Have you ever felt so stressed you couldn’t move? Have you had anxiety that stays with you even after you’ve tried really hard to overcome it?
Overcoming anxiety is an innate part of being human. Some people experience a “base-state” anxiety almost all day, every day. Others experience it in spikes during certain scenarios, such as public speaking, having a difficult conversation with a boss, or asking someone on a date.
Anxiety can hinder your ability to perform or even to take action in the first place.
I used to actually get mad when experiencing anxiety. I didn’t want to experience it — and in many cases I knew there was no reason for it.
After getting fed up with it and experiencing a deep motivation to solve it, I developed this three step protocol to tame it and consitently perform at my best.
1. Differentiate between what’s rational and what’s irrational.
My mind plays tricks on me.
It thinks I’m dieing when I’m really just hungry.
It thinks I’m going to be broke and homeless when someone tells me “no.”
It thinks I’m at risk of being ostracized when I have to speak in front of a large group of people.
Most people, myself included, are completely irrational.
Just look at the widespread belief in deities, the rate at which relationships fail, or the multiple financial bubbles and recessions we’ve had just within my lifetime.
Our genes care more about survival than the truth. Our survival instinct is what keeps us alive. From that perspective, it’s better to have anxiety about something that’s untrue, than to lack anxiety about something that is true and could harm us.
While your biology wants you to be anxious so you can survive, it may not have your best interests in mind.
Use reason and empirical evidence to validate your fears and anxiety.
Here are 4 common irrational sources of stress:
- People don’t like the way I look.
- I need more money to be happy.
- I’m going to get fired or lose all my clients.
- The world is coming to an end.
While there are many sources of irrational anxiety, there are also many rational reasons to be anxious.
I used to think that all of my stress was unwarranted. I blamed myself for not feeling perfectly comfortable all the time.
Thinking critically helped me realize that about 90% of stress was irrational, but it also confirmed that there were some conditions in my life that gave me very real reasons to be anxious.
The personal development dogma that your thoughts and emotions are a choice and that you can overcome anything is a dangerous one.
Here are 5 common sources of stress that are actually rational:
- I have a client deliverable due tomorrow.
- I don’t have much money in my savings account.
- My spouse has told me she’s not happy with the direction our relationship is going.
- My diet is unhealthy and it’s affecting my health and wellbeing.
- I feel unsafe around these people who have consistently shown a lack of empathy.
I am not a doctor — but I can see how taking drugs to deal with irrational stress and anxiety would make sense. But there are stressors that are very real. Taking drugs to as an alternative to addressing these real stressors sounds dangerous to me.
Once I’ve differentiated between rational and irrational fears, more clear solutions present themselves.
2. Accept reality.
I’m worried. My heart is racing.
I’m thinking into the future, focusing on all the bad things that could happen. I’m thinking into the past, focusing on all the things that I wish were different.
I observe the thoughts passing through my brain and the physical reactions they cause.
Once I’ve determined whether my stress is rational or irrational, I accept the situation as it is.
In practice, this means literally saying “I am stressed” and asking myself “what’s the best action I can take right now? ”
I cannot change the past and I don’t know what will happen in the future. Stressing will not change the past or the future. I can only take best action to make sure the future is what I want it to be.
3. Take best action.
There is good stress and there is bad stress.
Good stress kicks you in the ass when you legitimately need to get something done.
Bad stress makes you want stay in bed because of some imaginary threat. It hinders your ability to perform because your mind is so jumbled.
Anxiety can actually be a motivator.
Accept the reality of feeling anxiety. Instead of constantly fighting it, learn to harness it.
For example, if you’re insecure about your self-worth, you may be motivated to make more money. If you constantly fear running out of money (even when you are not at risk), you may work harder. This can lead to solving problems for people and achieving material success. I’m not saying this is healthy or sustainable; I’m simply pointing out the importance of accepting reality and taking best action.
If you’ve identified rational reasons for anxiety, take actions to solve it.
If you’re worried about the economy, this may mean writing an article about gun control, voting Libertarian, or simply talking to a friend or colleague about bitcoin. If you’re in a relationship with someone who only brings you down, it may mean cutting ties.
Let rational anxiety be the kick in the butt you need to take action.
Then, determine best action…
Start by differentiating between what’s in your control and what’s out of your control.
Here are 5 common sources of stress that you don’t have 100% control over:
- What people think of you.
- What decisions people will make that affect you.
- Traffic, subway delays, and flat tires.
- Who will become the next president.
- How your mind and body reacts to stress.
You can only control so much.
Then, take best action.
Being debilitated by stress is almost never the best action.
Breathe. Remind yourself of the reason and evidence you used to determine the validity of your anxiety.
If you do great work, it’s much less likely that your boss will decide to fire you. If it’s a real risk, you may want to put yourself in a situation where one person can’t make a life-changing decision for you.
Have confidence that you will figure it out no matter what.
Take action to make it happen.
Finish your client deliverable. Talk to your boss. Look for a new job. Make sales calls. Go for a walk.
Here are two stories about overcoming anxiety:
1. The Pitch
Scenario: It’s 9pm and I’m exhausted from a long day of work. But I have a pitch meeting tomorrow morning that I haven’t prepared for.
Is it rational? Well, if I don’t get the client I will not be homeless. But it would be a missed opportunity. In addition, it would not look good in the eyes of the person who made the referral which could hurt business going forward.
What’s the best action to take? Well, what’s in my control?
Easy: I can give the best pitch possible. I can’t control what the client will decide, nor can I magically “will” the pitch to life.
So, the best action is simply to prepare for the pitch meeting.
Simply knowing what I need to do, I begin overcoming anxiety.
Think strategically about the best way to execute. In this case, it was to get some rest and wake up early to work on it when I’m most focused and energized.
2. Everything is Falling Apart
Scenario: I think my client hates me and is going to fire me. The world is coming to an end!
Is it rational? What evidence is there that my client is going to fire me? I’ve consistently delivered quality work and she’s said nothing but good things throughout our relationships.
Best action: Always work to deliver the best work possible. Then, be confident that it will work out. Beyond that, the client’s opinion is out of my control.
- Differentiate between rational and irrational sources of anxiety.
- We are wired to survive, not to determine what is true. For many people, most stress is irrational.
- However, there may be very real reasons to be stressed. Use reason and evidence to determine what they are.
- Once you’ve determined whether your stress is rational or irrational, accept reality. Be conscious.
- Then, take best action. Being debilitated by stress is almost never the most productive action.