The ultimate toolkit for kicking anxiety straight in the nuts
What’s in this one?
The 10 steps of the Anxiety Annihilation Toolkit
I wake up.
I get to take about three deep breaths before it gets fast and shallow.
That’s when the morning calculations start.
My mind jolts into action and starts to fire on all cylinders:
WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO?
WHAT SHOULD I DO?
WHY HAVEN'T I DONE ANY OF THESE ALREADY?
WHAT'S MOST URGENT?
WHAT'S MOST IMPORTANT?
Sprinkle that avalanche with some mortifying moments from high school, some more recent conversational face-palms and a bit of that general purpose self-loathing, and you get the picture.
Depending on the day it's either my job, my family, my friends, my body or my relationship. There's something wrong with me, and it requires my undivided attention.
It’s barely 6:00 AM and my mind is a bucking bronco on speed.
Yep, it’s one of those days.
Anxiety is a focus stealing, energy draining douche of a feeling.
I've been letting this sneaky beast creep up on me for a very long time, but I'm not going to play the humble serf any longer.
After some heavy wrestling matches in the last two years and a legendary championship win in the last month, I feel like I have amassed a truly bombastic toolkit to make this rowdy opponent tap out and get out.
Ok, so why am I sharing this?
Because (and I might be wrong, but I don't think so) EVERYONE is suffering from anxiety nowadays.
I see a lot of people "coming out" with having anxiety and making it a broader mental health discussion. I'm not sure it's as much a mental health subject as a modern-life-is-really-hard-and-our-minds-aren't-built-for-this-shit discussion.
It's a bit of a stretch to pathologize something that affects almost every person in modern civilisation. If you're experiencing panic attacks every 20 minutes, sure, I'm with you - that's a bit extreme, and you probably should send Lassie to get help.
Anxiety medication can relieve symptoms, and in some cases, an anxiety test like the GAD7, or the Hamilton Anxiety Rating can tell if the problem is getting out of hand. What I'm talking about and what this toolkit is for is more a malaise of civilisation.
Your run of the mill anxiety is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances, and you can hack it.
So, without further ado, this is my no-nonsense toolbox to gouge this oppressive fucker's eyes out. (Again, if you're reading this on the edge of a building or breathing into a bag, yep, you might need a professional, so step away from browser, edge & bag and call someone!)
1. 🔊 Don’t trust the volume
Your mind is like the perfect cupcake that emerged at the end of millions of years of baking experiments.
99% of that baking happened somewhere in a desolate savannah or tundra and many of the failed cupcakes were instantly gobbled up by predators or fell into the ‘ole “no sex for you, loser” trap. Your epic noggin, though, is the ultimate survival cupcake.
In time, anxiety became part of the winning recipe. You needed to be kept alert to avoid being eaten or socially ostracised. Loud noises, weird glances, a rustle in the bush, some gossip, a well-placed joke, a poorly placed joke - often meant the difference between life and death. There was nothing more important than how others saw you and what your place was in the social ecosystem. That meant we could cooperate and survive and get access to that sweet, sweet intercourse.
Our brain is built for survival - not happiness.
But knowing that we have a hair trigger, ultra-loud in-built alarm system should make us smarter about how we look at anxiety.
Because of how we evolved, our emotional response is very often exaggerated.
We are made to worry, disproportionately, about everything. Though our emotions are valid and they aren’t "lies", the volume is a lie.
A goddamn outrageous blasphemy that can crush your soul if you let it.
So, notice it. Hear your emotions out, listen to their frantic speeches, but imagine your mind had a volume dial, and turn it from a 9 to a 2, where it belongs. Accept and appreciate what the emotion is trying to tell you, but gently shush it back into its snake basket.
Shhh, you dramatic bastard.
2. 🔧 Go to the hardware store
One thing I’ve learned - you can’t argue with the anxiety story while it’s going on.
In the middle of being gripped by anxiety, my mind is being a bully, poking me to reply with more thought, more rumination.
If you give in and engage with it, as methodical as you’d like to think you’ll be in solving and disentangling your thoughts, it will always win.
