How I Overcame Anxiety (and How You can Too)
Oh, 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.
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.
May 11, 2007 Friday at 7:58 pm