When I was a boy/teenager I had some sporadic and bizarre anxiety issues.
The most extreme and perhaps amusing example was when I was about 12. I went through a phase of feeling extremely nervous at the start of the school day which culminated in me throwing up within the first 5 minutes of entering the school gates! Once my friends’ amusement had subsided and the puke had been wiped from my desk, I was basically back to normal for the rest of the day.
It’s pretty clear to me now there was no real justification for such a strong reaction, it was a good school, I had some great friends and although my childhood wasn’t perfect, it really wasn’t that bad on the grand scheme of things. As one of the teachers who had a few chats with me concluded, I was basically triggering this reaction myself – in essence it was a habit (I’m sure this is probably a named condition in the world of psychology).
Whilst the most extreme, this wasn’t an isolated incident, amongst other things I received special coaching in order to overcome my anxiety about getting on stage to receive an academic prize and sometimes would even feel anxiety simply traveling to visit my best friend at weekends.
Of course there’s always the possibility that I’ve jostled my way through life blissfully unaware that I’m a social retard, but I think I was otherwise a fairly social and confident teenager with a good group of friends. So I think of these pockets of anxiety that punctuated my teens as simply being a strange mental habit.
20 years later
Fast forward a couple of decades and I’ve been through some fairly powerful anxiety busting experiences in an attempt to get outside my comfort zone and overcome my limits. I’ve spoken publicly to an audience of over 1000, performed on stage numerous times, often completely improvised aswell as a regular dose of hosting parties, stunts, strange social experiments and kidnappings.
Yet despite all this, anxiety has often played a regular role in my life. In many ways I was still subject to the same bizarre habit I had forged in my teens.
I’ve previous talked about how despite my “lifestyle designed” life, bizarrely I still find old habits resurfacing in totally inappropriate ways, and Last year I began to suspect that anxiety too was merely a habit and detrimental to what I was trying to achieve.
In particular, as CEO of an internet company I need to make well thought out clear decisions – anxiety was influencing my thoughts, for example I might favor short term results in order to alleviate my anxiety rather than be thinking long term. So in addition to the discomfort of anxiety, I realised it was clearly not helpful and things came to a head – it was time for me to stop and think.
Nothing To Worry About
My business has been in profit for years with a regular and stable income, I have staff running it for me, so that I can pretty much go completely offline for a few days and no one will really notice. Whilst I’m not particularly cash rich (yet), in the worst of worst case scenarios, it’s unlikely I’ll have any lifestyle changing financial problems before I could bounce back and have fixed everything or even launched a completely new enterprise.
“So then”, I wondered, “What in Hungry Horrace’s name have I got going on to justify any sense or urgency or physical anxiety?
From further observation of my feelings, I started to realise the anxiety was not in fact being caused by anything concrete, rather I had this residual anxiety that I was attaching to issues and hoping that solving the issues would solve the anxiety. Which it wasn’t.
Creating a buffer
I formed a simple equation in my mind:
value of calm mind > value lost by me not working for x hours.
And in my situation I suspect this is true for values way over 24 hours, probably more like 72 hours.
So there I had it, I had not just an excuse, but a compelling reason to stop working and focus on activities that would stop or reduce my feelings of anxiety – rather than trying to work through them.
I devised a simple solution should I find myself feeling anxious, which I call the Anxiety buffer. It’s simply:
- Fence of a period of time starting now, where I can safely focus on turning off my anxiety
- Do what ever I need to do to relax and restore a more balanced frame of mind. This could be going for a walk, meditation, going on holiday, sports or simply just lying in bed.
- Once I’m feeling more relaxed I can return to work or whatever.
In practice I find it barely takes more than an hour to get back in to a good state. Simply the realisation that I have time and there’s no real urgency seems to undo half of the damage. And moreover this confounds for me the fact that most of the time my anxiety is nothing more than a bad habit or mental noise.
Cavemen in Suits
I’m a fan of evolutionary psychology, and I explain this kind of pointless anxiety as simply a relic of caveman days where anxiety was a valuable reaction for quickly clearing short term danger, like getting the fuck away from a lion, or getting off ones arse to go and hunt whilst the weather was still good enough. In a world of practically guaranteed food, shelter and safety from predators anxiety is perhaps a little antiquated.