Becoming Overhuman

Ascension to greatness

Anxiety: a guide for destruction

anxiety /aŋˈzʌɪəti/
noun
1. a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
If you’re a human being, it’s highly likely that you’ve experienced the feeling of anxiety: the nagging little worry that crops up now and then and you can feel it, physically feel it in your body how it twists your guts and how you have the strong urge to do something but you’re completely out of focus so you don’t know what and you start talking and you think a lot but your thoughts are less and less organized and you cannot stop and it goes and it goes and you don’t perceive anything anymore and you’re just very nervous and want to go to sleep and not think anymore but you want to do something AND YOUR MIND IS STILL GOING AND YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO AND YOU DON’T KNOW IF YOU SHOULD DO ANYTHING AND YOU’RE JUST GETTING MORE AND MORE ANXIOUS AND MORE AND MORE STRESSED AND OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG
Well, if you haven’t experienced it, good for you. If you don’t experience it on a regular basis, I am glad. I, on the other hand, do experience anxiety every now and then but, luckily, the frequency has dropped dramatically. I believe it has to do with all the work I’ve invested into self-mastery and getting myself rid of unproductive things – like anxiety.
I would like to share with you some of the key ideas you should consider if you seriously intend to stop your anxiety and get a rein over yourself.
Let’s first ask ourselves: what is it that causes anxiety? (Or what highly correlates with anxiety, what the main “parts” that make up anxiety are , what is the mechanism of anxiety?)
Here are things that come to mind when considering anxiety:
  • uncertainty with regards to the future
  • worrying about what people think of you
  • fear of authority
  • lack of control in life (or perceived lack of control)
  • unconscious thought patterns
  • lack of self-confidence and contentedness

All these things could cause anxiety, so, to us, they provide attack angles for the destruction of anxiety. This is what we will do to it, so let’s meet the enemy.

We will systematically go through the key components of anxiety, going in detail with every one and we will discuss what it is most people do wrong, why it is important not to do it wrong and we will see what we can do to stop doing these things wrong.

1. UNCERTAINTY ABOUT THE FUTURE

It is a very pervasive thought pattern – people get very stressed because they just don’t KNOW what’s going to happen in their lives. And this uncertainty can happen because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next five minutes or next five years. The problem with this whole thing is that it’s based on a flawed premise – that you should be certain about the future.

There is no reason that we should believe that future is something we should be certain about. History shows us, century after century, year after year, generation after generation, war after war – that changes are inevitable in every society and every culture. Change is the only constant. These changes don’t have to big social or cultural swings, they can be little personal things – ask your parents about their lives and try to count all the unpredictable changes they had to make, all the deviations from a plan they might have had.

You see, we tend to have this outlook on life that things have “closure”, that at some point you achieve “security”. You follow a script – you go to school, then to college, then you get a job, then you find someone to marry and have children with, then you buy a house together, then you go in retirement and then you die. You get a job and you feel like you have “security”… Your life is now safe. You have closed a chapter in your life. You did what you were supposed to do. You bought a car. You sent your kid to a good school. Secure. Safe. Untouched. “Just living your life.”

I hate to break it to you, but that’s bullshit. It’s a story plot, and you don’t get any true wisdom in life if you just follow story plots instead of trying to figure out how the world really works. And how it works is this: we survive.

You do what you need to do to survive. That’s it. Some do it smarter, some do it stupidly, but we all essentially do this one thing. The survival of the species, the highest imperative. Yeah, some get lulled into this sense of security because, to them, there is no danger. But the danger is always there, lurking somewhere in the distance – or at least it seems to be in the distance, and then you find your whole world upside down when you finally understand that the danger wasn’t that far away.

You see, if you were a gazelle or some such animal, you would understand the frailty of your own life and the web of uncertainty around it. You would know that you could die at every moment. You would understand that there are lions. If you were a smart gazelle, you would take precautions about this, but this feeling would still be lurking somewhere. And you would have to accept it as a normal, everyday occurrence – the prospect of dying a violent death. Lions would be your reality.

We humans have through the ages been trying to build buffer nets so that we don’t feel this danger. And the difference between humans from 600 years ago and the humans now is in the quantity of buffer nets we built. Today, we have two worlds: the “developed” and the “developing”. (I mean, both are developing actually, it’s not like the West is like “done, we did it, great job, no need to see any more progress”, but that’s another thought and probably not for this blog.) The people of the developed nations enjoy this buffer net – they face no lions. For that reason, and for that reason alone, they seem to think that there really are no lions. And yes, it is perfectly plausible that they won’t face lions anytime soon, but is it wise to act as if these lions were not there at all?

lion-hunting-5I mean… Can you IMAGINE a fucking gazelle just acting as if there were no lions around it? Can you imagine that shit? Of course you can’t. It seems absurd. Well, it’s equally absurd if you swap gazelles for humans and lions for any of the myriad of possible dangers man can face.