You can’t outthink a worry machine, because you're outnumbered. You can only brawl with one idea at a time, and soon they're lining up to infinity to kick your ass.
To keep you alive and focused on avoiding potential threats, your brain has a negative filter. It scans the world for danger and never comes home empty-handed. Even if you do manage to somehow solve a worry just by thinking hard, another one swiftly takes its place, because anxiety is a bottomless pit.
When I was growing up, I didn’t understand why my dad used to go to the hardware store in the middle of fights with my mom. He left right at the moment when I thought the match was most hardcore, most juicy, most filled with self-righteousness on both sides. He would return 2 hours later with 15 new drill bits or an angle grinder - after the storm had passed.
My fights with mom were apocalyptic, ultimatum-laden, hissing. We'd argue to exhaustion and we would get nowhere. Worse, we would say scarring, stupid things we didn’t mean, just to hurt the other person.
I now understand what the purpose of the hardware store was. It was an acceptance of the fact that there are states of mind that aren’t true just because they happen. It was a rational understanding of the limits of rationality.
When I forget the hardware store, the time-out place, and I start wrestling death-matches with my thoughts, all I manage to do is validate them. I slowly turn their faint little forest paths into highways, into rails, and make them the default, permanent soundtrack of my mind.
Molehill, meet mountain.
So, as hard as it might seem in the moment, take a deep breath and allow yourself to get some distance from the feeling.
The easiest way to do that is to get immersed in something else. Go for a run, lift something heavy, put it down, paint a mural about lizard people running the World Bank. Whatever you know you'll like.
I have no idea who said this, but I heard it on Tim Ferriss' show: "Depression hates a moving target". Well, so does its devious cousin, anxiety.
3. 📝 Dump it on paper
When I read Getting Things Done, by David Allen , I found it more useful as therapy than as a time management book. The main lesson: your brain is absolute shit at being an information storage system. So you need to move that pulsating rat king of thoughts into a separate, clear system, to allow your brain to do what it was intended to - think.
If I wake up and my mind is howling like a lovelorn banshee, the first thing I do is evacuate it.
So, I take my journal and start pouring out a mix of to-do’s, dreams, fears and battle cries from the darkest pits of hell.
I do it because I know that it’s a better place for my demons to have a death metal dubstep rave than in my brain.
On paper, feelings don't equal truth, you can judge ideas on their merit, one at a time, and thoughts don't ambush you all at once.
Dump it all there. Then pick out the actual urgent and important things and move them to a time management system. It can be the journal itself, an app, a calendar, an intricate cascading system of different coloured post-its, it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s down somewhere and you don’t have to have it all swirling in your mind, you’ve stopped feeding the monster.
It's also very cool to have a chronicle of your thoughts to look back on. There is nothing more precious in the battle with anxiety than having the chance to laugh your dentures off at what you were worried about six years or even six months ago. It gives you some much-needed perspective on the fact that you just might be worrying your life away because of pure, inconsequential BS, you silly goose.
4. 🌀 Break that egocentric spiral
What is the most common subject of anxious thoughts?
My future, my past, my success, my failures.
My fomo. Why am I not doing exciting things RIGHT NOW?
My lack of abs. Argh, should I even try?
My hair colour. Too Ukranian hooker?
Me! Me! Me!
What a self-obsessed, petulant little narcissist.
I am the Veruca Salt of worry.
Our culture is hyper-individualistic but still tied to a hierarchy, so it's not a surprise that we focus inward and obsess about our rank in the pecking order. It's an expected reaction to the fact that we've never, in the entire history of the world, had so much to compare ourselves to. Some of the poorest people in modern civilisation live longer, healthier and more pleasurable lives than Louis the XIV, but it doesn't feel like it. The contrast is too damn high.
Civilisation is a fabulous playground, but if you don't understand its constraints, it can drive you nuts.
So, what to do when you're just keeping up with the Kardashians and wondering how the hell Kylie morphed from flat-chested teenager into a hot billionaire CGI balloon animal and, more importantly, could you do the same with a little help from that Lithuanian face filler lady off Groupon?
