Your eyes pop open. It’s the middle of the night and you can’t get back to sleep. Visions of the next day go racing through your mind. You’re worried your new boss will find out you don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll be exposed as a fraud. You’ll break down in tears in a meeting and everyone will think you’re nuts. Maybe your thoughts even take you as far as you running naked through the streets in a fugue state where you end up in a mental hospital. You do some deep breathing or try to meditate, but you just can’t focus. Your mind won’t stop racing. You’re on the verge of tears and you feel like the world is caving in on you. You feel lost. Every sensation becomes a major problem. Is that pain your appendix? The tightness in your chest is surely a heart attack right? You start trying your positive thinking exercises. “No, this is just anxiety, you’ve been through it 1000 times before.” But for each positive thought your brain is ready to serve up an example of a time you were incompetent. “remember the time you completely forgot the question in the job interview immediately after you started speaking so you just rambled for 30 seconds about nonsense?” or “remember in the meeting when you meant to say profits and you said crossfit?” You start to imagine every possible situation and expound on these minor embarrassments until you are paralyzed. You’re not sure if your mind is going to snap and you’ll never be the same again or if it will ever end. What can you do?
All of these fears are my own. I’ve had times in my life where I had an anxiety attack at least 5/7 days in a week. In college I got to the point where I wouldn’t leave my dorm room except to eat. Even then I’d choose times when I knew the least amount of people would be in the cafeteria. The only way I could get to sleep was watching comedy movies over and over again until I couldn’t physically keep my eyes open anymore. I was so terrified of my thoughts that I just couldn’t bear to be alone with them without distraction but couldn’t be around people either.
Medication didn’t help very much. I’d get on something new and feel better for a couple months but then it would die down. Nothing seemed to work for very long. I had just resigned myself to the fact that I would have this for the rest of my life. After years and years of therapists, medications, books, apps, and even diet changes I had a realization.
The first thing I needed was to stop judging myself. I realized other people certainly weren’t judging me as much as I was judging myself. I needed to let myself off the hook for my thoughts and feelings. It is impossible to have 100% control over your thoughts, and insane to try. The great Stoic Seneca once said, “We suffer more in our minds than in reality.” There are no good thoughts or bad thoughts, there are only thoughts. Any meaning you think the thought has is attached by you. In Meditations Marcus Aurelius said, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” The first time I realized the truth of that statement was life changing. I didn’t have to feel a certain way about ANYTHING anymore. So my heart is racing and I feel dizzy and the world feels like it’s crashing in on me. Ok, I guess that’s happening. It probably won’t be this way forever, but if it is I’ll deal with it.
One of the big breakthroughs I had was shortly after my twins were born. I was feeling anxious all the time. I never had any energy no matter how much sleep I got. My amazing wife would get up with the kids most nights because if I dipped below 6 hours of sleep I’d constantly have panic attacks (great husband right). During the day I would even take naps on my lunch break. It became a serious strain on our marriage and there was a time I was worried I would lose her. I knew it was time to do something about it. I had been off any daily meds for a couple years and I went to my gp to ask for help. I just wanted a pill I could take for the winter to help with seasonal affective disorder. He prescribed a low dose of prozac for SAD and gave me a refill on xanax for panic attacks. A month later I went back and said I was feeling better but not great and asked if he could increase my dose. He said he could, but recommended I read Feeling Good: New Mood Therapy by Dr. David Burns because he thought that would be more helpful.
The book was a revelation. It was like he was writing directly to me. It was mostly focused on depression and my big issue was anxiety, but it was all so relevant. The book is full of exercises that help you realize what the root of your issue is. One of my favorites is called letting the script play out. It goes like this. Take a fear you have. Say it’s talking in meetings at work. Ask yourself what is the worst case scenario in a meeting at work? Let’s say it’s that you say something that lets everyone know you aren’t very competent at your job. Ok, what’s the worst outcome from that? You get fired. What is the worst case scenario from here? You can’t find a new job and you end up on the street. Then what? No one will be there to take care of you and you’ll be alone.
Once you’ve gone to the theoretical end of the line you stop and observe how you got there. Well you may be thinking, “That sounds horrible and now I have a new fear. Thanks asshole.” But the amazing thing about this exercise is now you’ve boiled down your fear to its essence. In this example you aren’t afraid of saying something stupid, you’re afraid of being alone or being abandoned by the people you care about. Now you can go through logically and ask yourself what’s more likely to happen at each step. Ok, you say something stupid. Most likely people will give you a weird look and move on. Everyone has their blind spots, maybe you just didn’t know about this one thing. People make mistakes all the time. Alright, what if it didn’t go that way? The worst happened and you got fired. You’ll probably be able to find another job, it’s hard but not impossible. Trust me, I’ve been fired more than anyone I know. Ok, you didn’t find a job and you end up on the street. Well there are shelters and charities and so many ways to get you back on your feet. There are always going to be people willing to help. You’ll find if you do this exercise for all of your fears you’ll start to see some patterns emerge. And like GI Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle.”
