How My Drive to Succeed Led to Crippling Anxiety (And How I Got My Life Back)

“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.

Crippling Anxiety

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, you’re 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.

About Jose Ramos

Jose Ramos helps people use winning habits, mindsets, and strategies to craft the life they want instead of settling for average results and feeling stuck. Get his free guide to setting and achieving your goals so you can take your life to the next level.

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  • Hey, Jose!
    Sometimes I can kind of relate to your struggle.
    I could feel that there’s a need for me to get ahead and if I don’t, I get anxiety and possibly depression.
    There are so many stories of young entrepreneurs accomplishing this and that, and I feel “abnormal” that I haven’t accomplished anything huge yet.
    I keep reminding myself that we have our own timezone, and that mistakes are our teachers.
    The more we take calculated risks, the more chances of us finding out what works for us.
    It’s not us, it’s just how life is.
    And I need to remind myself that it’s beautiful, because the destination isn’t the most important part. It’s the journey.
    Thanks for this very relatable piece, Jose. 🙂

  • Acceptance is letting go and celebrating after an accomplishment.” Not your exact words but this was one takeaway message for a perfectionist like me! Thank you.

  • Ashley

    Loved this! ” Living the life I want without looking over my shoulder to see what others are chasing.” Beautifully said.I can defiantly relate to your struggle. I struggle with anxiety everyday, but I am working on it and it’s getting better! You have opened my mind about success and I need to dive deeper into that. I have trouble letting that thought go of losing my drive if I practice acceptance.

  • Sierra Oakes

    “It became crippling. It forced me to put a stop to almost everything in my life.”
    “I felt ashamed of the emotions my anxiety created.”
    “Commuting to work and making it through the day took up every ounce of energy and willpower I had.”
    “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.”

    This is where I am now. Even getting up to wash the dishes can provoke aches, a racing heart, and a want to cry. It is so embarrassing, and it makes me feel incapable of normal life responsibilities. It also hurts both physically and emotionally.

    It hurts to have people see me this way. It hurts not to be the best friend/family member/co-worker/student I can be. It hurts to see people put their faith in me, only for me to let them down in some way. It hurts to appear irresponsible or uninterested when something doesn’t get done in a timely, professional matter. And it especially hurts to see opportunities or possibilities pass by because I can’t seem to make a simple email or phone call.

    I do no understand why simple things need to be so “important.” I am not sure why I am this way. My reaction to anxiety creates problems where there are none. It makes me want to curl into a little ball and forget about everything else.

    I really, really want this feeling to go away, so that I can get back on track and stop making life more complicated for myself. I want to be a better person and live up to my potential.

    I have always been known to excel, even at my worst. I was valedictorian, the student who asked, “I got a 99.what in this class?” I am capable of great things, if only I could piece myself back together again.

    I am not sure why I wrote this comment, except to maybe vent and show people what it is really like for me and many others.

    @Jose Ramos , Thank you for your post. It helps to validate my feelings and provide a kind of support. Wish me luck and patience as I try to make it out of the storm.

  • Good article. Thanks for sharing! I’ve found daily meditation and gratitude journaling plus getting outdoors more often, experiencing nature, has had the most profound effect for me. I identify with being a type A with numerous achievements to be proud of, but these fade in comparison to the pain points associated with the anxiety that’s emerged with that. Dealing with and acceping the ever increasing change in expectations and busyness that’s occurring in society, in work, in study is a major driver of increasing widespread anxiety. This one is a favorite of mine: Trying to control my thoughts instead of my reactions to them

  • Michelle

    Thanks for your article, Jose. I can relate to much of your experience. I am several years out of the eye of the storm of anxiety and I am living a happy and full life. But I still use many of the tools you mentioned to manage my anxiety. I too have found the practices of acceptance, mindfulness, exercise, and meditation to be important to my daily life. There are periods where I forget that I have anxiety at all and times where I feel that I am right back in it, but with these tools at my disposal, my anxiety is manageable. Thanks for reminding me of the gifts of anxiety. It has definitely been a teacher of important lessons in my life.

  • Bre

    @Sierra Thanks for your comment & know that you are not alone. I could have written it myself as I am exactly where you are.
    I really hate not feeling in control and wish, just for a moment, everything would stop so I could catch my breath. Hopefully we’ll get to where Jose is.. sooner rather than later.

  • Izabela R.

    What type of mediation do you practice? What type of exercise works for you?
    For my thoughts I’m finding the most useful techniques I learnt are from The Happiness Trap, with defusing from the thoughts, using funny voices to repeat the negative thoughts until they lose power and your mind can be reminded it’s just a thought and it’s been taken too seriously.

  • Jose Ramos

    Letting go is so hard for perfectionists like me! Thanks!

  • Jose Ramos

    Thanks Ashley! I’m continuing to redefine my relationship with success. I now strive to try to do the best that I can and then let go of the result and the feeling that I have to succeed. It’s good enough to try my best and let the chips fall where they may. It’s worth exploring further.

  • Jose Ramos

    Thanks for reading Michelle! I can relate to what you say. Some days and weeks, I don’t feel much anxiety. At other times, I feel more frequent and intense anxiety that reminds me of the darker periods. When I’m in one of those dark cloud periods, I feel confident that I’ll make it through to the blue skies because of the tools and skills I’ve gained.

  • Jose Ramos

    I use Headspace to practice mindfulness meditation on my commute to work. I’m trying to incorporate more mindfulness into my daily activities. I play basketball, which also serves as a form of meditation for me. I like the way you described the process of defusing thoughts: “until they lose power and your mind can be reminded it’s just a thought and it’s been taken too seriously”

  • Jose Ramos

    Thanks Nicah! It sounds cliche to say that the journey is more important than the destination. It’s the truth though. It’s not easy to run your own race without comparing your successes to other people. Yet, resisting where we currently are in life creates friction, stress, and anxiety.

  • Jose Ramos

    Thanks! I agree with you. The pain from intense anxiety and unhealthy stress outweighs the achievements. It’s not worth the cost. There are also other ways to succeed. I’ve realized that I can achieve my goals without the need to succeed mentality that brings on the unnecessary levels of stress and anxiety.

  • Jose Ramos

    Thanks for sharing Sierra. You’re not alone. While that level of anxiety feels so strange, uncomfortable, and wrong, it’s something that many millions of people go through at some point in their lives. It took me a long time to realize that there was nothing wrong with me, it’s just anxiety (and I still forget this lesson at times).

    I can relate to everything you said. It’s emotionally and physically painful. It makes you want to curl up in a ball because it hurts so much (this still happens to me during my worst bouts with anxiety).

    There’s nothing I can say to make you feel better but here are the things that helped me get through the worst parts: therapy, exercise, and meditation. Although it felt like I would never get back to my normal life again, I tried as much as I could to take the next right step, which would sometimes be to get out of the house and face the day.

    Over time these things have helped me as well: not being so hard on myself, letting go of the shame and guilt I felt about my anxiety, and not resisting my thoughts and fears.

    Be patient. It’s a long journey. The small steps and progress will give you energy and motivation to keep going. All you can do is literally take it one step at a time.