“I try not to worry about the future – so I take each day just one anxiety attack at a time.” – Tom Wilson
Anxiety lives inside us all.
It’s an innate, perfectly human reaction we’ve developed as a defense mechanism to our environment.
Tiger over there? Oh shit, better run.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to live constantly fearing for our lives. But, without those natural stressors, it’s almost as though anxiety doesn’t know what to do with itself. As a result, it manifests in strange and uncomfortable ways.
Several years ago, as I laid curled up in my bed, I was experiencing what I could only describe as absolute hell: a panic attack.
“I Must Be Dying. Oh god. Oh god. Oh god…”
It was a Friday night. My friends were all going out to some college house party. It sounded like a lot of fun, and I’m sure it would’ve been…if I had gone.
Instead, I had spent the early evening researching throat cancer, panicking because I appeared to have all the major symptoms.
Difficult swallowing? Check.
Sore throat? Check.
Weight loss? Check.
Swelling of the eyes, throat, or neck? Check. Check. Check.
Somewhere inside my head, I knew I wasn’t actually dying. I had been here before. In fact, many times before. Anytime I’d experience some sort of symptom or feeling I wasn’t familiar with, I spiraled down this dark hole of “I must be dying. Oh god. Oh god. Oh god.”
But, I couldn’t help it. Anxiety and negative thinking had ruled much of my life since I was a teenager graduating high school.
The Beginning of the End
I had had enough. That panic attack was the last straw. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.
Everything I tried up until that point had been a failure. I saw more doctors and took more prescription pills than I could keep track of.
I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I did what any other nerd would do when they’re at their wit’s end – I started reading.
Books on anxiety were much different than the stuff I’d read online. Long-time sufferers were claiming they healed their anxiety through better habits and other lifestyle changes.
My initial reaction was, “yeah, right.” But then those clever authors won. They got me to look at how I was living.
I had stopped exercising regularly. My diet was crap. I had overloaded myself with school activities, my grades, and my job. My sleep habits were erratic at best.
To top it all off, I was drinking my face off every weekend.
Maybe it was time for some change. What did I have to lose? At that moment, I vowed that I would do whatever it took to heal my anxiety.
I knew I would have to make some sacrifices, but I was OK with it. Anything was better than suffering for eternity.
First, I Gave Up Alcohol
Let me start by saying this – today, I still drink alcohol, though nowhere near as much. But back then, I gave it up completely.
At the beginning of my healing journey, I spent almost 4 months entirely alcohol free. It was the single greatest contributor to anxiety in my life. I don’t know why, but every time I drank, I felt extremely anxious.
Alcohol masked that feeling past a certain point, but it simply wasn’t worth how I’d feel the morning after.
It would start with a hellacious bout of sleep paralysis. Demons coming out of my chest in the morning? No thanks. After waking up, I felt jittery, depressed, and overwhelmed.
I was sabotaging my own happiness, and it had to stop.
Within a few weeks of giving up alcohol, I noticed a drastic improvement in my anxiety. Sure, I’d have to find something else to do when all my friends were out partying, but it was worth it.
Instead of drinking, I started suggesting walking to the gym to play pick-up basketball, going to the movies, playing catch, or ultimate frisbee. Really just anything that didn’t involve alcohol.
Turns out I didn’t need booze to have fun. The 4 months went by pretty fast, and I was feeling better than I’d felt in years.
By this point, everyone’s heard that you are the average of the 5 most people you hang around with. It’s true, and it doesn’t just apply to finding success.
The people I hung around with most loved to drink (what a surprise). Since I had just given up alcohol, it was probably best to ditch some of those friends as well.
I loved them to death, and it hurt telling them no, but if alcohol was involved, I didn’t want any part of it. Some of them understood, others didn’t. I guess that’s life. We’re all on our own unique path and we have to do what’s best for us.
Relationships are so much more important to our anxiety than we know. Toxic ones, especially draw from our internal happiness. They weigh us down and cause lots of inner turmoil.
Ending an intimate relationship, whether with a friend or lover, is never easy, but sometimes it’s for the best. After you’ve healed your anxiety and are in a better place, you can always revisit that person and see if they’re worth bringing back into your life.
Visits to the Doctor
I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not a doctor, and if you think you need to see one, then you absolutely should.
For me, I had reached my limit.
I had seen 4 or 5 doctors in the span of a few months, and nothing worked. They ran all sorts of tests, gave me medication to treat my symptoms, but at the end of the day, I still suffered from my underlying anxiety.
No more pills. No more prescriptions to mask the problem. I wasn’t getting any better and once I knew I wasn’t actually dying; I could instead focus on making much needed lifestyle changes.
One of the best things I did for my anxiety was give up the doctors, the medical bills, and false hope. I started looking internally for a cure, and that’s when things began falling into place.
I mentioned earlier that my sleep habits had fallen to the wayside since heading off to college. Not coincidentally, I had also spent my nights lying in bed, scrolling through the highlight reel that was my Facebook feed.
As someone who loves comparing himself to others, this wreaked havoc on my self-esteem. Why were all these people so happy? Somewhere on the inside I knew they were people, too, with the same kind of issues I was having. But subconsciously, I was only taking in the best part of their lives.
I couldn’t help but compare myself, and that didn’t do much for my well-being.
Also, I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a major reason I couldn’t fall asleep. Instead of properly unwinding and easing into bed at night, I laid awake incessantly scrolling through my phone. I easily lost an hour or two of sleep each night because of it, and a good night’s sleep is super important for anxiety sufferers.
I ended up replacing the bad habit with mindfulness and learned to become OK with my thoughts and fears. I started falling asleep much easier. Plus, my anxiety symptoms were getting better and better.
Lastly, Material Possessions
Somewhere along the way, people started believing that more was always better. I regretfully admit that I jumped right on that band wagon, too.
I had accumulated a fair amount of debt being a poor college kid. Some might say I wasn’t the most financially intelligent. Whatever. Stuff made me feel good. At least I thought that was the case.
It wasn’t until I started getting rid of my possessions that I found reprieve. The things that I owned weren’t making me happier, they were weighing me down.
I immediately ditched about 50% of my clothes. I even made a good bit of money doing it.
Then, I turned to the weird trinkets and awards I had been clinging onto over the years. And yet again, I felt a little bit better.
I vowed to stop buying things unless I absolutely needed them. Over time, I became more financially stable, which greatly helped my anxiety, and I began to appreciate experiences over material possessions.
My fiancé today would agree that she’s glad I enjoy exploring the world with her rather than having the latest iPad.
One by one, as things were eliminated from my life, I noticed my anxiety subsiding. It was truly freeing to experience even the slightest reprieve from the hell I’d been living for several years at that point.
By no means am I suggesting that you need to give up all of the same things in order to heal your anxiety. Nor am I suggesting that you need to give them all up at once.
Anxiety is the epitome of what I like to call a “personal problem.” What’s helped me heal mine may not necessarily heal yours. Though I can say that others I’ve shared this with have experienced similar results.
The Anti-Anxiety Playbook
Instead of giving up the same stuff I did all at once, you should try eliminating one thing at a time over the next several weeks.
First, you will have to do some research on yourself to see what your biggest anxiety triggers are. For me, alcohol was a clear culprit, so it was incredibly easy to identify and eliminate.
The rest took me a little bit of experimenting to figure out. Your situation will likely require some similar action.
Once you find your triggers and begin eliminating them, start taking notes about how you feel. If giving up something like alcohol doesn’t bring you noticeable improvement, then you should try something else.
One by one, you can start weeding out the bad things that contribute to your anxiety. It won’t be easy, but I promise you it’s worth it.