Fighting anxiety, one of our worst enemies


I have written about Worrying in earlier posts, but Anxiety is a much deeper issue. Anxiety involves the physiological and psychological aspects related to the primal concept of fear, and is an inborn condition. Those who suffer from anxiety have minds that look for, and find, something to fear. They are in a perpetual state of analyzing, questioning, and stressing about what they are doing, what they must do, and what they have already done. Yes, anxiety sufferers are able to worry about the past, even though it has already happened and no one can change it. And I know how it feels, because I am one of them.

Below, I enumerate some ways to cope with anxiety and lead an overall happy and tranquil day-to-day life.

First is recognizing what anxiety is. Please recognize that being nervous, worried, and fearful all the time, with your mind racing and affecting your mood and even your physical health, means that you have an anxiety problem. For most of my life I didn’t diagnose myself as an anxiety-sufferer, whereas I should have known it from early on. “Know thy enemy”, as the old saying goes. Anxiety, unlike simply worrying about a tangible task you must complete or event to happen, never completely goes away. It will be with you throughout your life. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize its influence.

Recognizing that you have an anxiety problem means also recognizing when your anxiety is influencing your mood and your decisions. When you start thinking that your whole life is terrible, that something awful is going to happen, and expecting the worst, it means you are having an anxiety attack, or panic attack. Like a city under attack, your mind is scrambling and is “all over the place”. You are “catastrophizing”, imagining the very worst-case scenario, and not thinking rationally. Knowing that you are under attack helps you realize that your ultra-negative thoughts are not reasonable.

Hence, when your thoughts become dark and panic fills you, recognize that this is your anxiety, not your Reason. Classify it accordingly. And then follow the suggestions I give below to fight back against future attacks.

Second, one great tactic for decreasing anxiety is to remove the things from your life that contribute to your anxiety. This is easier said than done, so let’s start with the “low-hanging fruit”, to use a popular phrase. Some of the worst agents or “coefficients” of anxiety are stimulants. Caffeine is the worst, and should never be used. If you need a jolt of energy, eat an apple or other fruit, or even a small piece of chocolate. Remove caffeine from your diet completely. Cigarettes are also an anxiety agent. Another deceptive accomplice of anxiety is daily alcohol consumption. Yes, alcohol is a depressant rather than a stimulant — but as your body gets used to that daily depressant, it starts to require it, and the withdrawal effect of even one day can be the same as taking a stimulant. Do not drink alcohol every day. Limit it to one or two nights a week, and not heavy doses. You’ll thank yourself for it in the morning, as hangovers lead to panic attacks.

Aside from things you physically ingest, watch out for what you ingest mentally. Caring too much about the news (which is always negative) or sports teams is a way to get anxious over things that do not directly affect your life. As I say to depressive people, never listen to the news in the morning. It’s not there to make you feel better!

Third on my list for fighting anxiety is Exercise. You don’t have a choice here. The benefits of exercise are 50% mental, and part of this mental benefit is a reduction in anxiety levels. Make sure that your exercise is not just “going through the  motions”, but rather, exercise that has you sweating and puffing. You want to be focused on a goal with your exercise: doing a certain number of push-ups and sit-ups, running a sprint in a certain amount of time (short distances are better than long). The harder your exercise is, the less you think, and Overthinking is anxiety’s ugly cousin. Putting the body to work helps decrease anxiety.

Fourth: In addition to exercise, find other activities that actively enable you to relax. My advice is to avoid competitive games, as you will worry about losing. Some of this will be found out by trial-and-error. I personally tried crossword puzzles and found that they actually increased my anxiety levels, as I became stressed about being able to answer every question. In short, you want to be pleasantly distracted. Watching funny TV shows or movies, going to church, being with people who are easygoing, doing repairs around the house, getting involved in charity work, and even reading a “page-turner” novel are remedies.

My fifth point involves going on the offensive. Hitherto, my advice has been “defensive”, and reactive. But it is also good to be proactive. This requires such a deep transformation of the mind that it happens gradually, so don’t expect it to happen overnight. You must develop a mentality that is so well-armed against anxiety that anxiety knocks at the door but cannot enter. To accomplish this, I recommend combining a positive outlook on life with the overall mentality encouraged by Stoicism.

Now, Stoicism gets a bad “rap”, as it is often defined as indifference to both pain and pleasure. Many feel that it is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. However, stoicism is not as harsh or as binary as that. Here are the general tenets:

  • Practicing the four cornerstones of Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance
  • Peace of mind (serenity) helps us to endure suffering
  • Self-discipline
  • Accepting and not fearing death
  • Respect for Logic and Reason
  • Accepting the fact that change is constant and that we have no real control over life
  • Trying your best to stay focused on the present (this is what Exercise helps us so much with)
  • Trying to live in harmony with Nature — not just physical “nature”, but rather, living in harmony with the Universe
  • Finally, enjoying the internal freedom that we have

Notice that self-discipline is one of the principles. When we do things to excess, we have to worry about the effects of excess. Getting fat, getting worn-out, being broke — these are the effects of excess eating, staying up too late, and careless spending.

The Stoic way of life is not a boring, colorless existence. Rather, it removes many of the causes of our anxiety, and encourages us to accept so many of the things about life that we cannot change: the past, death, the will of the universe, and Change itself. While there are several Stoic philosophers to read, I recommend having a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at your bedside. I always have one at mine.

A final note on fighting anxiety: For some, including myself, great comfort comes from a belief in God and the reassurances given by Christ. I have written about Christ’s message against worrying and anxiety in Matthew 6 (please find article here), and actually, the entire New Testament is a powerful tool to learn and use against anxiety. Having faith that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present God, who only asks for your love and for you to treat others kindly, reduces your anxiety and gives you a simpler and more positive perspective on life. Believing that great joys await you in the afterlife enables you to have less fear of this life — and indeed, of death.

By Tom McKinley, author of Winning the Fight to Be Happy and Make the Right Decisions Early.

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