Saturday, 9 October 2021

Things I Learned From Dealing With Anxiety

I've had anxiety issues for about 25 years of my about 35 years of being alive. It all started with claustrophobia. I knew my mother had it. When we went to visit Bear's Cave together with some other relatives, she snuck out right after the tour started. After the tour I learned that she was claustrophobic, which meant that she was afraid of being inside confined spaces. I didn't think about it much. Until I came face to face with it, that is.

I was probably somewhere around the age of 10. I was with my mom visiting some family friends. While the adults were chatting somewhere, I was playing with another boy, 5 years older. Him being bigger and me not weighing much, he proposed a game: I would go into a big bag which could be zipped closed, and he would grab it and spin around with me in it. It was fun, sort of like being in an amusement park ride. So, I agreed with doing it again. But after he stopped, and time came to let me out he said: "The zipper won't budge." I don't think I took him seriously at first, but after a few seconds, panic filled my whole body - a terrible sense of dread. My first thought was of being outside, having fun, and yearning for that feeling. I wanted out NOW. I'm not sure whether I actually verbalized it, but I wanted him to bring a knife and get me the hell out of that bag ASAP. I started pushing and squirming and suddenly I was free. Not sure if that's what did it or if he just lied about the zipper being stuck (probably the latter), but it doesn't matter. That's when I realised what my mother felt in that cave. That was when I personally met panic attacks.

And from then on, anxiety has lived with me, and it has grown together with me. At first, I was just afraid of closed spaces, of completely dark hallways, of elevators, of big crowds. I could live with that by simply avoiding claustrophobic situations (taking the stairs is good for exercise!). If I couldn't help it and a panic attack kicked in, it would pass once the situation was gone, or if I engaged in something else. (That's why I could actually attend lots of concerts, despite crowds.)

But then this sort of fear crept into my normal life as well. Starting with high school, once every few years I would go through periods (weeks, months) in which I was very anxious, and panic could set at any point. This is most annoying because there is no getting out of it. If you are in an elevator, anxiety fades away once you get out. But I didn't know what to get out of, nor how. Even if, say, I was ok at school, or at work, when it came time for bed, there was nothing to engage with, other than the feeling of dread. There were no walls constraining my freedom, there was just this feeling that I had no freedom. Each day was a struggle to feel normal, instead of angst. But I would fight through those weeks, and somehow it would pass.

It started affecting more and more parts of my life: it started appearing while being out with friends, in meetings at work, stuck in traffic, and all sorts of situations you would probably not even believe.

I always thought that this is something I need to handle myself. I was afraid of going to a specialist because I was afraid of how medication would affect me. But when it became so unbearable, this turned into a glimmer of hope. So, I embarked on a journey in which I learned a lot and I'm still learning. I was right about needing to handle it myself, but I didn't know how. I had no idea actually, and I had no idea I was so clueless. So here are some of the lessons I learned, in no particular order. Maybe they will be helpful to others.

1. Mental health is just as important as physical health. The importance of exercising, having a healthy diet, and caring for our body in general, is well understood, even if not always properly prioritized. The same should apply to taking care of our minds. And this is something that very few people realize. We take the way our minds work as a given, as something mostly unchangeable. The reality is quite opposite. Just like our bodies decay from bad habits, so does the mind. And just like we keep our bodies healthy and fit, we have to do the same with our minds. It’s really something that needs to be taught to all people, starting from a young age. Until this becomes institutionalized, we just have to learn this ourselves.

2. Do your research. Whatever is bothering you, someone else went through it as well. Search the web, find out what other people did. Find books on whatever you are suffering from. Look both for what you can do to deal with it, but also to understand it.

3. How the brain works regarding thoughts and emotions. We are currently in an evolutionary purgatory. Human brains are basically an animal brain with a special extension. The animal brain is what helped us survive, while the part that is distinctly human has helped us come to this point where we are basically immune to any everyday Terran danger. And at this point, the two parts are at odds with each other.

