I rarely feel anxiety anymore, at least not to the level that it affects my day-to-day life. I stress the word “anymore,” because for much of my life, my stomach was in a knot. As a sophomore in high school, I threw up almost daily. It wasn’t because I was physically sick. It was because my stress outpaced my coping mechanisms.
Picture it, Texas, 1991. No cell phones, no Internet, no email. No car, so still riding the big yellow dog to school each day. AC in the house breaks every year, like clockwork. No iPod. No such thing as an mp3, even…just good old Columbia House and a tape deck or CD player. A grand total of 5 channels on the TV, the changing of which required getting up to either turn the knob, or in some cases, turn the antenna outside. Playing the same Super Mario Brothers and Metroid over and over and over.
If you gave me the chance to live that life now, but with the perspective I have today, I’d view it as heaven on earth.
But at 15, you’ve got maybe 10 years of conscious memories and trial and error under your belt. And for me, the stress of life started mounting faster than my 10 years of figuring it all out could handle.
And that manifested itself in the form of barf.
Relationships, grades, religious expectations and fears, parents’ expectations, increasing competition and expectations in music, teachers’ expectations, friends’ expectations…they were all coming at me at an incredible rate. At the time, I called it being nervous. It was, as you can guess, a little more than that.
As I learned lessons and didn’t die from my mishaps, I started to handle the growing expectations pretty well. And the expectations grew, as well. College is harder than high school, namely because you’re doing all of that same stuff except you’re hung over all the time. So basically, I was still puking, just for different reasons.
The anxiety didn’t really go away, though. It just started manifesting itself in different ways. Depression. Ruminating. Being a workaholic. “Turning my brain off” through different (albeit always legal, in case the FBI reads this) means of escape.
I’m immensely grateful through each of my lessons, I stumbled forward instead of into prison or a grave.
The good news: I’ve been in a consistently healthy frame of mind for a few years now. I’m always in the process of self-evaluation and reflection – but to be fair, that was true even when I was depressed and anxious.
I learned that your mental state is like a pair of tinted glasses. If you’re wearing yellow lenses, everything takes on a yellow tone. If they’re blue, everything’s kind of blue. Reality doesn’t change, but your perception of reality is channeled through a filter.
Changing the filter through which you view life makes all the difference.
The main difference between my self-evaluation back then versus now is simple. In the past, it was self-focused negative self-talk and rumination. Now it is much more likely to be substantive, workable intelligence that I can apply to future problems.
I want to share a bit of that substantive, workable intel that I got over the years. I have seven statements that, the truer I make each one through my efforts, the more my lenses become clear (or maybe even rose-colored).
1. I evaluate “what’s the worst that could happen.”
Whenever I am faced with a dicey situation, the first question I try to ask myself is (a) what is the worst that could happen here, (b) would I be able to survive that possibility, should it come to fruition, and (c) could any good come of that worst-case?
What I find is that a lot of anxiety, for me anyway, is the spiraling thoughts of what could happen. That spiral can be so rapid and chaotic that it blurs the reality of the situation, and you get stuck clinching your eyes shut and praying for the ride to hurry up and end.
Recently, I was worried about a situation at work. I asked myself, what’s honestly the worst that could happen? Well, I guess I could get fired, which would put me in a rough financial spot. I’d be losing a year’s worth of work toward a goal. And I’d need to find a new job pretty quickly.
Would I be able to survive that? Yes, of course. I’ve lost jobs unexpectedly before. It sucks, but it’s survivable for sure. Could any good come of it? Sure! Being unemployed opens up a lot of time to work out and read, and if I got fired over this issue, I’d be happy to move onto a more forward-looking and strategic company anyway.
Realizing all of that doesn’t make me want to lose my job, but once I honestly internalize the truth that the absolute worst that can happen is survivable AND comes with a few good results, my anxiety level goes down tremendously.
It’s like I’ve taken a roll of the dice where I might win or lose, and turned it into a situation where I might win a little or I might win a lot.
Did reality change? Nope. Just wearing different glasses.
2. I live in an intentional state of optimism and positivity.
I’ve written plenty about this – I’m not even going to make a link, just read my stuff if you want to understand this point better. Suffice it to say, your brain can’t tell the difference between “feeling happy so you in turn act like a happy person,” or “acting like a happy person so you then feel happy.” It works.
3. I am medicated.
Okay, so it’s vulnerability time. I’ve been on antidepressants off and on for many years. I’ve found that when I’m on them, and stay on them, my ability to self-evaluate and course-correct is 100x better than when I’m not.
I was on them for a few years but still struggling a bit, and a wise doctor suggested that there might be more going on than pure “depression.” She added in a different drug, and that did the trick. I’ve felt steady, calm, unruffled, and stable for almost a year now. Like 100%. Not just better, not just kind of sort of not miserable, but literally like a person is supposed to feel. Shit still happens to me that ruffles my feathers, I still have bad days, it’s not a panacea.
It’s a set of special lenses for a dude who, as it turns out, sees everything in shades of gray and blue without them. Who knew?!
Is that the answer for you? I have no idea. But if you are concerned that your best days are not as good as other people’s best days, see a doctor. If you are concerned that your bed isn’t just calling you, but it won’t let you up, see a doctor. If you can’t muster the strength to do things you need to do, see a doctor. Don’t be hard-headed.
And here’s one other tip: if you’re suffering through this stuff, so are the people closest to you. It’s not fair to them for you to have a solvable problem, but refuse to solve it.
4. I have a dog.
This one is probably my favorite. I love dogs. Always have. If you don’t love dogs, I’m suspicious of you. And if my dog doesn’t like you, the verdict is in: you suck.
But seriously, life is significantly better with a dog. My little buddy unconditionally loves me. He gives me a reason to laugh every single day. He’s someone to take care of that genuinely needs me.
I used to have two Boston terriers, and I lost them when my ex and I got divorced. I told my attorney that I wanted to fight the ex for custody of them. My attorney then summarily told me to pull my head out of my ass. That’s what’s great about a good attorney – they’re emotionally detached from your situation so when you’re not thinking straight, you can pay them to think straight for you.
But those two dogs were my sons. I loved them so much, and it was really hard to lose them. And my life situation made it tough to take on some new dogs.
That is, until last August, when we adopted Lemmy! He needed a good home, and we needed a good dog, so it was a perfect match. And there’s zero doubt that Lemmy makes my life better simply by existing. He’s a good boy.
It’s just a universal truth: life is better with a dog, period.
My instinct tells me that if one dog is great, than a farm full of dogs would be amazing. Sounds totally believable, and I fully intend to try it when I retire. I can’t see any problems with this plan.
5. I try to do at least one thing per day that I want to do.
I got this advice a few years back when my work was overtaking my life. It seems simple, and it is, but it’s powerful. It’s taking the time to do one thing that isn’t for advancing your career, isn’t for your partner, isn’t for anything or anyone other than you and your gratification.
It can be running, playing a video game, taking a hot bath, reading a book, going shopping, lifting weights, whatever works for you. The key is, this you remember to prioritize yourself and your own enjoyment of life.
We all owe something to someone – you owe your best to your spouse or significant other, your children, your boss, and probably a few other people. It is very easy in the midst of your servitude to forget about your own needs, or to minimize or defer them.
Two problems with that: one, you’ll slowly but surely resent the people you’re serving, and two, you’ll miss out on the greatest gift anyone’s ever had, the enjoyment of the now.
If you really want to serve others well, serve yourself well. To paraphrase Stephen Covey and Abraham Lincoln…if you wear your own saw down to nubs, you’re not going to be able to cut down the tree (at least not without a ton of unnecessary effort). Sit your butt down every day and sharpen the saw.
And without sounding too macabre…you never know when the tree’s gonna fall on you. It’d be a damn shame if you spent every waking minute deferring your own happiness, only to get squish like grape.
6. I work in a job where I get paid to be me.
This took a long time to get to. I’ve done a lot of hard hours of physical, mental, and even emotional work doing things that I didn’t particularly enjoy over the years. I studied, I read, I took advice, I gave advice (some that worked, some that didn’t), I changed jobs a few times, I moved, I went back to school to learn more…and eventually, all of that came to a head.
I finally landed in a job where “being me” is worth a pretty good living, where I’m never micromanaged, and where I’m able to knock it out of the park often enough to feel like an all-star.
There’s a huge psychological boost to arriving at this point in my career. And I want to make this clear: I probably could have gotten here faster if I had focused on career satisfaction instead of career advancement.
But I’m here now, and it certainly helps my mental state.
If you aren’t there yet, my recommendation would be the sit down and map out exactly what “getting paid to be you” looks like. What do you love to do? What comes naturally to you? Are you working for money or are you getting paid to do what you would be doing anyway? What’s the path to get there?
And, if that’s just not in the cards within your career in the short run, here’s an alternative: find something to do in your downtime that gets you rewarded for being you. Money isn’t the only way to keep score. Getting halfway there is better than deferring until you can get it 100% right.
7. Everything is temporary.
I saved this one for last, but it could have gone first. And it would have been immensely helpful to understand this as a 15 year old. But, that’s not how life works. So I know this crucial bit of information instead as a 40 year old.
The worst thing that happens to you is temporary. It will go away.
The best thing that happens to you is temporary. It will go away.
Sometimes, “going away” means you’ll adapt to it. The new car that you love becomes the old car you take for granted. Likewise, the pain of a broken heart becomes the indifferent feeling of moving on, and eventually the euphoria of new love.
Sometimes it just literally goes away.
The best team you’ve ever assembled will get plucked apart.
And the worst shift you’ve ever worked will come to an end.
The amazing body you have now will sag and break and stop working.
And the anger you feel at getting passed over for the promotion will subside and turn into getting a new job where you’re more appreciated.
But everything, literally everything, is fleeting. That’s simultaneously incredible and terrifying.
It’s also comforting, and it keeps me focused on the extraordinary value of the only thing that is relevant in the entire world: this moment, right now.
So do I have it all figured out?
Hell no. Not even close. But thankfully, at the crossroads of “mental illness” and “brain that categorizes and sorts and regurgitates everything,” there lies an ever-growing litany of good plans to avoid repeating the same injuries ad nauseam.
My hope is that occasionally, within my litany, you’ll find a speck of truth that applies neatly to your own journey. That’s all.
But, if any of this resonates with you, let me know, and feel free to share this as you see fit!