Anxiety is an all too familiar feeling to many of us in life. For the majority, we feel anxiety when we are worried or scared in a situation and that’s normal. For others, anxiety is an intrusive guest in our mind whom we never invited in, and who never wants to leave. We insist we want to do something or try something new and our bothersome guest relays tales of woe, of what might happen to us not if, but when it goes wrong. It tells us how humiliated we’ll feel and how much of a failure we’ll be. In this blog post, I want to talk about that unwanted guest that lives in some of our heads and define what it looks and feels like to have anxiety, as well as busting the myths, the lies that devious guest tells us so we can take a step closer to overcoming anxiety.
His eyes darted around at the once familiar faces looking in his direction. They were familiar because he had grown up with these people; he knew their names, their brothers, and sisters, which school they’d been to, yet he now found himself staring out into a sea of strangers. Where a moment ago stood a friend, now stared a more sinister pair of eyes, watching and judging his every movement.
He felt a hand slide up his back and slowly wrap its slender fingers around his throat. A wave of panic passed over him, but when he looked down there was no hand. However, he knew it was still there, pulling down on him, slowly tightening its grip. He gasped for air, trying to prepare himself to speak. In the same moment, he noticed a hot flush spread through him rapidly and he turned away from the strange faces, hoping they had not seen his crimson cheeks, as he feared they would see him for what he was, an imposter. He was a shell of a being pretending to be one of them.
His heart thudded against his chest, his breathing erratic, for the harder he tried to pretend nothing was wrong, the more the hand tightened around his neck and the more the strange faces saw flashes of the real him. A swarm of thoughts buzzed around his mind erratically, too loud to find any one thought to listen to. The strange faces were going to notice; they were going to figure it out. Quick. Do something. Make it stop. Please. Help.
A life of constant worry
As a teenager and young adult, I’d grown up like so many do seeking validation from others. I felt that I was a nice person who could be a great friend/girlfriend if people would just give me the chance to get to know them and get comfortable with them.
Up until this point I’d mostly been a loner. I so badly wanted a boyfriend and a best friend, but I seemed hopelessly inept at building relationships. I felt that, whilst people might like me, I was nothing to write home about. Overcoming anxiety felt like an impossible task and I was certain I was doomed to forever suffer from it.
During my college years, I began working as a lifeguard for the local pool. This was an exciting new opportunity for me, and it was a chance to reinvent myself, to be whatever I wanted to be rather than what I had felt confined to be at school. However, as it would always go, I ended up making a few friends but ultimately was chasing the validation of others.
I recall one day I was in the staff room with a supervisor I liked, but I didn’t think he liked me much as a person. In an attempt to fit in with the culture of the other lifeguards, I made a joke at his expense. He didn’t laugh, it was just a horrible, awkward silence and I looked down at my phone pretending I didn’t care and that I wasn’t falling apart inside.
I’ve ruined our friendship, I thought, he hates me. I’ll never fit in.
And so the rest of the day was spent trying to engineer another interaction with him where I could get him to laugh, or even smile at me so I could stop obsessing over the conversation, what I’d said, what I should have said, what he might be thinking of me, what he might tell other people about me… the list goes on.
Anxiety isn’t just worrying, it’s an excessive and obsessive, never-ending stream of thoughts which make you feel like your whole world is falling apart. It occupies every crevasse of your mind and isn’t relieved until the thing you’re worrying about, in my case the thought this supervisor now hated me, is proven otherwise.
Later that day the supervisor made a joke with me and treated me like the other lifeguards, so I felt like I was part of the gang again. Shortly after I spoke to another lifeguard and I felt he was off with me, and so the whole process began again.
The Reality of Anxiety
Anxiety will tell you there are enemies round every corner. It will tell you to be careful with what you say, mimic the actions you see of those around you and ultimately when you can’t mimic their interactions well enough, it tells you you’ll never fit in. You’ll never be funny, or smart, or good looking. You’ll be forever doomed to be chasing a life you wish you had, a person you wish you were.
Overcoming anxiety is challenging, but I want to tell you that whilst you might be lost right now and feel like there is no escape, you can fight your way through. It will be difficult; you will doubt the process but you will get there.
3 Proven Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety
Step 1: Remove negative traits
Take responsibility for who you are. Anxiety can often bring with it some undesirable traits, and overcoming anxiety and those traits can be difficult. Below are just a few:
Manipulation and deceit
Manipulation sounds like a nasty word and isn’t one that we like to associate ourselves with, but here me out. When I was younger, I used to be so desperate for validation and to be accepted I would engineer situations that made me out to be a victim, so people would feel sorry for me and naturally gravitate toward me to offer support. Maybe then, I thought, people will get to know the real me and I can make friends.