Here's the practical step: do something for someone else. Call a friend, listen to them, bake muffins for a neighbour, help out a colleague in need. Nothing fancy, but step outside of yourself for a while.
Here's the more convoluted, spiritual, woo-ish sounding step: You need to understand that you aren't just a unique snowflake (though you are, you adorable nugget!), but you're a wave in a vast ocean. A manifestation of a more general 'humanity', a part of 'life'. You're connected to larger systems, and even though we feel this separateness, we are part of what it is to *be*. You can't have all these worries without a bloated ego to feed them. The bigger your self is, the bigger your worries surrounding it.
So, whatever you need to do to detach from this incredibly complicated and stressful story of being you, do it.
Sweat lodges, sensory deprivation tanks, strenuous exercise, meditation, "flow" states while doing needlepoint - whatever floats your metaphysical boat.
5. 👎 Go negative
People often talk about the power of positive visualisation.
Imagining yourself on a yacht, tanned and rippling with health, at 9% body fat, surrounded by your closest friends, the love of your life and a heaping helping of absurd wealth.
You know, Instagram.
It’s motivating, sure, but, Jesus Christ, is it a recipe for anxiety as well.
Our thoughts create our reality - true.
Positive thinking can be helpful in knowing where you want to go and what direction to steer in to reach your goals - absolutely.
But cranking up the “I need to own an island in the Bahamas” thoughts over the smoking cauldron of anxiety will only lead to your mind getting deep fried.
Stoic philosophers, ranging back to the 3rd century BC, would have deleted Instagram. Instead, they recommended negative visualisation.
In the words of Seneca: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality”.
Anxiety is that imagination, and it may be counterintuitive, but it's good to let it run wild. Let it run to the outer edge of horror. It will soon exhaust itself as the worst case scenario isn’t as bad as all the little suffocating moments anticipating it.
So, take everything terrible to its extremes.
You lose your job - you get another one.
Your partner leaves you - plenty of fish.
And horror of horrors, we will all die - So what? The year 2578 bothers me just as much as the year 1578, as I won’t be around for either.
The worst case scenario has a way of being infinitely better than the gnawing worries that precede it. Make your peace with the worst and see your anxiety fade, because you can’t be consumed by the fear of something you already expect.
6. 💩 The life-changing magic of not drowning in shit
Magical, personal, beautiful stuff.
Of all the stuff in the world, I love my stuff the most.
There's something mystical about collecting objects.
A few are useful.
Then there are the ones with sentimental value.
Then there are the status ones, shiny, signalling to others that you're a hip, important person. You've got Yeezys, or Warby Parker frames, or vegan Crocks, or whatever the current status symbol is in your particular tribe. Then, there is the stuff you buy to tell yourself the story about who you are. Buying books you'll never read that whisper "I'm a reader, I'm an intellectual." Buying five sports bras for that faithful gym membership that never renews.
The average American household has around 300.000 objects in it. Other western countries might score a bit less, but still, we are drowning in possessions.
This stuff represents hundreds of thousands of items your brain has to catalogue and keep in working memory somehow. A mighty tricky task, especially if they're all over the place.
If you live in a cluttered space, your brain is living under a constant barrage of buzzing distractions. Anxiety, ever the watchful bastard, loves to pounce on that sensory overload.
These three simple (but not easy) steps helped me banish the clutter buzz:
1. Gift or throw away everything that serves no purpose. Be ruthless.
2. Organise the things you have in such a way that they're not in the way, and you can find them if you need them.
3. Stop buying crap. You don't need it. Your ancestors survived for decades with a sock, a wooden spoon and a straw mattress. You'll be fine without a courgette spiraliser.
Once your space is clear, your mind has a bit more free room to focus on what you want to accomplish, or what's interesting in the moment, without constantly stepping on that proverbial Lego.
A great book to read on this subject is The life-changing magic of tidying up by Marie Kondo. Or if you're lazy and don't want to read an entire book on folding t-shirts, watch this video by Lavendaire - she nails it.