So I went through this book and did all the exercises. I counted negative thoughts and wrote them down. At the end of the day I’d write out rebuttals to the negative thoughts. At first it seemed like I was constantly having negative thoughts and maybe even having more than usual. But that was just a side-effect of trying to be aware of them. This is when learning not to judge myself became so important.
For me, the breakthrough moment with judging myself for my thoughts came when I was listening to The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Hate Positive Thinking. The author had an example for why it is futile to try to think positively all the time. It goes something like this:
Let’s play a game, the purpose of the game is to go as long as you can without thinking about hockey. Start right now, I’ll wait. How long did you last? 2-3 seconds? Less? The problem with trying not to think about things is the very effort of avoiding those thoughts makes you think about them at least periodically. When I told you to not think about hockey you may have tried one of a few different strategies. You may have consciously chosen to think of something besides hockey. Maybe you even thought to think of something you really love like that midnight silver Tesla you always dream about. But the problem is your subconscious mind. Immediately upon starting the challenge your subconscious was on the lookout for thoughts about hockey. Every so often the subconscious checks in with the conscious, “Have I thought about hockey yet?” The conscious mind thinks, “Hmm, hockey. Why I haven’t thought about hockey since…wait, NOOOOO!” Then you’ve lost the game.
The purpose of this exercise is to show you that trying to control your mind is impossible. Have you ever been going about your day and suddenly a thought pops into your head? Sure you have because that’s how every thought happens. You can consciously choose what to think about sometimes, but a huge portion of the time your mind does it on its own. This is going to get a little weird, but the “you” who does the active thinking isn’t the “you” who comes up with these thoughts. Some people used to believe that they came from spirits and you had to be in tune with the universe to get the right thoughts. You’ll hear a lot of artists say that their art doesn’t come from them, it comes from the universe and they’re just a vessel. They may be right, the truth is there is a lot we don’t understand about thought. What we do know is that the conscious observer, or you as you think of yourself, isn’t the source.
So if you’re not the source of your thoughts why do you judge yourself so harshly for them? If you have a thought that you’re a worthless piece of garbage and you don’t know what you’re doing in life, why should you give that thought any credence? The answer is you absolutely shouldn’t. Now, there’s an important distinction here that it took me a long time to understand. I’m not saying to ignore these thoughts and push them out of your mind. What I am saying you should simply notice the thought and let it go. Your stressful, depressing, hurtful, lonely thoughts will still come but you’ll learn to just watch them go by. That is one of the key elements of meditation. The object isn’t to clear your mind, the object is to observe and separate yourself from your thoughts. Peace and calm are just side effects.
When I’m having a panic attack what usually happens is I get a persistent thought. I then focus in on that thought and wonder why I’m having it. I start to think other related thoughts and spiral out of control. For example a while ago I was listening to a podcast with Kevin Smith and Joe Rogan where Kevin talked about his recent heart attack. For the next few days I had heart attacks on the mind. A few days later I was on a road trip and eating crappy gas station food. I got a little indigestion and heartburn. I thought, wow my chest hurts and it’s not going away. Then what if this is a heart attack. I’m too young for a heart attack. Well grandpa died of a heart attack when he was pretty young. You should google heart attack symptoms and see if you have them. Oh no, we don’t have service right now. If I had a heart attack right now we don’t even have a way to call life flight and I’d die. It spiraled out of control all because I gave that first thought the time of day. Had I just observed that “hmm, my chest hurts right now” and let it be that. The other thoughts likely wouldn’t have even occured. But instead I gave that first thought power by believing it was real and not just a passing thing. It was only when I finally started letting the script play out that I realized there was nothing to worry about. Even if my fear was true and the heartburn was a heart attack and we didn’t get cell service so I died on the highway. There was literally nothing I could do about it right now so worrying was useless.
Here is a helpful flowchart for when to worry.
One of the biggest struggles I had with anxiety was acceptance. I would always try to fight it off by thinking, not now or why now. I had been seeing doctors, taking meds, doing hypnotherapy, working out, eating healthy and still I’d have a panic attack. Why? It turns out that why is the wrong question. Why is not a helpful question in the middle of an anxiety attack, because it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that it’s happening now. It turned out that for me the most important thing was acceptance. My anxiety is all tied with control. I don’t want to drink alcohol or take the meds I’m prescribed for anxiety, or even Tylenol, because I might lose control. I know that once I’ve swallowed it there’s no going back. I don’t want to get in a car where someone else is driving because I won’t have control. I lose the ability to get off a plane and as soon as those doors close and I’m on it till it lands. “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Hunter S Thompson wrote. Those kind of thoughts would get me locked into a cycle of thought that would start to freak me out. So I’d tell myself, you can’t get nervous on this plane because there’s no way out. But that type of rigid thinking only causes more anxiety. I’d think of the rule, “You can’t freak out on a plane.” and then when I didn’t calm down I’d think, “Oh no, now you’re freaking out on a plane. You need to stop freaking out on a plane.” Then I’d proceed to self-talk like that the whole flight. It was miserable and crippling. I had this whole web of thoughts that were so constraining that they destroyed me if anything didn’t go exactly to plan.