The animal brain is equipped to react to any outside events. Hear a rustle in the leaves? The brain triggers fear making the animal run. Smell some juicy food? The brain triggers some happy hormones, making the body urge for whatever delight might be producing the aroma.

The thing is humans don't need to work like that anymore. We don't have any reason to be afraid of rustling leaves, or of closed spaces (except if you actually are locked somewhere). But that mechanism is still there. It has some basic fears pre-programmed, and it can learn new ones, just like a dog will learn that when they hear the cupboard door, it means food time. This mechanism is embodied in what is called the amygdala and which I will call "the animal brain". It's what triggers chemicals through your body in response to external stimulus. It's what triggers the fight or flight response. When the leaves rustle, it's probably a wolf or something, so better trigger some chemicals to make the body more alert, more aware, and ready to run.

And it's unconscious. You have no idea what the conditions for it being triggered are, not what new patterns it has learned. For example, I read the story of an ex-soldier who would have panic attacks whenever he took a shower at home. He had no idea why, until he realised the soap that he used had the same smell as the one he used when he was on the front.

Brains are very good at pattern matching. They constantly analyse the environment, through the data they are fed from our five senses. You have no idea what data the brain chooses, and it might not be the smartest choice. Like in the example before, the soldier's brain somehow noticed that when the smell of soap was present, there was also fear present in the soldier. Thus, it learned that when it detects the smell of soap, there is probably danger around, so it better trigger those chemicals that make the soldier prepared: be alert, ready to make quick decisions, but also be afraid to make a bad one, like revealing yourself to the enemy.

If you were conscious of your animal brain, if you had access to how it works, you could say to it: "Hey brain, this isn't good, the soap has nothing to do with it. It's the sound of bullets, smell of smoke, and stuff like that, that tells me I'm in danger." And you could just fix your programming. That's how your human brain works, isn't it? It's rational. For example, if you're walking down the street and see a juicy hamburger, half-eaten and thrown in a garbage can, your animal brain would trigger the feeling of hunger and craving. Indeed, if you were an animal, you would probably just take that burger and eat it. But your human brain says: "No, it's a bad idea, I will probably get sick if I eat it. I'll just eat something when I get home." You simply overrode your initial thought, because you saw it was wrong, so you fixed it. You just can't do that with your animal brain.

That's not really the problem. Like I said, this partnership of the two brains is how we got to this point of human progress. Here is where the conflict is. On the battlefield, the soldier most probably didn't panic when he was in danger. He was alert, he was afraid, maybe terrified even, but not paralysed by panic. In fact, those feelings helped him survive. Were he feeling laid back, with no worry, he would have probably got a bullet through the head at one point or another.

So what's different when he is in the shower? Sure, the animal brain would trigger that fear response, but that didn’t lead to a panic attack when the soldier was in the midst of gunfire. Why would that be the case in the shower, where he is safe?

Try to put yourself in the body of the soldier and imagine how the human part of the brain would react. First of all, it notices that the body is in alert mode. Remember, it does not know why the amygdala triggered the alert. It can't tell if it's a good reason (sound of bullets) or a bad one (smell of soap). So it assumes it's a good one. (Because your ancestors did the same when they heard leaves rustling. The ones that didn't were eaten by wolves sooner or later.) Then it tries to figure out what is going on. Well, you're in the shower... what on Earth could be wrong? Even if you are sure there is no danger (which is usually the case), the human brain can't just tell the amygdala "Hey, relax, it's nothing, I know." Why? Because the amygdala only responds to patterns it learned. And you trying to tell it to relax is not something it learned. In fact, it can still feel the smell of soap. So, alert mode stays on. What can our poor human brain do now? Well, it still tries hard to make sense of what is going on. And probably you're not helping it either, because you're telling it: "Hey, brain, I'm really feeling uncomfortable here. Please do something about it". And the brain scrambles to solve the issue but since it has no chance of figuring it out, it just adds gas to the fire. It's even worse if you know that the feeling is a panic attack. Because then you're saying "no, I don't want to feel this, please make it go away." So now the animal brain detects this as well, because besides the five senses, it also analyses your thoughts. (That's why when you suddenly realize something like "Oh, crap, I forgot to lock the door!" you feel a brief rush of fear in your body.) When the amygdala sees that you repeatedly react in the same way to a certain event, it will learn that as well. In the case of anxiety, it will see that you fear anxiety itself! When you think "I don't want to feel this", your animal brain detects that. And it also detects that the feeling is still there (because where could it have gone?) and so it triggers more chemicals to be released. And that's why you get panic attacks, and you get in such an utterly crippling state even though you were just taking a harmless shower.

It’s a vicious loop, in which your human brain can’t understand what your animal brain is doing, and your animal brain is too dumb and limited to have a proper conversation with your human brain. Until generations pass and we evolve better brains or self-improve our genes, we will always be plagued by this conflict. That is the cause of our struggles, and we can only learn to deal with it.

4. Reasoning with yourself won't help. The trigger for what you feel in your body is the amygdala, your animal brain. Like I said before, you can't just calm yourself by saying things like "Relax, there is no danger, everything is fine." Because the animal brain doesn't understand reason, it talks “animal” language. It only knows patterns. You can alleviate the immediate response through techniques like deep breathing because that is a signal to the body to relax. But long-term, the solution is to unlearn those patterns. Or, more correctly, to overwrite them with new ones. That's why you have to face your fears to treat them. Touch a spider and see that it won't kill you if you're arachnophobic. Sit in a confined space and let your animal brain notice there is no danger, if your claustrophobic. The soldier would have to associate the smell of soap with something pleasant. Do it enough times and the brain will learn that association is actually something good.

5. In the end it all comes down to habits. It's bad habits that lead you to the current situation: years and years of involuntarily training your brain to respond unhealthily to different situations. It's good habits that will make things better. That takes a lot of practice, consciously looking for things that don't work in your life and replacing them with things that do. It's hard, and your mind will probably resist. You will often fail, but the most important thing is that you are consistent. How you react to this process is also important. Being kind to yourself, having patience and being disciplined are good habits to incorporate. Wanting results over night, being frustrated when you fail or when things are not going how you expected, are not good habits and they will make it hard for you to make progress.

6. Adopt healthy habits. Besides trying to identify habits that directly affect your mental wellbeing, adopting good habits regarding your health in general will help a lot. Have a stable sleep schedule. Take regular breaks from work. Don't drink too much coffee. Don't consume too much alcohol, or too often. So on, and so on. Basically whatever your parents taught you to do and you disliked, are good things to adopt. Not doing that will give wings to those nasty thoughts, or it will put you in a bad mood, in which anxiety and depression thrive.

7. Exercise helps a lot. It has a big impact. And this is something proven scientifically. Not only will you feel better because of improved health, but it also releases chemicals that make you feel better in the moment. Also, it makes the brain more malleable, more predisposed to adopting new patterns (hopefully you will teach it good ones). It doesn't have to be much: 10 minutes a day, 30 minutes every other day, 1 to 3 hours a week - whatever you can and suits you.

8. The secret is acceptance. Learn to be comfortable with your emotions. Pain comes from wanting things to be different than they are now. Oftentimes there is nothing we can do to change things. Sometimes it's just a matter of waiting it out, while other times we go to unlimited lengths to change the state of things and fail, which just brings more grief. The most efficient way to deal with emotions is to accept them. However, that may not be the easiest way. Our brains will simply resist that, but through practice we can teach them to be comfortable.

9. The secret is also to detach yourself from emotions and thoughts. Our human brain tries to build up a consistent image. It craves consistency. That's its job after all. The human brain is rational. It needs to have an explanation for everything. It notices emotions and it has to give them a meaning. The soldier’s brain has to give an explanation for why the body is feeling uncomfortable in the shower. When you feel unpleasant because of what someone told you, your brain has to come up with a consistent story. And it can be any story as long as it makes sense. “Oh, you’re just worthless.” It will say. And you might come back “But it’s just this one person saying it.” “Yeah, but did anybody ever tell you that you are great?” “Well, no, but…” “There you have, it. 1 against 0. Therefore, you are worthless.” The rational brain is happy for coming up with a sound story. And you might believe it if you do not detach from your thoughts and emotions.

If you step back a little you will see that that is just one possible explanation of many others. Perhaps you have not heard people telling you that you are great because you didn’t actually listen. Or perhaps the person in front of you really is a jerk and has hidden motives. Which one is true? Who knows? Is it even possible to know?

In the end it’s not important what the truth is, but how you react. If you just go with what your brain served you, then you don’t really have a choice. If you take that step back, you will see the different possibilities, and then you do have a choice. You cannot change reality of course, but you can choose what you do next.

That’s easier said than done. We are usually so busy and caught up in our own thinking that we identify with our thoughts. We don’t have the space necessary to take that step back. It takes practice to be able to pause for a second and just see what we are thinking and consider how we react. I will talk about that in a bit, but for now here is a starter to show that you are not your thoughts.

Have you ever had really weird thoughts? Like “If that person would just disappear it would be so much better.” And then, even if for a bit, you find yourself thinking of ways to actually make that person disappear, probably not very nice ways. Does that mean you are a bad person? Do you deserve to be put in prison just for thinking that? Of course not. I’m pretty sure you would not act out those thoughts. You are not those thoughts. That is just your human brain doing its job. You felt upset because of that person, a pain that you have gotten really sick of. So when your brain noticed that, it took it as a problem that needs to be solved, and it fired up all of its trillions of neurons and came up with some solutions.

Just by stepping back from your thoughts and becoming an observer you gave yourself that space in which you have the freedom to not identify with your thoughts, but to choose how to act despite them.

It's the same with emotions, because your human brain tries to explain them and it will often fail. But the reality is that emotions are just bodily sensations. They don’t mean anything, other than that they were triggered by the brain for one reason or the other.

Say for example that it’s gotten quite cold and your body starts shivering. You don’t identify with that emotion because it’s clear why you are shivering. You don’t tell yourself “I’m shivering because I’m a cold person.” But what if you are about to give a presentation in front of a big crowd and you start shivering? Then you will probably say “I’m a shy person” or “I have stage fright”. That’s your brain trying to explain why you're shivering. In this case you’ll probably just struggle with it and do your best.

Now how about if you start shivering because of whatever triggers your anxiety, like the soldier with the soap? Your brain can’t explain that. “I’m an anxious person”, “My brain is defective”. And because you can’t find the true reason for why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, you don’t know how to make it go away. When you’re shivering because you’re cold you can put on a blouse or go somewhere warm. When you’re shivering and you don’t know why, the only thing you can do is try to mentally push it away, and like I’ve shown before, that only makes it stronger.

Instead, you have to break that loop. Take a step back and just notice that feeling, see it for what it is. Understanding how anxiety works will help your mind make sense of what is going on, and the sensation will die down. In the worst case, you will be able to live with it as you engage with something else, just like you would if you are cold and can’t immediately warm yourself up, or when you deliver the presentation despite the stage fright.

10. Detach from goals and results. When realizing that you want to change yourself, whether dealing with anxiety or other issues you might have, you will probably set a goal for yourself. This can be an issue in itself if you have an improper approach. For one thing, you might fail. In fact, you are most probably going to fail. Because this is not something you practiced for, it's something new. You can't realistically expect to succeed on the first attempt for your other endeavours, so why would you do that in this case? So try not to be hard on yourself for failing, otherwise it will just lead to more pain.

The other issue with goals is what happens when you reach them. You might set a new one. But eventually you will reach a goal and not be able to imagine the next one. So, this must be it. The end of the road. That's when you can say you are finally done with anxiety or whatever you've been struggling with. Sounds a bit strange, doesn't it? For one, there is no such point. You will always have to deal with anxiety, just like you deal with sadness, grief, or any hardship. It's just that you will be better prepared, you will not let it control you, you will see it for the thing it is. But when can you say you've reached that point?

Please note that I am not against setting goals. Far from it. It's good to have a sense of direction, something to strive for. But your focus shouldn't be reaching them, it should be the process. It's working on yourself day-to-day what is going to change you for the better, not reaching a certain goal. Even if you fail to reach it, if you worked on improving, you come out a better person. Also, the reasons for failure might not be in your control. What you control is your behaviour and expectations. Rather than worrying that you might not reach your goal, it's way more effective to worry about whether you are doing the right things. And be wary of your mind: if you are goal-oriented, it will muster up its creativity to come with all sorts of shortcuts that might not be in your best interest.

So when you set goals, detach yourself from them and from what will result, as they are not in your control. You know what they say: it's the journey that matters, not the destination.

11. We can’t make anxiety or emotions go away. As I said before, there is no point where you have completely gotten rid of anxiety. You just learn to deal with it. This applies to all emotions. You can’t make them go away, you have to do your best despite them, or, even better, because of them. This is not a sad fact of life. Without emotions, we wouldn’t care about anything. Without the kick we get when finding out something new, we wouldn’t learn anything anymore. Without the pain we feel when we fail at something, we wouldn’t be able to grow from the experience.

12. Everything is counterintuitive. You might have noticed a pattern. To deal with our struggles we have to do the opposite of what we actually want to achieve. In fact, to achieve what we want, we have to not set out to achieve it in the first place.

You shouldn’t fight with your feelings, you should accept them. In a book I read, the author developed his own technique to deal with anxiety. It’s called DARE, and I will talk a bit more about it at the end of this post. For now, I will just mention that one of the steps when anxiety has settled its grip tight on you and will not let go, is to actually “run towards” it. If your body is shaking beyond control, and you feel like you are on the verge of the panic attack, just tell yourself: “OK, anxiety, just give me everything you’ve got. Kill me now, or don’t bother again. I will let you hit with everything you can as I count to ten.” It might sound scary, but it is effective if you think about it. A panic attack is so terrifying because you fear what it will make you feel. You fear it will get stronger, and maybe this time it will not stop. You fear that this time maybe your heart will break. But by telling it to give you everything it can, you actually expect more than it can give, because in truth a panic attack does not kill you. And when your brain notices nothing happened, your body will start to relax and the feeling will start to dissipate.

Another counterintuitive observation is that it's not positive things that bring joy, but negative ones. You might think that to be happy you have to find things that make you feel good. But those things are short-lived. You feel good now, but then you want more. You will crave more good things. And when you calculate the benefits, the time and strength of the craving is higher than the pleasure you get when a good thing happens. On the other hand, dealing with negative things will bring you longer-term happiness. The accomplishment of having dealt with something negative builds feelings that have a longer-term effect, such as confidence, self-esteem.

13. Don't resist spirituality. I am by no means a religious person. I'm catholic by baptism, living in an orthodox country, but I don't go to church nor am I in anyway involved in conventional religious activities. But that does not mean I don't see the benefit of engaging in spirituality. Believing there is a higher power out there gives you hope and confidence, and can strengthen your will. Religions contain lots of wisdom that can help in dealing with pain of all kinds. The idea that this wisdom was imparted to us by higher beings makes us more receptive to it than just reading it in a book or learning it from a psychologist. Being part of something greater than yourself, also if there's is a larger community involved, grants you a sense of peace and calm. Even if you don’t engage in religious activity, like me, it’s worth thinking about the teachings you probably heard and ignored over the years and how they relate to your struggle.

14. Mindfulness and meditation help with training yourself in detachment. When thinking of meditation, people probably imagine the ancient ritual performed by practitioners of Hinduism or Buddhism. But in the last century or so, efforts have been made by both the traditional practitioners and westerners to bring the practice to a form more suitable to the modern person. Thus, to meditate, you don't have to sit in an uncomfortable position, sitting upright is good enough. You don't have to do any special ritual, the goal being just to follow your breath. You don't have to allocate a certain time of day to do it.

Once again, probably many people think that to meditate is to sit and think of absolutely nothing at all. That is very far from the truth. In fact, your approach needs to be effortless. Your mind will absolutely start producing thoughts. It's what it does, you can't stop it. What you have to do, is to just notice what it is doing. And when you realize you are no longer focusing on your breath, you just simply move your attention back to the inhalation and exhalation of air, as gently as you can. That is the secret of being mindful. It's not that you control your brain, it's that you observe what happens.

The positive effects of practicing mindfulness have been proven by studies. And by what I've said until now, we can intuit why it works. Practicing with consistency will teach yourself to pause a bit when you feel or think something, thus detaching from it. This is one technique that offers the space in which you have the freedom to act, instead of being condemned to react to your thoughts and emotions.

I can imagine this kind of practice is not for everyone. I can understand that people will find it uncomfortable to just sit and focus on the breath. Or they will not see any effects and not be motivated. Unfortunately, it is the kind of thing that needs patience. It's the kind of thing you have to do constantly, for months, and years. The secret is to be open about it and not have any expectations. If you expect to feel something after a session, or to see a certain effect after a few weeks, or if you in anyway expect a certain goal from doing this, you are doing it wrong. That's exactly what mindfulness is not about. It's about noticing what is going on in the present moment, not thinking of what will be, and not of judging whether what you are doing is good or not.

To get started you should not force yourself. Just do whatever works for you, even if it's just one minute a day. You can search articles and videos for help, or you can use an app. Headspace and Calm are the most popular.

15. A lovely metaphor. I don't remember exactly where I read this story, but it goes like this:

A man stumbles upon a butterfly half-out of its cocoon. He watches it, waiting for it to come out in all its glory, but the butterfly struggles to come out, the crack it made for itself too small for its wings. So the man pulls out a knife and carefully cuts the cocoon, releasing the butterfly. But instead of flying, the butterfly falls to the ground. Its wings are too weak to carry its own weight in the air. The struggle to get out of its own shell is what normally strengthens the wings, but that process was cut short and as a consequence the butterfly was not ready to face its new life.

This story beautifully embodies the struggle with anxiety, but also the importance of accepting hardship in life. Do not look at anxiety as something bad, something to get rid of. Do not look at any struggles you have as something bad in fact. Because that is what leads to anxiety. Avoiding struggles or refusing to accept them, ignoring them or otherwise wanting them to go away will teach your mind to fear them, to resist them, a fear that will grow more powerful each time. Instead, accept the struggle. Dealing with it will make you stronger and more prepared for future struggles, it will build your confidence.

16. Medication might help, but don't rely only on it. If you choose to go to a specialist, go to a therapist first, then to a psychiatrist if necessary. I don't want to belittle psychiatry as a profession. For extreme cases medication is probably necessary, but I don't think it is ever the solution. You still need to work on psychology.

Here's how psychiatric medicine works. There are two kinds. The first type are tranquilizers, like Xanax. They offer short-term relief of your struggles, but they cause addiction, so the more you take them, the more you will need them, and the less effective they will be.

The other type are called inhibitors, and include what people normally call antidepressants. These are used in long-term treatments and don't cause addiction. The downside is that they do not solve whatever problem you have. It's not like antibiotics which are explicitly made to kill bacteria. These are more like a generic agent. They block some chemicals going between your synapses, so you don't feel things so intensely. So you might feel like an inkling of panic, but it quickly fades. And this applies to any feelings, from anger to joy, to sexual arousal. Also, there might be some side effects, and they are different from person to person. For some a certain drug might not work, and then the psychiatrist will give them another one, and try until something works. It's just trial and error. And when you finish the treatment, there's no guarantee you won't go back to your old self again. Because the medicine just stopped your emotional mechanism for a while, it didn't fix your brain. You need to fix your brain, too.

However, it is true that inhibitors also have the effect of making your brain more predisposed to learning new patterns. So if you take medicine, be sure to work on healthy habits, as well. That's why I recommend talking to a therapist first. Ask them if you should also take medicine as well, because it might help the therapeutic process. And they might know a psychiatrist who understands this as well, rather than a psychiatrist who just asks you for your symptoms and then writes you a prescription according to whatever rules they learned.

17. Not all therapies are the same. I have no studies in psychology, but from what I can tell there are multiple kinds of approaches to psychotherapy, and each is more efficient in different areas. Therapists also probably specialize in a certain one, certainly not all. For anxiety, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the most efficient according to studies. In fact, it’s useful for a lot of mental issues, like phobias, addiction, OCD. Briefly, the approach is to teach you to notice thoughts that provoke anxiety and substitute them with thoughts that don’t. It’s effective because it strikes directly at the symptoms, and it takes just a few months usually. That might be the best approach for things like phobias, because they are probably ingrained in you, but in cases of anxiety disorder and depression, there might be an underlying root cause that would remain unsurfaced. There are other approaches, that deal with a full analysis of your struggles, going through things like the relationship with your family, your personal history, and so on. The problem here is that you might feel like you’re not really doing anything concrete and just wasting your time talking about unrelated things.

It’s quite a tricky business to choose a therapist. It’s not like going to a regular doctor, where things are more concrete. You need to trust your therapist, so try to talk with them about their approach, try to understand how it works, and what is best for you. Don’t overthink it, though. It’s better to change the therapist if you feel it’s not working or if you don’t connect with them, rather than ruminating on making the best choice.

In the end, remember that the therapist cannot provide you a cure. It’s still up to you. They can only guide you. Don’t see therapy as the thing that will change your life. It’s just one thing that can help you. But there are many more. It’s up to you.

I will end with a list of some of the books I’ve read throughout this journey. Perhaps some might pique your curiosity.

1. Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and WorryCatherine M. Pittman, Elizabeth M. Karle

This is the book that set me on my journey of self-improvement. It explains all the fundamentals: how anxiety and panic attacks are triggered, what you can do about it, what works and what doesn’t.

2. Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks FastBarry McDonagh

Barry struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for years, until he had a revelation of what would actually work against it. He came up with his own technique, consisting of four steps: defuse the thoughts that provoke anxiety, accept the feelings that are disturbing you, run towards them if they grow stronger, and engage with something that keeps you focused on the present moment instead of on your thoughts and feelings. (In case you didn’t notice, the initials of the four steps form the name of the technique: DARE.) This revelation lead to a book, an app, audio guidance, bootcamps, and a whole community around it. The book describes the four steps, then presents many situations and different ways in which anxiety and panic attacks set in and how to apply DARE in each of them.

3. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective PeopleStephen R. Covey

This book I had read before I started to deal with anxiety, but I re-read parts of it with different eyes afterwards. The core of the book states that life is governed by principles that are fundamental and unchanging. Leaving in harmony with them leads to a joyful life. Not being in tune with them leads to grief. That’s basically how anxiety and depression arise. The first three habits especially, since they work at the individual level, can help give you a direction in dealing with your struggles: accept that you are responsible for how you live your life, no matter what the external situation is, envision how you want your life to be, and act towards that vision. A powerful point that Covey emphasises is that we, as humans, have the consciousness to observe our current behaviour, the capability to imagine what we want our behaviour to be, and the independent will to overwrite the old behaviour with the new.

4. Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E. Frankl

Stephen Covey mentioned Viktor Frankl’s story in his book, so I picked this up as well. Frankl survived the Holocaust and went on to develop a new kind of psychotherapy, called logotherapy, based on his experience in the concentration camps.

As he noticed other prisoners simply losing the will to live, he also observed that despite the circumstances, he still has an inner freedom which even his oppressors could not cage. He could picture his loving wife, waiting for him, loving him. He could imagine himself after the war, teaching and telling his students the story of how he survived. This is exactly the embodiment of what Covey formalized in his habits: the responsibility of accepting your situation, and the power of inner will and imagination. The essence of logotherapy is that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find a meaning in life.

5. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

The title of this book probably misleads a lot of people, and it’s not because of the cursing. I picked up this book because I realized I worry too much and maybe it will teach me how not to. In fact, the book is not about how to not care about something, but about how to care for the right things. Each time you make a decision, each time you choose to act a certain way, it means you care about that thing more than what you chose no to give attention to. So, once again, it is up to you to choose what you care about. The bulk of the book then deals with what are some good values that you can adopt, by which to make this choice.

6. Everything is F*cked: A Book About HopeMark Manson

I was very impressed by this book. Mark Manson is just a guy who reads a lot and in this book he basically puts together the knowledge he gained and outlines his own philosophy on the meaning of life. It is a lot about what it means to be a human, how we are guided by our emotions and by our two brains (which he calls The Thinking Brain and The Feeling Brain), and what it would look like to go beyond this conflicting duality.

7. Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to JoyMo Gawdat

Mo Gawdat had a very fruitful career in the tech world. At one point he realised he had been optimizing for success and money, but he wasn’t happy. So he gave the subject of happiness the same approach he gave everything in life, an engineering approach. He studied relentlessly and finally he came with his own model and actually an equation that describes happiness.

That equation is (spoiler warning!): Happiness >= You perception of reality – your expectations.

In words, it means that if how you see reality does not meet your expectations, then you are unhappy. Therefore, you can do two things to be happy: change your expectations or change how you see reality. The book offers advice on how to achieve that, by highlighting different ways in which we distort reality.

8. The Bhagavad Gita Eknath Easwaran

The Gita is a small part of the epics of Hinduism. Easwaran not only translates it in English but explains its meaning. It is a short story, in which Prince Arjuna, amidst a fierce battle, stops to contemplate what he is about to do. It is his dialog with Krishna, the embodiment of the divine, in which he asks existential questions. It is thus a guidebook for how to live purposefully.

As I said above, religions have a lot to teach and you don’t have to be religious to learn from what they offer. I am partial to this book, as it is more direct in its form, especially through Easwaran explanation.

9. The Mantram HandbookEknath Easwaran

This book is about something that I did not speak about until now. That is because I do not have convincing arguments for it. The idea is that you can influence your subconscious in a beneficial manner by repeatedly imagining certain scenarios, verbalizing (internally or externally) positive thoughts or different sounds. The effectiveness of the former is more obvious, of the latter less so.
The Mantram Handbook, as you might have guessed from the title, is about the latter. The idea is to choose a mantram that you repeat inside your head whenever you have spare time, like when brushing your teeth, doing chores, waiting in a line, or in bed while as you fall asleep. The author suggests that the mantram should be one that is important to you, but should have a mystic connection to it. Something like “Rama, Rama” (which he recommends to everybody, regardless of their religious view), or if you are Christian just repeating the name of Jesus Christ, or Virgin Mary.

Even if that sounds ridiculous, the book does not delve a lot on the mystic part. Easwaran is very pragmatic, and he presents everything in a modern context, in a very casual style. He describes the problems of modern life and offers concrete solutions, whereas other books on this list are less direct than him.

The mantram is like a tool, and Easwaran is quite convincing in showing that it works. If you want scientific proof for that, you won’t find it, but I think it’s the fact that this is a concrete way in which you can detach. It makes sense: whenever you’re caught up in thoughts of emotions, repeating a short phrase in your mind will quickly detach you from that state.

10. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment TherapySteven C. Hayes, Spencer Smith

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one of the newer therapies out there (developed by Hayes in 1982). Unlike CBT, which teaches you to control your thoughts, ACT is related to mindfulness. It teaches you how to see your emotions and relation to them, and how to accept them, choose a direction and act towards it. The book comes with great explanations and exercises you can try on your own.

What I like about this list of books is that they all lead to the same message, whether it comes from psychologists, philosophers, engineers, or religious texts. Humans have the consciousness to analyse their own being, to remember the past and imagine the future. Unlike animals, we are not constrained to live by our emotions, we have the freedom to choose how we want our future to be. We just have to learn how to use our unique capabilities to achieve that.

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