“The only way out is through.” ~Robert Frost
The suffocating pressure from being obsessively focused on achievement and improvement led to escalating stress and anxiety over the years, but I ignored my feelings and kept attacking my goals.
Over time it became darker and heavier. It became crippling. It forced me to put a stop to almost everything in my life.
I’m a type A personality driven by a need for accomplishment. When I was in elementary school, I did my homework immediately after getting home even though my mom begged me to take a break. In high school, I regularly stayed up past midnight working on homework and scholarship applications.
This need to succeed brought many gifts. I succeeded in school, work, and sports. My methods to achieve my goals were consistently reinforced by positive results.
But this “success” came with a price that took a toll on my mental health. The only way I knew to succeed was through uncompromisingly high expectations and an unrelenting work ethic. When things didn’t go right, I was hard on myself and doubled down on my efforts.
The journey to reclaim my life from anxiety took six months that felt like six years. Along the way, I learned how to manage my anxiety (there is no defeating it) so that I could live my life again: accept everything as it is, try to succeed without attaching to the outcome, and let thoughts come and go.
Over the years, as I pursued one goal after another with laser focus, the anxiety grew. I didn’t understand what it was. I didn’t want to deal with it.
I felt ashamed of the emotions my anxiety created. I felt like I shouldn’t be having the thoughts that raced and spiraled through my head.
I tried to stop them through sheer willpower. That created more anxiety. I didn’t utter a word about anxiety to anyone, even myself.
About nine months ago, the anxiety I had been pushing down for years exploded like a volcano. It didn’t give me the option to continue ignoring it.
It forced me to stop almost everything in my life: writing, running errands, hanging out with friends, and taking part in any social activities. During this time, I only left my house to go to work. Commuting to work and making it through the day took up every ounce of energy and willpower I had.
I worried on a mental loop. I worried about worrying. I couldn’t stop the seemingly endless dark thoughts, fears, and mental distortions that surfaced.
My mental loops and panic attacks could last for six hours before I got a second of relief. I had an overwhelming fear of losing it all. The anxiety manifested itself physically through shortness of breath and elevated heart rate.
I twisted and turned in bed for hours because it was so painful. The anxiety came in unrelenting waves. It came with the force of a hurricane.
Days and weeks were swallowed by an endless loop of anxious and fearful thoughts that felt like they would never release their grip on me. Surviving each day became an all-consuming task.
Road to Recovery
Getting better was the toughest challenge of my life, even though I directed my will to succeed and work ethic to healing. Freedom from the prison of anxiety felt so far away that I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to live my normal life again.
The recovery was painfully slow for my driven personality. At the beginning of the process, panic attacks and racing thoughts dominated my days. But I kept working at it, regardless of how dark and hopeless I felt.
I tried my best each day. I took it one day at a time. I went to therapy twice a week, exercised every day, meditated three times a day, and played Mario every day to relax myself and quiet my mind.
I tried to practice acceptance. I tried to not resist or dive into the dark thoughts. I say “tried” because most of the time I failed at successfully executing these habits.
I had the highest urgency to improve. My life depended on it. Every action I took was centered around managing and decreasing the anxiety.
Every day felt like an epic battle with my mind. I learned the hard way that there are no quick fixes for anxiety. There’s no strategy or seven-step program that eliminates anxiety from your life.
Slowly but surely, I made progress. It felt like three steps forward, two steps back. Yet, most weeks were better than the prior week.
Over time, I gained tools and skills that helped me cope with the anxiety. I learned new lessons every day about dealing and living with anxiety. I uncovered important truths about what had led me to this painful reality.
The anxiety forced me to examine my actions, priorities, and values, and where my life was headed. At the time, I wished there were easier ways to learn those lessons. Your greatest teachers are your failures. That’s the way life works.
I’d like to say it’s been a storybook ending. That I’ve conquered anxiety. That the racing thoughts and fear have vanished from my life. Anxiety doesn’t work that way, though.
That being said, I’m back to living my normal life. I’ve discovered a new definition of success. I’ve improved my ability to manage the anxiety.
Mindsets to Manage Anxiety
Anxiety still shows up unannounced. I can’t control the intensity or nature of my anxiety. However, I can manage it if I’m mindful of how I go about my days and how I react to it when it shows up.
Everyone’s anxiety is unique. If you’re battling anxiety, you’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you. But you’re not alone.
Although people don’t tend to talk about their struggles with anxiety, more people than you can imagine deal with intense anxiety: an estimated 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders.
Here are behaviors and mindsets that generally decrease my anxiety levels:
- Accepting everything in my life as it is
- Not worrying about things I can’t control or change
- Observing my thoughts from the sidelines instead of engaging with them
- Questioning thoughts: Do I have to go into this thought? Is this fear-based thought true?
- Allowing anxiety to spend time with me; riding the wave instead of going against the current and fighting anxiety
- Being okay with my flaws and weaknesses
- Letting go of the need to succeed and accepting the outcome of my actions, good or bad
These behaviors and mindsets cause my anxiety to spike:
- Replaying past experiences on a mental loop
- Being hard on myself when I don’t meet my standards
- Blaming myself for actions or thoughts that caused me more anxiety
- Resisting fearful thoughts or anxiety
- Engaging with and reacting to every thought; being in the middle of the storm of my thoughts
- Trying to deconstruct why I had a thought or feeling
- Trying to control my thoughts instead of my reactions to them
- Obsessing over what other people may think about things I did or said
- Needing to and having to succeed
Acceptance is the Key Ingredient
I resisted the concept of acceptance when my therapist introduced it to me. I thought if I practiced acceptance, I would lower my standards and give up my commitment to excellence.
I thought acceptance represented being okay with mediocre effort and average results. I thought it would lead me to lose the drive to succeed that has been one of the key ingredients to my accomplishments in life.
I was wrong. Acceptance can (and should) be paired with a drive to succeed. An engine to produce at a high level leads you to put in the hard work that’s necessary to achieve your goals.
Acceptance allows you to let go of the result once the hard work is complete. It frees you from worrying and being attached to the outcome, because that’s out of your control. Acceptance is living in the world of what is, instead of what should be, what could be, or what you want it to be.
Acceptance is a simple idea yet it’s difficult to put it into practice for a perfectionist with a tendency to overanalyze. Although it’s been a struggle to increase acceptance in my life, I’ve discovered a few tools that have been effective: meditation and reframing my mindset during and after anxious episodes.
Meditation has vastly improved my awareness of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Awareness is crucial for managing anxiety effectively. When I’m anxious, step one of acceptance is to feel and acknowledge my emotions.
The next step is to ask myself some version of this question: “Is there anything that I’m not accepting in this moment that’s causing or increasing my anxiety?” Once I pinpoint what I’m resisting and choose to accept it, I know the anxiety will subside.
Many times, I can reframe my mindset in the middle of the anxiety. I can mentally shift from fighting the present circumstances to accepting them as they are. Other times, the anxiety takes over and I have to brace myself until the clouds clear. Once I’m out of the storm, I can dissect that situation and identify the lack of acceptance and the friction that led to the high levels of anxiety.
For example, an argument with my wife can trigger anxiety because I wish that the disagreement never happened. I can’t accept where I am in that moment until I accept that I didn’t act like my ideal self in that situation, and that I can’t go back to change the past. Once I accept the argument and the anxiety it caused me, the friction disappears and my anxiety levels start to drop almost immediately.
My performance can also be a trigger. I can get intense anxiety from mentally replaying the mistakes I made on a work project that didn’t go as well as I expected. I also experience anxiety when I fail to accept the way decisions are made in a large corporation. Or I don’t accept that people often behave in ways that are different than what I expect or value.
If I’m trying to control things that I can’t change or affect, I’m not accepting my current situation. Trying to act outside of my sphere of control is resisting the way the world works. It’s like not accepting that I can’t change the laws of gravity.
Once I accept my past mistakes or that I can’t control how others act and what their priorities are, I can fully accept my present circumstances. When I accept that I experience high levels of anxiety frequently and that my reactions to anxiety sometimes cause more anxiety, I can live without bracing myself for the next attack.
I can let go because I’ve accepted that I will have high levels of anxiety again and that I will make mistakes in how I handle the anxiety again. It doesn’t mean I like being anxious. It just means I’ve accepted where I am at this time in my life. I can take action from there instead of where I wish I was. I can take action within my zone of control.
I’ve experienced the deepest moments of tranquility that I’ve had in my life in the last couple of months. These magical moments happen during the brief windows when I’ve accepted everything in my life as it is.
My mind quiets because there is no friction or turbulence. I lose myself in the sounds and sights of my environment. I hear the birds chirp. I see all the different colors of the leaves.
Redefining Success and Anxiety
I used to be afraid of my anxiety because it felt so intense, emotionally and physically. Although I still experience intense anxiety on a daily basis, I’m now thankful for the anxiety I’ve experienced (sometimes even while I’m caught up in that crushing anxiety).
This is a perspective that only comes after being through the eye of the storm of anxiety. If you’re in the middle of that storm, your only job is to get through it so you can get to a place where you feel safe.
I’m thankful for anxiety because it has brought many gifts. Because of it, I quit relentlessly pursuing success at any cost. I started meditating. I began exercising regularly again. I prioritized balance in my life.
The most important lesson anxiety has taught me is that a successful life isn’t defined by how many achievements I’ve collected. Instead, success is building and nurturing relationships, being present to the little things in life, being grateful for the gift of life, exercising the mind and body, and living the life I want without looking over my shoulder to see what others are chasing.
I don’t always follow the formula I discovered for my new definition of success. But when I adhere to my success formula, my days are significantly better than when I fall back to my habitual ways.