A great way to practice acceptance is meditation. There are so many resources out there to learn. One that I’ve had a lot of luck with is Headspace. They are really good at teaching you how to meditate with zero experience. Remember that the goal isn’t to clear your mind. Lots of people get discouraged when they start meditating and realize they can’t go 10 seconds without a distraction. It’s ok, it’s all ok.
Wherever you are is where you are and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Meditation can do a lot for you. You can explore your feelings inside your body and find the deeper cause of a lot of them. To start, the biggest things it teaches are focus and calmness. The next step is usually awareness. You begin to observe your thoughts and let them pass. Over time you start to notice there are thoughts that seem to repeat. You can observe these thoughts and feelings more closely and try to figure out the root cause.
Once you have observed these thoughts for a while, you’ll start to fear them less. I’ve found that I can sit with a scary thought or emotion and just feel it deeply without trying to push it away. On a podcast with Jamie Foxx he said, “What’s on the other side of fear? Nothing.” That’s actually a really true statement. You’ll find that the fear itself is what is stopping you and the actual thing you fear is not as bad as you thought. This realization more often than not makes it go away altogether. Thinking this way took me from times where I’d have 5 panic attacks a week that would last for 45 minutes to a couple hours each to 5 panic attacks a week that would last 15 minutes each. Then 3 a week, then 1, then one a month. Now I’m at a place where I have not taken any medication for anxiety for over two years. No xanax for panic attacks, no ssri’s, nothing. If I have anxious thoughts or get to the point where I’m taking my thoughts too seriously I may end up having a panic attack. But they’re never as long as they used to be and they don’t control me as much as they used to.
I used to wake up my wife or call my mom when I’d have these panic attacks at night. I’d beg my wife to take me to the hospital because I was sure I was dying. I walked out of movie theaters crying. I’d say no to social events or if I went I’d sit in the corner on my phone. I have left multiple hockey games that I was playing in mid-game from anxiety. I didn’t really realize how bad it was and how much it strained on my relationships until my wife told me she couldn’t take it anymore. After that conversation I made a rule that I’ll never say no to an activity out of fear. I still get a heart rate of 110 bpm just walking into a movie theater or stepping on the ice rink. But I refuse to be controlled by this disease.
I think it is important for you to know that if you’re going to go on this journey you should definitely do so with the help of a medical professional. I don’t want to advocate getting off your medication. I believe it truly does help and can be essential for some people. I just don’t believe that EVERYONE with anxiety needs to be on anxiety meds for the rest of their lives. Another important note is that at first you may feel worse. It’s never easy to go digging through your shit and facing your root fears, but it is essential for growth. Also, you’ll notice that the symptoms don’t go away immediately. I still get waves of anxiety from time to time. I still get dizzy or tired or feel like I’m going to burst into tears for no reason. I still get the chest pains. But the difference is I just accept those feelings now and they either go away faster or the intensity dies down over time.
The thought that has been the biggest help for me is that I’m not alone. There are thousands of people suffering from the same thing I’m suffering from. There are people all over the spectrum of recovery. Some are further along than me, some aren’t. But I’m not alone and I never have to be. There is always someone willing to listen as long as I’m willing to be honest. It’s crucial to have someone to talk to. If you feel like you don’t have that person, you need to find that person. It can be a friend, family member, therapist, counselor. It can be anybody as long as they do two things. Listen and keep you honest. It isn’t going to help if your support system enables you to keep feeling the way you’re feeling. If their reaction every time you tell them you freaked out is, “oh poor baby” then you’re talking to the wrong person because they’ll never push you to grow. Growth requires you to be outside of your comfort zone. You have to be willing to go deep into uncomfortable territory and dig up the past feelings that are holding you back. If your support network just tries to make you feel better by telling you how hard everything is, then you’ll never get that motivation.
Here are some important things that have helped me along the way:
So many more I can’t remember.
7 Cups of Tea – Free chat support for anxiety/depression. Sometimes the best thing with anxiety is to help others because it gets you out of selfish mode.
Headspace – meditation
Calm – more meditation
Colorfy – coloring can be calming
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Stoicism – Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius are good starts. http://reddit.com/r/stoicism is pretty great too.
Buddhism – Similar to Stoicism, a bit more mysticism here but also really great messages.
Having someone to talk to is so important. If you ever need to talk, you can message me on twitter @jreisner. I’ll be as available as I can. I’m not a doctor so I can’t give medical advice, but I’m here for you. If you’re feeling suicidal, please contact someone. I promise this doesn’t last forever. Here is an up to date list of suicide hotlines with people who are available 24/7 to help. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines