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How I Overcame Anxiety (and How You can Too)

stress.jpgOh, I know about anxiety disorders. Several years ago, I struggled with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). I was plagued with non-stop worry about work, money, and relationships, even when nothing was wrong.

On nights when I could not sleep, the sound of my worried thoughts was like a million buzzing insects; my mind, a hive.

I had an old, oscillating fan sitting on my bedside table that I would turn on to drown out the hum of my thoughts. The wind on my face felt good. And the white noise, like the sound of a car’s motor on a long trip, conjured images of the open road. I learned to follow that road down into sleep night after night, fleeing my worry.

But when I awoke, the worry always returned. Would I make it to work on time? Would my boss be upset with me? There were as many reasons to worry as there were stars in the sky.

My doctor prescribed Paxil. For the first couple of weeks, it seemed to help, but not without side effects. One time, while medicated, I found myself in an important meeting with senior management, and I had the strangest feeling of pressure and warmth around the top of my skull, as though my skullcap had been flipped open, allowing sunlight to filter directly into my brain. That was one very strange feeling! Some people report great results with Paxil, but it eventually made my brain feel like it was made of gelatin. I stopped taking it.

After a stressful day at work, I would come home and find something else to worry about, usually my latest home improvement project. When my wife and I decided to redecorate the living room, I would sit in there for hours, staring at the curtains, shifting furniture around, trying to get everything just right. I went to the home store about 500 times, trying to find the perfect sheers to compliment our blinds. Sometimes I became so upset I felt like I was having a break down. I’d start yelling, screaming, and carrying on about the position of the fish aquarium or the spectrum of the light coming from the lamps. How my wife put up with my madness I will never know, but she was always supportive.

Flash forward to today, a fine Spring afternoon in 2007. My struggles with anxiety are a distant memory. I feel great! I no longer have trouble falling to sleep at night, and all the little worries that used to plague me have evaporated into the winds. I still experience anxiety every now and then, but it’s no longer excessive or debilitating. I feel normal.

So what changed? Let me tell you.

Stop Trying to be Perfect

For most people, anxiety and stress are positive feelings that encourage focus and preparation. But for those of us suffering from anxiety disorders, the urge to prepare can become an exaggerated and unrealistic quest for perfection, a need to have things “just so.” For me, one of the keys to peace was learning to live with imperfection.

I am an audio-video geek from way back. My greatest obsession used to be breaking into my television’s secret service menu and tinkering with the picture settings for hours, trying to get the picture just right. This drove my wife quite mad, since she was usually trying to watch something at the time.

“Could you please let me watch this show?” she would say.

“Um, no,” I would respond. My need for perfect geometry and black level was like a normal person’s need for oxygen. Would I ask my wife not to breathe? Nope. So why should she ask me not to tinker?

Finally, one day, I got fed up with myself and put the remote control down. Once I stopped obsessing about the picture, it looked fine. How ironic that the obsession compelling me to tinker was the same obsession allowing me to see imperfections in the first place.

Passion becomes obsession when it starts having a negative impact on you; in practice, there is very little difference between a man obsessesing over his television, a woman obsessesing over her appearance, or a person obsessing over the cleanliness of his or her house.

Our quest for perfection creeps into areas where we may not recognize it. I know people who rehearse important conversations to the point of exhaustion, debug code to rediculous levels of thoroughness (that used to be me), and who proof-read a document hundreds of times.

Have you ever heard of the 80/20 rule? There are many variations of this rule, but the version I am talking about says that 80% of the value of something can be obtained with 20% of the effort. I finally learned to maximize my first 20% and stop. I still tinker with my television and projector every now and then, but only for short periods of time to correct a specific problem – and 80/20 is always in effect.

Stop Obsessing About What Others Think

Many people are concerned about the opinions of those around them. This is normal, in fact good, since it helps us fit in, relate, and communicate more effectively. But for people suffering from extreme anxiety, concern becomes panic. What will my boss think? What will my friends think? Will my associates think I’m stupid?

We project our perfectionist tendencies onto others, but we must remind ourselves that no one cares about our imperfections like we do. Instead of worrying about what others think, I have learned to keep moving forward.

Start Exercising

Being anxious takes energy. If you use your energy for something productive, you will have less energy to be anxious.

I started riding my elliptical machine nightly. This improved my mood, made me calm, and helped me sleep. After I had built up my cardiovascular health, I started working out on my Bowflex. I felt stronger, more relaxed, and more in control. The benefits of exercise are well known; it definitely worked for me.

Start Leading a Balanced Life

Symptoms of our disorder explode in high stress environments. My highest stress environments have resulted from an unbalanced life. And when I talk about balance, I mean balance between your internal motivations and your daily activities. If you are struggling to find balance, read my six part series on how to lead a synergistic life.

I took a hard look at my job and my personal life. My job in particular was not congruent with my life purpose, so I found another one. First, I moved from software development to software design, which was a better use of my skills and resulted in an immediate reduction of stress. My second job change was from Systems Designer to Web Master of this site; this new job allows me to truly embrace my life purpose to help others learn, grow, and achieve.

Leading a balanced life has reduced my stress more than anything else

You Can Beat Anxiety Too

I beat anxiety, and I believe you can too. If you are struggling, you might want to consider seeing a doctor, since medicine and therapy can both be very effective. Medicine was my first recourse, and even though it didn’t work for me, it does work for some. Keep in mind, your doctor will be able to give you competent medical advice regarding your specific situation.

If you are able, you can always try what I did. Learn to be less than perfect. Start riding your treadmill or going for walks at least 3 times a week. And most importantly, address the areas of your life causing you to be unbalanced. If you keep trying, I know you can lead a better life. Best wishes to you.

JohnPlace

39 Responses to “How I Overcame Anxiety (and How You can Too)”

  • ArthurHung says:

    Nice article. I especially liked the bit on the 80/20 rule.

  • JohnPlace says:

    I’m glad you liked it, Arthur. Yes, the 80/20 rule has been a life-changer for me.

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  • RM says:

    Great article! These are really practical tips one could use.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thank you, RM. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  • Adam says:

    People tend to take up so much, they are multitasking , doing and planning things at the same time. Taking up so many different roles at a given time. Add some tight schedules and targets to achieve . Stress is bound to come in. You have to learn to unwind as well. And exercise is a good break from the usual.

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  • Liara Covert says:

    Your life experience with anxiety appears to have enabled you to grow. I would caution anyone to rethink things when they have to evolve to say “I feel normal.” What’s normal for you yesterday would necessarily be different than today. How well you know yourself and what enables you to feel good about your choices, perceptions and behaviors will always change with time. What you decide is acceptable or unacceptable, workable or not workable, will change only when you’re ready.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Liara,

    Have you ever suffered from an anxiety disorder?

    A person suffering from a panic attack may feel like he’s going to pass out in the middle of the line at the grocery store — a person with OCD (another anxiety disorder) may find himself on his knees in his kitchen scrubbing a speck of dirt for 3 hours. The state of mind that accompanies these episodes may make a person feel like he needs to be hospitalized — Have you seen the movie The Aviator?

    While it is possible to embrace and appreciate the feelings one experiences during one of these episodes, it is normal to want to evolve into a more peaceful state of mind.

    In the end, it’s not about feeling normal. It’s about feeling healthy.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for the comment, Adam.

  • Deborah says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the “unrealistic quest for perfection”. The way I always work my way thru worry is to envision the worst that could happen. Example: When I used to worry about money, I always found relief in thinking what’s the worst that could happen. That I’d loose everything and end up at a “Rescue Mission” or on the street. Gee, no more bills, that would suck, …NOT! Strangely enough, once I envisioned myself on the street, dirty and penniless; I also found relief from the incessant worry about what everyone thought about me. One thing I did do was pick up on what God had to say about it (Bible). Needless to say, over the years I have found a healthy balance. I sleep like a baby at night.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Excellent suggestion, Deborah. I think that advice will really help people.

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  • Cheero says:

    Thank you very much for this article. Oddly enough, it sounded like you were describing myself with everything that you do. I was also on Paxil and decided to kick it because it made me feel like a zombie and the side effects were brutal. (Insomnia, sex drive went to pieces, zombie like behaviour). I’ve even tried to smoke weed to help with my anxiety but all that did was make me lazy and even more stressed out.

    Currently I am going to the gym 3 times per week and learning to take things one step at a time. I’ve stopped living for others and started living for myself finally. Reading this article made me remember why I chose the natural way of fixing anxiety.

    Thanks again. You gained a reader in me. A definite bookmark for sure.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Cheero.

  • S. says:

    John, just ‘stumbled upon’ your site. Great stuff!!

    I have subbed to your blog. Just so you know, the confirmation box came up tiny and appeared to be stuck at that size –made it very difficult to learn of, and complete, the requirement to enter no-spam code, etc. You might want to test it –maybe just my computer, but maybe not.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for the heads up, S.

    I fixed the problem on my end. I truly appreciate you letting me know; I believe it’s been like that for a couple of months now, and I had no idea.

  • Prakash says:

    Stumbled on ur site. I too used to have all the anxiety symptoms when I was in school worrying about money, job etc. and had terrible time sleeping. But these days I am kind of at peace with myself and I do out for walks and take camping, hiking trips almost every month. Thanks a lot for this article.

  • Marie says:

    I’ve only recently been experiencing anxienty symptoms and only sometimes, so maybe it’s not exactly anxiety.
    I used to handle pressure amazingly well, infact I thrived on a fast schedule, un-expected events, etc. an no matter how high my blood pressure went at the end of the day I smiled and told myself how fun it was.
    But recently I find myself beind able to handle less and less — I had 3 hours of sleep one night, a crazy day at work, stress with finances, and then my boyfriend is late to drive me home after a date. With his “lollygagging” (as I called it) I flew off the handle, started screaming and crying and scaring him half to death. I had never thrown a tantrum like that before but I just snapped.
    Since then I’ve done it once before and I’m kind of scarying myself. I didn’t think a year or two of age would have made a difference, and I’m still only 21. I have no idea but Im going to put this article into practice and hopefully I can stay on track and away from any more of an anxiety problem.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for the comment, Marie. Let us know how it goes.

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  • TrishZ says:

    I have had some experience with anxiety disorder and appreciate this site. My anxiety came from an assault violent situation. I tried medication and hated it. Natural remedies like you mentioned excercise help. Stay away from caffine. Thenanine a B vitamin is very relaxing. Chelated Magnesium at nighttime helps. Valerian is for the ‘I cannot sleep at night experience’. I ended up unloading alot of the stress with EMDR. EMDR was quick, painless and is somewhat unconventional to some therapists.
    I highly recommend this to anyone who suffers from this horrible experience.

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  • Hello, I just saw this site listed on Yahoo and wanted to take my time to say thanks for posting this to the page. It is very informational on curing panic attacks and it has helped me understand more about them. I will be sure to browse around a little more. Thanks once again!

  • I find it damn weird that demonstrants disagree with the build of the mosque, as the planned building isn’t only a religious building. In fact, it welcomes everyone, and even a basketball court is planned to be built inside the building. A community center is a better word, and way less frightning.

  • Sweed Test says:

    hey… this picture is excellent for my brain lol

  • Sweed says:

    lol sweed test you dont read the article

  • This is good info! Where else can if ind out more?? Who runs this joint too? Keep up the good work :)

  • JJ says:

    Thank you for this. I feel like immediately after I was done reading it I felt better. I’ve been plagued with anxiety since I was in high school and like a disfunctional light switch it just seemed to turn itself on and off whenever it pleased. I’ve been constantly worried about what people thought about me, obsessing over past conversations (even ones occurring months ago) and imagining the worst of, even possible, future ones. Often I’m self conscious while merely walking through the grocery store and feel as if I am going to have a heart attack while sitting in class expecting the teacher to call on me. These seem like fantastic pieces of advice to live an anxiety free life and I am going to implement them right away. Thank you

  • Noor says:

    Hi John,

    Strangely enough, reading through your article, I could relate to every word you wrote. I’ve always considered myself “normal” – whatever that word means. But this article, today, opened my eyes. I think I’ve been living with this anxiety for years. (All the while secretly in denial about it) I am also relieved to know I’m not the only one. I think this was brought about from all the pressure I faced – with the incessant need to achieve great grades so that I may specialize in quantum mechanics but ended up in computer engineering instead. I think my obsession to achieve the most that I can & contribute something to this world; is actually crippling me. And as I mature, I am learning to take solid baby steps instead of hesitant major risks. I think what this article did is give me hope, that I’m on the right track & helped me feel good about myself. I don’t need to proof read a passage or a sentence 2 or 3 times to make sure it’s grammatically correct/ the best phrasing I can come up with before I send it out. It’s good enough. Your 80/20 rule is spot on. Thank you for churning this out. So worth the effort.
    (forgive my comment ‘spammage’ :)

  • Kumar says:

    I know I have been living with 3 problems all my life (30 years) – Low self esteem,Extremely shy and fear of everything.Its crippled my life forcing me to make choices that has made me live life in a “safe mode”.I am trying to make sens of what is happening and this article has helped me gain a better perspective of my problems.Thank you!

  • Wow! what an idea ! What a concept ! Beautiful .. Amazing. thanks !! very helpful post awesome terrific great.


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