7. 📵 The revolutionary art of stepping away from the phone
I'm speaking from a place of deep experience here. I'm practically welded to that little dopamine dispensing machine, and this is very very hard.
I quit both smoking and drinking this year, but I'm still on my phone between 2-4 hours a day.
This is me cutting down. My peak was 9 hours.
I'm going to give it to you straight - you probably will need to take it easy with the social media.
I know, you want to feel connected, you want to see what your people are up to, what's going on in the world. All fine and good, but we both know that's not the only thing you're doing.
You might feel like it's not affecting you, but it's subtle. You're spending hours looking at people's meticulously curated highlight reels and involuntarily comparing them to your blooper reel. It's an unfair match, and you're losing. Your brain's ancient survival system is going nuts. It's constantly measuring your social status against your reference group. Compared to the unscalable wall of status that is Instagram, you're a beta. One of the dunces of the tribe.
Well, we all are.
It's important to have role models, to be ambitious, but the only way to grow is to compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. Yep, this one is brought to you directly via my Jordan Peterson obsession lobe that has grown steadily in the past few years. It looks like a baseball-sized tumour, but it's chock full of wisdom, I swear!
Also, mind the attention span.
Your precious, fragile, fleeting attention span.
We've blasted it out of existence and I'm mourning mine every day.
I miss my capacity to watch a two-hour movie without flailing around like an addict searching for my phone. The unencumbered beauty of spending a whole day reading a book. The now seemingly miraculous patience of waiting for a page to load for more than 5 seconds (remember dial-up?).
All gone out the window.
A modern smartphone is an incredible servant, but a terrible master.
And feeling your way to the place where your mastery ends and the edge of slavery starts is very hard.
That's why quitting alcohol and smokes was relatively easy for me. Cold turkey works.
My phone, though - that's an like an organ.
Ok, so here are a few tips that helped me reduce my contact with my phone, or Mr Dopey McDopamine, as I lovingly refer to him when we cuddle.
1. Grayscale - make your phone screen ugly, so the pretty colours won't make you wild with desire to fiddle with it.
2. Keep social media on the browser. Delete your social media apps and only visit them through the browser. This one works so-so, as I tend to find something to do with the phone anyway. I edit photos from 2 years ago or look at my bank statements. I'm a lost cause, but it does work pretty well if you manage to banish exciting apps from your phone and render it almost useless. Good luck, brave soldier.
3. Physically keep it away from you. Don't sleep with it in the same room. Put it in your bag at work. Lock it in a safe. Put a chain around the safe. Throw the safe into the heart of the ocean. Call James Cameron from a friend's phone if you really, really need it back.
8. 🚽 Treat your body like a friend, not like an army latrine
This one is a bit of a no-brainer, but here we go.
Even though it often doesn't feel that way, you are your body, and your body is you. You need to treat this little creature in your care like it's a friend, rather than think: "What can I get away with?" and pummel it into submission. Your body is pretty resilient, but its revenge is that it can drive you crazy, and stoke the fires of your anxiety by squirting you full of stress hormones.
Here's the body love trifecta:
Exercise, but do something fun, that feels good and doesn't feel like torture. If you're really out of shape and sedentary, accept that EVERYTHING will feel like torture in the beginning. That's ok. Soreness is a sign that it's working. Swollen wrists and tenderised knees - not so much.
Be kind. You want to be able to move again tomorrow.
Eat healthy with the knowledge that you're fuelling and caring for your good friend, the bod. Eat until you don't feel hungry anymore, not until you risk it leaking into your lungs.
Also, not to be tyrannical, but quit sugar, that stuff is poison.
Sleep enough, so you don't have to prop your adrenal system up with 6 cups of coffee. If that's 6 hours, cool. If that's 9 hours - go to sleep, NOW.
And, voila, one step closer to a peaceful existence.
Your body will repay a little kindness with kindness.
9. 🔍 Pay attention to what you're paying attention to
🚨Woo alert: Level 3 on the Chopra scale🚨
Anxiety is always about either the past or the future. It's an excessive preoccupation with all the things that aren't NOW. It's focusing on how to bring about some desired outcome and an obsession with all the ways it could go wrong, or why you're not worthy, or why you shouldn't even try. You know the drill.
But everything that has ever happened has happened in the now.
Past and future are necessary abstractions that our mind creates to be able to store both memories and hopes/fears/simulations.
They are tricks that manage to torture us endlessly.
Being able to pay attention to the continuous now is the killer app in the anxiety annihilation game. There is no anxiety in the present because there is no past, no future, just the playground of the now.
Ok, now it seems that what I'm saying is that to get rid of anxiety you need to reach enlightenment. Yeah, sure, ideally.
But there is a lot of value in the intermediary steps between being a bundle of anxiety trapped in brain mirages and ascending to Nirvana as a meta-being living in the continuous present.
Meditation can help here.
I've tried Vipassana (Mindfulness), Metta (Loving Kindness) and TM (Transcendental Meditation).
To be honest - I couldn't stick with any of them.
The meditation adventure did leave me with flashes of insight that I still use to gain a bit of perspective. If you can develop a meditation practice, more power to you. But the benefits have been almost instant in my case, and have lasted.
The central realisation that Meditation brought me is that there are two minds. They are: "the hamster wheel" and "the watcher".
The hamster wheel is the frenetic voice, the constant yapping, the mysterious source of feelings. Ole' Wheely is the purveyor of fine anxiety.
The Watcher is the mind that hears the voices. Not like the Son of Sam, more like the Architect from The Matrix. A control room supervisor.
Once you can feel the distinction between the two minds, it's easier not to be "fused" with your thoughts. To be able to see that you're not your thoughts, they are just what's playing on the screen in the control room.
So get your popcorn out and stretch your legs, this movie is about to get much more interesting once you manage to see the big picture.
10. 🛏️ Get your life in order
Anxiety is a function of chaos.
It grows and festers in places without structure.
I used to live one of the most unstructured lives you can imagine. In my youth, I had the luxury of not having to work and could essentially do whatever I wanted with my time. And I did. I slept at strange hours, woke up at random times, I ate either once or six times a day.
Every day seemed like a wonderland of opportunity, but, in reality, it was a hellscape of anxiety. It's the same feeling as when someone asks you to "write an essay about anything you want" or "draw anything you want". Your mind instantly cranks up the anxiety.
Even creativity needs constraints to flourish.
If you wake up and have to decide what you're going to do with your day, you're set up for anxiety. In the olden days, there wasn't much choice of how to structure your day, the rhythms of agriculture or foraging were dictated by nature and the simple fact that in the past the collection, production and consumption of food was a 24/7 job. Your schedule was't a choice.
Our minds aren't built to deal with an almost infinite smorgasbord of options every morning.
The solution I found for myself: create structure.
Decide what you want to get done before the next day, put it in your diary, and most importantly (!) - set your sights low enough so you can succeed. You need to learn to trust this pact that you're making with yourself. Every day you succeed, your relationship with yourself gets stronger.
Most people severely overestimate what they can do in a day, so setting achievable goals and kind standards will keep you going and help you avoid another kind of anxiety - the Never-Ending-To-Do List.
Set your goals and tasks with purpose and compassion and don't be afraid of routine.
I know, routine sounds like pulling teeth in slow motion, but "you are what you repeatedly do". What you do every day matters much more than what you do once in a while. So, optimise, lay the groundwork for some positive habits, and put them in your schedule. Try to stick with it.
Realise that you won't at first. You'll get 30% of your tasks done. That's something. Aim for 40% next time and hit 35%. Looks like nothing, but it's actually about a 15% improvement.
Creating the routine, keeping the structure is more important than doing everything in one day.
And keep iterating.
Every day you have 24 hours to work on making the next 24 hours better.
Books that really help
These books are pure anxiety busting gold.
They haven't been purposely designed with the idea of eliminating anxiety, but they do the trick better than most books that have "Anxiety" on the cover.
The Happiness Trap - Russ Hariss
Getting Things Done - David Allen
Radical Acceptance - Tara Brach
If video is your jam, here’s the vlog version: