Designing the Mind

HOW TO OVERCOME ANXIETY

A COUNTERINTUITIVE AND COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE (2024)

How to Overcome Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the world. They’re also the most treatable.

Most patients who suffer from anxiety are able to reduce or eliminate symptoms in a matter of weeks with therapy. And the methods taught by therapists aren’t sorcery. You can easily learn them on your own.

So why do so many people continue to struggle with this crippling disorder? Here’s the secret: Most people aren’t trying to overcome anxiety.

Most people are under the impression that anxiety is something that has to be managed. You can’t just cure anxiety. You have to calm it… relieve it… soothe it.

The number of people searching for anxiety relief products and natural remedies for anxiety every month is in the tens of thousands. The number of people searching for online anxiety courses or treatment programs is in the dozens.

I’ve been studying anxiety for years now, reading every book, paper, and clinical handbook I could get my hands on, and integrating everything I’ve learned. What I’ve concluded is that the anxiety that most people experience on a regular basis is useless, maladaptive, and entirely optional.

The reason why so many people live with anxiety isn’t that it’s inevitable or untreatable – it’s that the reliable methods for eliminating it are counterintuitive, complex, and at their core, uncomfortable.

But make no mistake, you can develop the skills and strategies needed to get rid of anxiety forever. Methods like exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety are extremely effective.

These principles work for everything from high functioning to debilitating anxiety. They work for chronic worry and social anxiety. For fear of heights and panic attacks. You can use them to overcome health anxiety, driving anxiety, and even existential anxiety.

This guide will teach you everything you need in order to stop managing anxiety and start mastering it.

CONTENTS

The Active Ingredient

What if I told you that everything you were doing to treat your anxiety is actually making it worse? Yes, everything from medication to meditation could actually be reinforcing your anxiety in the long-term if you aren’t doing it properly.

The reason is that anything that your brain interprets as avoidance or escape will reinforce the anxiety in the long-term, even if it makes you feel better in the moment. This is because avoidance behaviors are what send the message to your brain that it has correctly identified danger.

Most people understand this is true of something like a fear of snakes. But they don’t realize all the ways avoidance sneaks into our behaviors and thoughts.

When you stay home because you’re anxious about socializing but tell yourself you’re just too tired, you’re avoiding. When you try to distract yourself from the turbulence on a plane, you’re avoiding. And yes, when you engage in otherwise healthy behaviors like meditation and exercise to relieve anxiety, you’re avoiding.

This means your anxiety will stick around, or even get worse, in the long run, even if it feels better at the time. The authors of the excellent book, What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Anxiety Disorders say:

"Anxiety is maintained by avoidance and willing exposure is the active ingredient of recovery"

Now if you’re thinking you just need to do the things that scare you to overcome anxiety, you aren’t too far off. But note that there is more to exposure therapy than “just do it.” Doing exposure incorrectly can result in increased anxiety.

A few important principles:

  • Exposure must address the actual underlying fears.
  • You must approach exposure as a positive learning experience, not something to get over with.
  • You must break up the exposure into manageable steps.
  • You must successfully trigger the fear, or your amygdala won’t learn.
  • You must remain in the situation without any kind of escape or avoidance.
  • You must continue the exposure for a predetermined amount of time.

Now if you are afraid of heights, spiders, or driving across bridges, you might be thinking this is great, and you now have the tools you need to overcome them. But what if you, like many, struggle more with free-floating anxiety, worry, or panic attacks?

The principles of exposure apply to far more than just fears and phobias. The same concepts can be used to end panic attacks, eliminate stress, and stop the constant worry thoughts that may be bombarding you every day.

The Power of Embrace

So how can we master this mindset?

Sometimes anxiety is compared to a Chinese finger trap. You stick a finger into each end of the small toy and try to escape. But you inevitably find that the harder you pull, the more tightly the tube squeezes your fingers, and the more impossible it becomes to get out (come to think of it, it’s pretty strange that this thing ever caught on as a toy).

But what you learn when using it, is that you have to do the opposite of what seems right. You have to push in with your fingers, allowing the tube to expand and release your fingers.

Anxiety works in the same way. Your brain is convinced that the frightening trigger is an actual threat. When you try to fight, escape, or avoid that fear, you merely tell your brain that it’s right. You say, good job, fear. Keep up the good work. The more you try to escape, the harder it becomes.

This is sometimes called the ironic process. Trying to relax and lower your anxiety causes you to check in on the anxiety more often, which leads to increased anxiety. And trying to escape the fear you experience in a given situation only brings more of it. So what can you do?

Embrace. Embrace the discomfort and go toward the anxiety. Do nothing to resist or fight the anxiety. Embrace is what cuts off the vicious cycle of fear. It’s the secret leverage point that takes away anxiety’s power.

When you understand that discomfort is not a sign of real danger, embrace the fear, and learn you can cope with the anxious feelings, the fear will diminish naturally until it is gone.

This idea of embrace applies to specific fears you may struggle with. But it’s far deeper than that. Embracing what scares you constitutes a kind of philosophy of life in itself.

Fear and anxiety can be compared to waves in the ocean. It is understandable that you would want to avoid the unpleasant storms. It seems like you could be crushed and drowned at any moment.

We all crave comfort, and we often just wish the waves would stop crashing down on us. But this is neither the nature of the ocean, or of the human experience. Anything other than embracing and learning to love the waves is denial.

When you feel a wave of anxiety coming on, don’t resist it. Don’t fight it. Don’t do anything just yet. Simply float on the wave. Allow the wave to rise and fall.

Allow it to pick you up and then gently lower you back down. And notice that when you aren’t trying to escape them, these waves can actually be enjoyable.

Fall into the sea of life. Seek out the tallest waves you can. Learn from your fears. They point the way to your growth. If you are afraid of something, you not only can overcome those fears: you must.

Doing the opposite of your fearful inclinations will gradually overwrite them. When you seek out something scary and remain with it without backing down, you tell your brain to start rewiring the pathways.

Here is a very practical and concrete way to use this mentality to end an anxiety attack.

How to Stop a Panic Attack

Why do panic attacks happen? It’s actually pretty simple – your fear has turned back on itself. In other words, some initial fear was triggered in your mind, and then you became afraid of your own natural responses to that fear.

Your heart rate increased, your breathing sped up, and you thought to yourself, “oh no, this is bad.” On its own, the initial fear you felt would have quickly subsided. But because you resisted those initial sensations, your brain learned that the sensations themselves are dangerous.

Of course, the sensations of anxiety are not actually dangerous. Panic attacks do not cause heart attacks. Hyperventilating will not hurt you. No one has ever died of a panic attack.

But good luck telling your brain this. Even the act of reassuring yourself with comforting facts may be interpreted by your brain as a form of escape. So what can you do?

First, we want to reinterpret the feelings of anxiety as “nervous energy.” We want to reframe these sensations from “something is wrong” to “this is nothing to be concerned about.” We want to become the curious observer of the feelings we’re experiencing.

But we don’t have to stop here. Paradoxical intention is an effective practice that involves doing the exact opposite of your natural inclination. In this case, we want to use it to try and escalate our anxiety and ask for more.

I know, it seems backwards, and possibly even harmful, but I can assure you that is not the case. It is the single best way to break the feedback cycle of anxiety. That’s right – the best way to get rid of anxiety is to actively seek out the nervous energy of anxiety.

When anxiety knocks on your door, you should treat it like an old friend. Greet it and tell it to stay as long as it likes. Better yet, even if it isn’t at your door, go ahead and call it up and invite it over for coffee.

You heard that right, you want to ask your anxiety to pay you a visit even when it’s nowhere to be found. This may seem unnecessary, but it’s all a part of sending the message to your brain that this is not a threat.

If your anxiety shows up and starts raising your heart rate and making your palms sweat, ask it “is that all you’ve got? Give me scarier thoughts, raise my heart rate even more, give me the worst anxiety attack of my life.”

If you commit to this method, you will feel a real shift. Whether your anxiety is severe or mild, you will feel it weaken and eventually disappear.

Yes, this method is taught in psychotherapy, and it’s the core message behind powerful books like Hope and Help for Your Nerves and Dare.

“To get out of the maze you must go forward and meet these experiences when they come. Do not try to avoid them… Merely accept them and be prepared to let more time pass until you can face them without suffering.”


– Claire Weekes, Hope and Help for Your Nerves

There’s another related method known as interoceptive exposure is highly effective in eliminating panic attacks. Just as the traditional exposure we covered above involves deliberately exposing you to external fears, interoceptive exposure involves deliberately invoking and exposing yourself to frightening internal feelings.

As we have said, people who struggle with panic are afraid of the sensations of arousal. So we want to deliberately induce these feelings. There are a few ways to do this:

  1. Deliberately hyperventilating – you can breathe quickly and intensely to create shortness of breath. You can also try breathing through a straw to create this feeling.
  2. Spinning in an office chair to create feelings of dizziness.
  3. Running to raise your heart rate, or drinking caffeine to raise your heart rate

This might sound like a terrible idea, but you are free to research interoceptive exposure if you don’t believe me. It’s a highly effective practice because it teaches you experientially that these are not dangerous sensations.

Identify which sensations you are most worried or afraid of, and then find a way to induce them. But take baby steps just like you’re doing with fear exposure so you don’t overwhelm yourself all at once.

What to do About Worry

Alright, so what if your version of anxiety doesn’t involve external fears or panic attacks? What if you simply find yourself stressing and worrying about the future all the time?

Phobias are generally a fear of external stimuli. Panic is a fear of feelings and sensations? So what’s worry?

Ultimately, worry is a fear of thoughts. This may seem like an odd way of looking at it, but if you really examine your worries, you’ll find that there are two parts.

The first part is the obsession: probably a thought about some unwanted future event. The second part is the compulsion: another thought that attempts to ease or reassure the first thought.

It’s no accident that these feature the same two components as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). That’s because worry is thought by many experts to be of the same fundamental nature as OCD.

And it’s not so hard to see why. When you think of someone with OCD, you may think of someone with germophobic tendencies, who has to check the oven a million times before leaving the house, or who has to do strange routines throughout the day to cope.

People with OCD are known to wash their hands or check their oven a million times before leaving the house because they have recurring worry thoughts, or obsessions, pop into their minds in response to certain triggers.

And then they take actions, or compulsions, to try and comfort or soothe themselves and make the worry go away. Then the obsession comes back, and once again they try to soothe their discomfort with the compulsive habit.

When you worry, you are engaged in the exact same cycle. It may seem strange, but worriers are worriers, not because they are constantly confronting reality, but because they are constantly avoiding confronting it.

The person terrified of losing their job is avoiding the real possibility of risk, resisting nature, and attempting to fight the wave. And this fact holds the key to putting an end to these useless and repetitive worries.

Now admittedly, worry is a bit more complex than fear or panic. It won’t be possible to cover all the methods and ideas for eliminating it here. But we can cover some of the most important concepts.

Much like the previous sections, we want to deal with our worries by doing the opposite of our nature inclinations. We want to give ourselves repeated and prolonged exposure to the unpleasant thoughts and fearful images that pop into our minds when we worry.

Perhaps your worry is something like “I’ve already screwed up twice this week – I can’t mess up again. If I do, my boss is going to start suspecting I’m not good at my job. Maybe I’ll get fired.”

For you, this may be a highly unpleasant thought. You might be upset with yourself for even thinking it. So immediately, you say “No, that’s ridiculous. I just have imposter syndrome. Why would I even think that I might get fired. My boss just gave me a positive performance review last year.”

But inevitably, those thoughts come back, and then you shoot them down, continuing the cycle of avoidanceBut this time, let’s really think about that possibility. Maybe you do get fired. It’s always possible that you could get fired. It does happen to people – perfectly competent and hard-working people, I might add. Let’s consider that possibility.

So what if you get fired? What would happen next? Let’s take this to the extreme. “Well, I suppose I would have to start looking for another job. And I might not be able to get one and could use up all my savings! No, no, that wouldn’t happen, I’m sure I would find one.”

Ahhh let me stop you right there – it’s always possible that you won’t be able to find more work. Maybe you do end up broke. So what? What happens next? “Well,” you might say “My wife might leave me. No, she wouldn’t do that – she loves me and would help me get back on my feet. But we could end up homeless! No that would never happen – we both have valuable skills.”

See we can’t even consider these possibilities without compulsively fighting them. Now I’m not saying it isn’t absurdly unlikely that these worst-case scenarios would happen. Of course they aren’t likely.

But here’s the thing: You already know they aren’t likely. I don’t need to tell you they aren’t likely. And yet, you still have to keep reassuring yourself at every point. Why? Because you are afraid to even think such terrible thoughts without jumping in and correcting them.

What you need to do is fully explore these fears. You might lose your job. You might die – you will die. Imagine that horrible scenario until it’s boring. Get comfortable with it.

When you engage in worry exposure, your goal is to allow yourself to think about these bad future outcomes without interruption.

Think about them from every different angle you can think of. See if you can identify the mental images that your brain is so afraid of. Maybe it’s an image of your boss telling you that your performance hasn’t been great lately. Maybe you imagine yourself telling your family you have to sell the house.

When you come up with an image that is hard to even think about it, you’ve hit the jackpot. Make the image as vivid as possible. You want to visualize that image in all its unpleasant detail, over and over, until you are bored with it.

Like I said at the start – counterintuitive. But this is how you actually overcome anxiety.

There’s another method that you can combine with this process to give it extra power: Worry scheduling. Much like with panic, we want to actively go on the hunt for our obsessive fears. You want to invite your worries to join you, on a specific day, at a specific time.

That’s right – schedule a date with worry. Pick a time and date to do your worrying and allocate half an hour or so. If worries enter your mind before the scheduled time, kindly remind them that you have an appointment.

When that time comes around, let your worries go wild. Let them plead their case to their heart’s content. Take out your journal and write down the contents of these worries until you can’t think of any more.

When your observe the worry thought “what if I can’t get this project done by the deadline,” say “go on… what do you think will happen?” Your worries may say “Well… your boss will be disappointed, you’ll let your whole team down.” Then you say “I see. And then what?” Your worries say “You could lose your job.” “Mmmm and why would that be so bad? I suppose I wouldn’t get to do those expense reports I love so much…” “Well, well…”

If you truly allow yourself to consider the worst-case scenario, it stops being so scary. It starts being boring. And that is how you’ll know you are successfully dismantling the anxiety.

If your worry scheduling experience is anything like most people’s, you’ll find that the worries exhaust themselves after only a minute or two.

The Five Distortions of Anxiety

In addition to the methods I’ve shared above, I want to go ahead and share the mistaken beliefs that underlie our worries. There are a few fundamental distortions shared among anxious people:

  1. The belief in the utility of worry
  2. The belief in the possibility of security
  3. The belief in sovereignty over circumstances
  4. The belief in the attainability of adequacy
  5. The belief in the gravity of catastrophe

These represent the five fundamental ways anxious people are observed to resist the waves of life and perpetuate their anxiety. Each represents a kind of clinging to what isn’t.

When cognitive therapy is used to treat anxiety, it makes a goal of correcting these distorted views. And this process of cognitive restructuring is all a part of the overarching solution to embrace and ride the wave instead of fighting it. To accept the seemingly harsh realities of life without backing down, only to see that when we’re open to them, they aren’t so harsh after all.

The utility distortion refers to the belief that worry and anxiety serve a valuable purpose. Even as you complete the steps to disarm and dismantle worry, a part of you may be fighting the effort because you believe the worry is helping you in some way. 

So our goal would be to completely obliterate the belief that there is value in worry so you can learn to embrace the utter futility of worry.

