, that’s also where the best view is.
I hope this work was meaningful to you. If you’d like to support it, you can share it, or you can get the kindle version. But the full text is offered here for free for anyone who wants or needs it.