But many of us live in these buffers and we forget. Some are more protected, some less.

 

 

 

I mean, there’s nothing bad about being in a buffer. The buffer means protection. The bad thing is when you forget that you’re in a buffer. The bad thing is when you start assuming the buffer OUGHT to be there and that you DESERVE it. You don’t deserve anything. Life is danger. Life is lions.

mobility

An example of a person that is so deep in this safe buffering bubble that the only danger he faces is falling out of a fucking mobility scooter.

If you’re not sure how this helps your anxiety – after all, I’ve just increased your uncertainty about the future – this is what I am trying to say:

It’s a stupid idea that we have to be certain about the future. What we need to do instead is embrace the uncertainty and learn how to live with it.

This is important, because a certainty-mindset will always get you anxiety and you will not change quickly in face of changing circumstances. Life is not a certain thing, its standard mode of operating is continuous change and just throwing you around. Think about it like an ocean: yeah, there are certain rules to the ocean, and you have some predictive power over some things in the ocean, and you know that there are hot and cold currents, and you know what species live in the ocean. If you happen to be floating in the ocean, your knowledge of it might help you get somewhere, but you won’t for one second intend to predict how the ocean is moving. It will seem too chaotic, too overwhelming. You’ll float around, try to orient, make a mental plan of action, try to catch a current and you’ll jump at opportunities to save yourself, to survive. You’ll just kinda float and flow with the opportunities the ocean – that is, life – provides you.

Now, let me give you some practical, actionable material so that you may learn to live with uncertainty, instead of fearing it and closing yourself in a bubble and hoping for the best:

The 5 tools for thriving in uncertainty

This is the best article I’ve ever read on the topic of living in uncertainty. Read it, bookmark it and then read it again every now and then – I know I do.

2. WORRYING ABOUT WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK OF YOU

One big source of anxiety is simply having a feeling of being judged by the tribe. We humans are pretty much hardwired social animals and our drive to belong to a group is very strong. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective – that is precisely the reason we survived danger in early technological and social stages. You keep with your group and the chances are you’ll survive. That’s why even highly rational people sometimes seem to blank out and just do what everybody else is doing – it’s a very strong pattern of behavior in humans, coded somewhere deep under the layer of consciousness.

Now, it maybe makes sense to ask the question: “Well, if it is what served the species to survive, is it really a good idea to discard it now? Have the circumstances of the species changed so much?” I don’t know what would happen if everyone on Earth suddenly went full individual and quit worrying about the tribe, but I’d wager it would be like a big festival, instead of an extinction event.

The first resource you need will be this: an in-depth, well written and humorous article on how and why this tribal anxiety comes up.

Taming the Mammoth.

Now, the second resource is Tim Ferriss’ book “The 4-hour workweek”, specifically the comfort challenges he proposes in it. Why is this a valuable resource? Because by doing these uncomfortable things repeatedly and revisiting them every now and then, you insure yourself against your “mammoth brain” taking over. If you want to feel more free, less judged, less caring about the tribe around, do these challenges. They are also important because they actually make you DO something and this is a type of problem people usually only reflect upon, but don’t act upon. You act.Some of the comfort challenges are as follows:

  • For two days, say no to any and all requests. This one is very powerful in that you learn to deprogram yourself from the very automatic “Yeah, sure!” and then wondering why you accepted. (Answer: you accepted the request because you probably want to please others and fit in.) Saying no to every request (job-related or personal) is going to teach you to be strong and to set boundaries. Of course, you won’t be able to say no to all requests; after all, there are some job-related requests that will result in you getting fired if you refuse them. However, the majority of requests forced upon us is by no means resulting in immediately getting fired. Say no even though it’s uncomfortable – remember, it’s a comfort challenge. Don’t try to explain yourself too much – the shorter the more powerful. These are some of your options: “no”, “sorry, no”, “I can’t”, “Gladly, but not now”. Remember: the point is not to do or not do a specific task; the point is to say no to whatever. When you’re training to box on a bag, the point is not to destroy the bag, but to get in enough good reps in your muscle memory. That’s what you’re doing right now: training yourself.
  • Lie down in a public place. This one is a shame generator because you do a weird thing in front of a lot of people and then you behave like nothing happened. Shame is a very strong evolutionary heritage that kept the tribe a single, cohesive unit, but it is damaging for the individual. Expose yourself to doing something the tribe doesn’t do; receive shame; learn not to care about shame anymore. Simply lie down somewhere, in a café, a mall, on the main square, in a bus, in your college building. Lie down somewhere randomly and keep there for 30 seconds. Maybe people ask you why you did it: you can explain that you’re doing a comfort challenge or you can just ignore the question, that’s up to you.
  • Don’t break eye contact. For, let’s say, a week, do not break eye contact with other people before they do it. This is easiest with friends because you know them and it is much harder with strangers, especially if they look intimidating. Simply look people in the eye when speaking to them and do not look away until they have done so first. If you get caught up in a staring contest, okay, more uncomfortable, but simply force yourself to continue. When passing other people on the street, create eye contact and keep it until they look away. If you happen to look at someone that also doesn’t want to break eye contact (maybe they’re also going through the comfort challenges), a simple smile goes a long way to defuse the situation. A stare-down is an aggressive display, so you better smile if you don’t want to fight.

There are also some other valuable comfort challenges in the book, but I found these three most empowering.

The whole point of this entire paragraph is that you force yourself to do the things you want to do, despite having pressure from your peers.

3. FEAR OF AUTHORITY

One significant source of anxiety is good old fear of authority. It does make sense: when you’re conditioned to respect authority for some 18 or 20 years, sometimes even more (that is, from your birth to the time you break away from your parents) you usually have this authority-respecting neural pathway really well trodden. That is simply a way you operate. Many studies have shown that grown up people behave like authority fearing children – one of the most noted was the Milgram experiment.

This might be the most difficult to solve because we have a lot stacked against us:

  • Firstly, you simply have some 20 years of psychological conditioning to respect authority, and to make matters worse, this conditioning takes place during a very receptive part of one’s life. You might not have had authoritative parents, but there was still a time you ate what you were given, you read what you were given, you did what you were told to do, you went to bed when you were told… Authority doesn’t have to mean a whip or a stick. It can simply mean that you didn’t get to decide about your life.
  • Victim mentality or victim mode. This is related to the previous point. Victim mode is a mode of thought in which a person doesn’t feel like he or she is in control. The best way that I can think of to explain what victim mentality is, is this: it’s when life happens to you, instead of you happening to life. A victim mode person will usually not feel empowered enough to fight authority.
  • Pure unawareness. Oftentimes, people don’t even know that they have issues with regards to authority. This goes to the lack of awareness we’ll touch upon in the following paragraphs.

What’s good is that we already have a partial solution: anxiety from authority is just another type of anxiety from the tribe. You can use the solutions from the previous paragraph and it’ll get us a long way, but you have to get specific in addressing your problems – how to get rid of fear of authority.

One thing I used to do and still do is not buy a ticked for the bus or the train. Then, when the ticket controllers come, I would refuse to give them my ID, and they couldn’t write me a fine. This is a simple exercise where you are met with authority (the ticket controller) and you defy it on several different levels. Note that the point here is by no means saving money or something similar. The only point of this is to actually get into a semi-conflict and refuse to cooperate with a pressing authority. In other words, you can even buy the ticket, but what’s important is that you say you don’t have it, refuse to show it and then refuse to give ID or whatever is required of you.

The ticket controllers are a very easy source of authority compared to the police, the military and the like, and so they are a good training ground. However, where you live might not offer you this opportunity – maybe your infrastructure makes it impossible, or you simply don’t use public transport. I would not advise to resist police officers. That is, do what you think will train you, but be aware of the power relations that exist. For example, a private security guard does not have a lot of legal authority in Croatia, but in practice, they have much more authority than the law gives them. It is not uncommon to see acts of violence from them, even in situations where they would be considered – illegal. Don’t be the guy that provokes a vicious, strong enemy and doesn’t expect retaliation just because it usually doesn’t happen, or it shouldn’t happen legally. That’s like the kid that provokes the angry kid close to the teacher, sure that he won’t be touched just because the teacher is near, and then gets smacked because the angry kid simply didn’t care about it.

Another thing you might want to try is role-playing. There are certain activist organizations that do a lot of role-playing in order to train their activists how to handle police, security guards and more. I found these role-playing exercises highly stimulating and applicable in real life situations, and whenever I teach any type of real-world skill that involves adversity, I always include role-playing. But for role-playing to be effective, you have to get serious with the characters you’re playing. No playing around when playing!

4. (PERCEIVED) LACK OF CONTROL

When you lack control in your life (or you feel like you lack control), you get anxious. One part of this anxiousness is the fact that we have the need to control things. If you ask Buddhism, what we need to do is discard any need whatsoever, including the need to control our life. This is a radical solution – not that I’m saying it’s bad – but most of the people will find practical Stoicism (i.e. controlling what you can and forgetting about what you can’t) much better for themselves. If you, as most people, chose practical Stoicism, you have already solved a lot of your problems.

However, there is more to it than just Stoicism. One part of why we feel that we’re not in control is the already mentioned “victim mentality” – a mode of thought in which life happens to you, but you do not feel like you’re an active agent in it. Another part of it is unconscious behavioral patterns, of which we will talk in the following paragraph.

The main tools with which you can repair your perceived and true lack of control in life are the following: willpower training and analysis & action.

Willpower training

Willpower training gives you the raw fuel to power through difficulty. You can want to meditate all you want, but if you don’t have the willpower to actually sit down and do it, it ain’t gonna happen. The same goes for everything around you. Willpower is a virtue which needs to be practiced often and conserved when faced with difficult circumstances. But when people try to find tricks and little funny ways to do their tasks and, on a grand scale, live their lives, what they really should be doing is cultivating more willpower.

Yeah, sure you can cheat on a physical fitness test: you can not go through the entire range of motion for a specific movement, you can count a couple more reps than you actually did, you can just pass through a difficult part of it and “make up” for it by doing something else better.

But would it not be better to simply get stronger? And actually do the test completely, fully?

Replace physical fitness test with “life” and strength with “willpower” and the analogy makes perfect sense.

So, how do you go about if you want to train your power of will?

  1. Whenever you feel like not doing something, just do it anyway. The goal here is not to do or not to do a specific thing; the goal is to do it when you don’t feel like it. If you felt like it, good, you did your thing, but you haven’t done any willpower training. You have to not feel like it in order for it to be willpower training.
  2. Surround yourself with adversity. If it’s winter, go out without a coat. Shower only with cold water. Sit down somewhere you can’t possibly work and then work (examples: a place that’s too loud, too cold, where the chair is broken…). Simply attack yourself with whatever there is around you and then do the work despite it.

Bear in mind, however, that you cannot attack yourself constantly without ever taking a break. Rest is also important because rest repletes your willpower reserves. For more information on willpower and how to train and use it best, I recommend these articles as they have worked best for me:

Analysis & action

I’ve previously written on how we shouldn’t plan things. I retract this partially. Planning is and has always been a significant part of my life. I have changed my opinion about planning several times and it’s not unlikely that I’ll change it again. This is how I think about it now:

  • “Dreamy sketches” – things you’ll work on but that aren’t a priority and that will probably fade away at some point. Most people mean this when they say “plan”. An example of a dreamy sketch is “I’m going to lose weight”. Yeah, you’ll eat right for a couple of days and then life will set in and you’ll forget about that decision.
  • “Plots and schemes” – things you dedicate your breathing to. These are plans that do not get forgotten and that occupy a lot (if not most) of your mental resources. These are the plans that have an extremely strong link between the idea and its execution. SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-framed) go to this group. Double-planning (i.e. planning against yourself in advance) goes here too – “I know that my willpower will wane so I’ll throw away any junk food in my house in advance so that I simply cannot break my diet”. “If-then’s” go here to: “I will do X. If A does B, then I will do Y. If C does D, then I will do Z.” Knowing what you’ll do in possible situations in advance is “if-then” planning.
  • “Dancing in chaos” – this is when you train yourself and then put yourself in situations, and then you just react. You don’t plan anything in specific, you just do what bests suits circumstances. A most Zen approach.

All three of the above are valid ways to live one’s life and many people tend to have preferences. I myself like to keep a nice balance between dancing in chaos and plots and schemes. Dreamy sketches I do indulge in sometimes, but I find that they don’t do me much good – not to say that they’re bad, they do have a certain relaxed-but-still-future-oriented spirit , and I occasionally use them.

Now, for you to regain control of your life, you must make the painful transition from dreamy sketches to plots and schemes. You must forbid yourself to plan at all if you do not intend to fulfill the plan exactly as you planned it. This means that you will invest a lot of mental effort – and I do mean A LOT – in advance, simply thinking about things, creating lines of action, going through them in advance, and ultimately, executing what needs to be executed.

Have no doubt about it: this is going to be extremely difficult if you aren’t already doing it. You will have to change your habits enormously and make yourself accountable. This is one valuable resource. You will need much more, but this goes way beyond the scope of this post.

5. UNCONSCIOUS THOUGHT PATTERNS

We humans tend to have clever rationalizations for what we did, but the thought processes that made us do a certain thing often aren’t the same as the stories we tell ourselves. This is especially relevant in trying to fix anxieties because we are often not aware of the anxieties creeping up on us. If you are in touch with your mind (i.e. you are mindful), you will notice your anxieties forming before you experience its bad effects. Mindfulness will also help you identify your anxiety-producing triggers so that you can further introspect and develop a system of battling anxiety.

In simpler terms, you will see how you think more clearly, and this will result in lower total anxiety experienced, more self-control, faster rational thought (because the unconscious patterns don’t inhibit it as strongly anymore) and a general sense of well-being which comes naturally with mindfulness training.

How to get there? Easy. Start meditating. There are a lot of books, tools, apps and approaches; I just do regular Zen breathing:

  • assume a position (sitting, standing, lying)
  • breathe and focus the attention towards the breath
  • whenever you find yourself lost in thought, return the attention to the breath
  • try to notice when your attention wanders real-time and then return it back to the breath

I do this almost every day, sometimes just for 15 minutes, sometimes for more than half an hour. You could start with 5 minute increments and add 1 minute every day until you get to 20 or 30. Remember: meditation is daily practice, not a batched maintenance that’s “due” every Saturday. You don’t “go through” your meditation. The goal is to be present; not to have a goal.

6. LACK OF SELF-CONFIDENCE AND CONTENTEDNESS

The general mode for a lot of anxious people is the nagging disquiet mode. It’s when you’re not content with how things are playing around with you and it bugs you. This has a lot of side-problems tied to it, like lack of self-confidence and so on.

It is beside the point to explain why such a mindset is detrimental to anyone, especially to people that are trying to combat their own anxiety, so we will go directly to solutions.

There are two ways you can work on this problem: one is acceptance and the other one is self-improvement.

We have talked about acceptance in the previous paragraph and you know already that meditation is a strong tool for building acceptance of the world as it is. However, this is not always what you want to be doing. Sometimes you may want to actively change the world or yourself in order to build more self-confidence and diminish anxiety that way. Both acceptance and self-improvement are good things to do and you should probably do both because if you work only on acceptance, you essentially stay the same but more content with how things are. This is not a productive mindset and it is a passive mindset. There is nothing intrinsically bad with it, but on a certain level, we feel we should be doing good work, not accepting bad things around us. However, if you never accept the circumstances around you, you will always feel not-yet-good-enough. You will be going towards what seems to be your goal, but it will never feel fulfilled, never attained fully. You will naturally progress in your skills and you will be a better person, but not happier.

So, you should do both. To learn to accept, learn Stoicism and start meditating. But to improve yourself there is a million books and courses – what should you do? Well, the most personally tailored advice would be “listen to yourself”, but that doesn’t get us anywhere if you aren’t already in touch with your intuition (e.g. through meditation). There are certain self-improvement paths that work for practically everyone. They are as follows:

  • Exercise. I don’t even feel like searching for studies that demonstrate the positive effects of exercise on one’s mental state because it’s already common knowledge. Exercise makes you happier, more content and it’s a keystone habit, meaning that it will bring more good stuff with it. Read this article on developing habits that stick. Lift heavy, sprint and learn skills like fighting, dancing or Parkour. Doing this will partially remedy the lack of self-confidence you have.
  • Become a learner. The more you know, the more you know – and if knowledge is power (and it is), the more you know, the more powerful you feel. Powerful doesn’t go well with “not confident”, does it? Knowing things and knowing that you know them is a giant leap towards greater self-confidence. Read books, learn a language or a useful skill, become knowledgeable in a topic that is important to you.
  • Eat well. Don’t put junk in your body. For optimal performance, you need optimal nutrition.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

If you experience anxiety and want to get rid of it, these are the strategies you can use and that should yield good results. Pick and choose according to your specific issue:

  1. Embrace the uncertainty of all things and learn to thrive in it. Don’t think you need to be certain.
  2. Stop caring about what the tribe thinks about you (through comfort challenges).
  3. Stop caring about authority through role-playing and intentional low-stakes conflict with authority.
  4. Learn to control what you can and forget about what you can’t (Stoicism) and train your willpower. Also, go from “dreamy sketches” to “plots and schemes” and always follow through.
  5. Start meditating to become aware of unconscious behavioral patterns.
  6. Improve yourself through learning, moving and assimilating new skills.

The additional resources are mentioned in their respective paragraphs.

Or, if you want the ultra-short version of this 5000+ words behemoth:

Don’t give a fuck.

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