The security distortion has to do with risk, permanence, and certainty. People who struggle with anxiety see risk everywhere they look. They focus on everything that could possibly go wrong. They inflate the likelihood of catastrophe.

But most importantly, they have an underlying belief that ultimate security and certainty are things that can be attained in this life. The fact is, perfect safety does not exist. Permanence does not exist. Everything we have now will eventually disappear or decay.

If this strikes you as depressing, it means you have not integrated this fact into your understanding of the world, which is probably a big part of why you worry. If you live your life expecting to be able to attain anything, possessions, circumstances, or even loved ones forever, you will constantly be caught off guard when life fails to operate according to your fantasies.

The sovereignty distortion is the illusion that we are in control of our circumstances. Many of us live our lives as if we were omnipotent captains steering the ship of our circumstances. The problem is that this ship is a tiny canoe in the middle of a deep ocean storm.

If the waves had minds of their own, they would be laughing at our petty efforts to steer out of harm’s way. The harder we try to keep from being thrown by the waves, the more we punish ourselves for thinking this remotely possible.

Those who are able to restructure their relationship with control and focus on what they have control over often experience major relief in their anxiety. Their worries in many different domains start to quiet down because they have fully accepted that things aren’t guaranteed to go their way; and that’s okay.

The adequacy distortion is the belief that you can ever attain enough perfection or accomplishment to be “enough.” Many people have a fundamental fear of not living up to their potential

A fear of settling for the status quo. A fear of disappointing yourself and others. A fear of not discovering your true purpose, falling short in your work or relationships, or growing old without achieving all you were capable of.

But it can be quite freeing to realize that you will never do anything perfectly. You will never reach your full potential. And when you use a binary measurement for your actions, you will never be enough.
 
You need to get comfortable with the fact that you aren’t perfect and never will be. You haven’t reached your full potential, and you never will.
 
This is actually a good thing. Your potential is an infinite scale. And you get to play the infinite game of improving yourself your whole life, never having to reach an endpoint and get bored.
 

And lastly, the catastrophe distortion is the tendency to “zoom in” on negative aspects of our possible futures, painting things as worse or more severe than they are. This error tends to be paired with a minimization of the many positive aspects of the situation, resulting in a totally warped view of our lives.

People who develop this distorted perspective don’t just worry that bad things will happen to them – they worry that they won’t be able to cope if they do.

They worry that they’ll be destroyed by the very real setbacks they may face. They forget their own power and resilience and resist the fundamental lightness of life.

When you have the courage to confront your own personal catastrophes, you start to realize they wouldn’t be so catastrophic after all. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel pain or grieve for a time. It means you can recover from anything.

Many of us, particularly those who struggle with anxiety, believe we are far more fragile than we actually are. In many ways, the key to overcoming your worst fears is to cultivate greater trust in your ability to handle whatever life throws at you and the capacity to laugh at it. You are not fragile.

Get the Guide

The Anxiety Algorithm

I have tried to share as much as I could here on the process of getting rid of anxiety. But believe it or not, there is a lot more to this process. I said it was effective, not that it was easy.

But I want to stress again that it is entirely possible to completely overcome anxiety, as I have seen it happen countless times. You may be able to do it on your own, but if you want a more detailed walkthrough, you have options.

I built a program called The Anxiety Algorithm for systematically teaching this mindset and methodology. It covers the other 90% of the principles I’ve covered here over the course of 30 lessons and exercises.

It’s not an easy program to complete, and if you do it correctly, you can expect it to make you uncomfortable, or even terrified at some points.

But everyone who completes it sees a radical transformation in their anxiety, with most reporting it has completely eliminated all of their unwanted anxiety.

You can learn more about that program here, and you can even check out a sample lesson here. But if you aren’t sure if you want to take that leap (or don’t need it), I have a completely free resource, a free, 50 page guide on psychitecture that I highly recommend you grab.

This guide will walk you through the basic principles for rewiring your emotions, beliefs, and habits. You can also get on the email list to get The Psychitecta weekly dose of codified wisdom, every Saturday.

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