I also couldn’t stand the idea of someone seeing a weakness of mine, so I did everything in my power to hide them. It was only later on I learnt how much this can hurt your battle in overcoming anxiety, and how understanding and patient people can be with you if you’re honest with them about your weaknesses.
Challenge yourself to be honest. If you want to talk to someone, find an environment you feel comfortable with and engage with them. That might be talking to them when you have someone else around so some of the pressure to talk can be taken off of you. Make a habit of being honest in every interaction; you won’t be perfect every time but gradually you will get there.
You only hurt your own growth and development by being dishonest and painting a false image of who you are. The more you lie, the more you feel trapped in that pattern of deception. The path to overcoming anxiety isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding once you begin it.
Lack of accountability
We tend to avoid failure like the plague, and with that any accountability over our failures. We think that if we are honest about our failures that people will give up on us, or it’ll confirm some negative belief we think they may hold of us. That might be true in some cases, but it’s also true that in failure come some of life’s best lessons.
We might be scared of admitting fault but avoiding accountability for a mistake or decision you have made is far more damaging than any punishment you might receive for that mistake. A life without accountability is a life without reflection on one’s actions, and therefore a life without growth.
Mistakes and failures teach you what not to do again and often show you the right way forward. However, if you constantly absolve yourself of accountability or worse yet, blame others for where you are in life then you will never grow as a person and you will struggle with overcoming anxiety.
Reflect on every failure, every mistake you make and own it. It’s okay to mess up, after all we’re only human. I bet you there isn’t one single person in the world who can tell you they’ve never messed up.
However, unfortunately today life is full of people who do not own their mistakes and worse yet act like a victim when you confront them about it. If you do this, you will never reflect on the lessons learnt from those failures.
Own them, start small and begin to admit accountability. Make a mistake at work? Own up and listen to the feedback you receive in return – it will contain valuable insight in what to do better next time.
Bail on a plan with a friend? Be honest with them, tell them you forgot and are sorry for that, be up front with them. You will be surprised how far honesty and accountability gets you. People generally tend to know when you’re not being truthful about something, even when you think you’ve convinced them.
Victimhood and attention
Through the lens of anxiety it’s easy to begin to believe you are a victim of life. Something bad happens and instead of trying to find a positive, or listening to advise around you, you play victim instead. I used to think that if people knew of hardships I went through and I presented a tortured but strong woman who was trying to fight through it, then it would earn me respect. In actual fact, I ended up playing victim so much any kind of sympathy I initially saw dissipated.
I found people begin to be more hostile with me, have less time for me as I didn’t seem genuine. Sure, something unfortunate might have happened but by playing the part of a victim and not trying to get any better people lost patience with me. After all, there’s only so many times they can comfort me and offer me advise before they start to realise my aim isn’t to get any better, but to become more and more of a victim.
If something happens to you but doesn’t impact you, don’t make a big deal of it. If something does happen and it does impact you, seek honest and genuine conversations about it rather than trying to gain sympathy. Back when I worked as a lifeguard my dad got hit by a car and ended up breaking his back. There was a short period of time we weren’t sure if he was going to survive, but he did. It was a very stressful situation, but how I behaved at work was appalling.
I wanted to talk to people but didn’t know how, so I engineered situations which brought people to me. I would seem quiet on poolside, or maybe punch a wall and flash my fists at someone so they noticed the blood on my knuckles and asked me if I was okay. My intentions were never bad, I did genuinely need someone to talk to but didn’t know how to go about it, so I made myself a tortured victim.
Be honest with people. If you don’t know what to say, tell them that. I’ve stressed multiple times in this post how important honesty is in your battle with overcoming anxiety – it really will transform your life and relationships. If you feel anxious about talking to someone, tell them that. Be open and genuine with them about your thoughts and stay away from portraying yourself as a victim. It won’t help you and certainly doesn’t help your relationships.
You may also like: Embracing Failure: What Society Doesn’t Want You To Know
STEP 2: Challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone
Start putting yourself in uncomfortable situations – hate talking in front of groups of people? If an opportunity arises to do so, take it. It will feel horrible, I’m certain of it and you will feel anxious as hell but then something else will happen. You’ll gain a little bit of confidence. You still won’t like the idea of stepping out of your comfort zone, but the more you do it the easier it becomes and the closer you get to overcoming anxiety.
Start off small – maybe you don’t like going on video whilst on voice calls at work; turn on your camera toward the end of the session. Maybe you’re nervous about talking with new people; start to engage shop keepers or till staff when you visit your local shop. Think of a few topics of conversation, practise them in your mind and keep the conversation short. Start exposing yourself to activities you’d usually hide away from gradually and your confidence will grow.
Never in a million years did I think I would become a trainer; I hated talking in front of groups of people, in fact my voice used to shake as I spoke, and my face turn bright red. However, when the opportunity arose I took it. It wasn’t pleasant to begin with and I delivered some awful training sessions at first, including ones observed by my manager, but with each attempt I got better and gained confidence until eventually I could walk into a session with little to no initial prep and talk about a subject. It was a big step in the right direction for my own battle with overcoming anxiety.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and you will start to enjoy those experiences and feel alive from them. I cannot stress enough how this changed my life and overcoming anxiety. If you shy away from what makes you feel nervous or scared and always take the easy route, you will never develop self confidence and learn from mistakes, as you won’t make any. You’ll stay idle in your safe zone, never moving forward, never moving at all. Is that really what you want out of life?
Step 3: Read more
Start to research into people you find interesting, people who you admire. The very first person I engaged with was Tony Robbins. Not my usual kind of taste, but he opened my mind to a world of different ideas on how to live your life, how to escape negative thought cycles. I then met Ant Middleton, who really changed my life. Ant’s book The Fear Bubble really solidified my belief about taking responsibility for your life. It also completely called out who I used to be, a self-proclaimed victim.
You may also like: Why you should read and reflect more
David Goggins then helped me achieve some of my very first fitness goals, he kept me company in my dark days when I couldn’t seem to make much progress in the gym. He showed me life is a process and hard work means progress.
Stoic philosophy made me realise the importance of taking action, of not just saying I wanted to do something but on following through. It also reaffirmed my belief that the answer to all of life’s questions are contained within books, within blog posts, within YouTube videos, within other people’s experiences. After all, history is just the same thing happening over and over again.
You are not the first person to suffer with anxiety, nor will you be the last. You are not the first person to be apprehensive about being put in challenging situations or the first to be searching for answers for overcoming anxiety. Contained in books is insight into how people overcame hardships and struggles. Their situation may not be exactly the same as you, but there’s always a lesson to be learnt within their stories.
Through Ant Middleton I saw someone who has been on the same path as me, constantly putting himself out of his comfort zone and taking on challenges; from leading reality TV shows like Mutiny, where he had to lead a group of experienced but diverse sailors across 4000 miles of unforgiving sea, to climbing Mount Everest to understand more about himself and his limits. I saw a man who was in constant search for insight and lessons to learn about himself, his strengths and weaknesses.
Through Nelson Mandela I saw how in his early years his ego had sometimes guided his decision-making and view of himself. As he had family ties with royalty and was attending a prestigious University in Africa he recalls thinking that no one was more intelligent that he and that he was being groomed for success. This kind of thought pattern can be dangerous as it can build a sense of entitlement, a sense that you should not have to work as hard as others and you’d already earnt your future success.
I reflected on myself and how my ego sometimes got in the way of action. Simply telling someone I was going to do something often gave me enough of an ego boost I didn’t feel the need to follow through on that action. Consequently, a lot of my goals I never followed through on. It’s a battle I still fight today, but one I’m trying to become more mindful of.
In his book Shoe Dog, Phil Knight talks about his ambition to bring Japanese shoes into the American markets. There were many doubters around him, but he shows through hard work and persistence through tougher times you can achieve success. I considered my own blog and how I had felt I’d never gain enough traction to make a living from it. However, his book provided the insight and experience to let me know I should carry on, even through the tougher times.
Learn from others, read more books, more blog posts, more TED talks, whatever works for you. Absorb as much knowledge as possible and take from it what you find helpful and discard what isn’t. You can build your own strategy for success, pave your own pathway from anxiety and books can be your companion on your journey. Whenever you question if you have made the right decision, or if you’ll ever reach that light at the end of the tunnel, learn to find comfort in the words and experiences of others. We’re all human and no one is born great, as Bruce Lee once said, we must learn through skilful frustrations.
Be true to who you are and cut away all the negative attributes you do not like about yourself.
Step out of your comfort zone; learn from mistakes you make and gain confidence from successes you have.
Read more books; how to overcome anxiety is already laid out through others experiences, just as I have shared with you part of my story and insight gained in this blog post.
Above all, never give up. Keep reading, keep researching, keep trying. You will make it.