“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality” – Seneca the Younger
Let those words sink in. Now reflect back and think of the numerous times in life where you felt horrible, or you overestimated a problem, or you were scared and concerned of how someone would react to your words and decisions…only to come out of those situations unscratched (or at least much better than you pictured the outcome to be). Yet the next time trouble knocked on your door, you went through the anxiety cycle again and blew things out of proportion in your mind.
So why do we let our mind and its imagination go out of control when we can avoid all of it through honest communication with ourselves and with others? We worry so much about the past even though there is nothing we can do to change it. We get concerned about the future even though it isn’t here yet. And so, we end up suffering in the present as we fill it with imaginary scenarios that probably will never even come true…all because we cannot control our brain and its emotions. I don’t want to make it seem like it is an easy feat to get in control of our brain and to limit the anxiety that comes from it…because it is not. It may takes years to master. But what is important is to realize from today that there are some things you can do to help limit the anxieties you are generating in your daily life. Even if you fail at completely eliminating anxiety, being self-aware is already much better than being oblivious about it.
We suffer in the present as we fill it with imaginary scenarios that probably will never even come true.
The first thing anyone can do to limit anxiety is implementing a mentality of indifference. This is critical in overcoming the concerns generated from the things we rely upon the most (like money, health, reputation, relationships). When we let go and become indifferent to these items and their outcomes, then we will also let go of the anxiety that surrounds them. You simply cannot have a proper relationship with someone if you are constantly worried that they will leave you. You can’t enjoy the wealth you are accumulating if you are constantly worried about losing it. You can’t live your life to the utmost if you constantly worry about your health. I am not asking you to be careless about these things. Being indifferent doesn’t mean you don’t care about them anymore. It just means that you are good either way. It means you are capable of accepting any outcome they produce with equanimity and thus not get affected and led by the anxieties tied to them.
Being indifferent simply means accepting all the different outcomes.
The second is being thankful towards what you have today. There will always be options that are better than others. Obviously being financially independent is better than being poor, being healthy is better than being sick. No one is arguing about that. But if you are happy and thankful with what you already have, then you will no longer worry about how you can get more. Therefore, accept what you have today and move on. Make the best out of the hand that you were dealt and stop spending time thinking about what you can’t do because of what you don’t have.
The third is controlling the lies. It was once said: say a lie, keep repeating it, and eventually it becomes the truth. This is how our minds work. Our mind feeds us the lies from our imagination and convinces us that they are reality. We get blinded by those lies, only to become aware of their nature when it is too late. This is mostly caused by informational asymmetry, where we are deprived of what others know and how they feel. We only see what we know and what we feel, and we base all of our judgements, decisions and possible scenarios on that.
Practice the fear setting exercise once every month.
If all of what you read so far sounds fluffy, difficult to implement, or just not convincing enough to get rid of anxiety, then do this exercise instead (or in addition). This is a stoic exercise that I stumbled upon through a TedX talk by Tim Ferris. It is called The Fear Setting Exercise, and it consists of 3 sections.
The first section answers the question “What If I…?”. This is where you list the top 10-15 fears you currently have. What if they happened? For each one, write down how you would prevent the scenario from happening, and also write down what you would do should the worst case scenario occur. A simple example from my fear setting exercise is the fear of gaining weight again. I would prevent this by exercising 10 minutes every day. Should my fear get realized, I would repair the damage by eating less and monitoring my calories intake so I lose weight again.
Writing your fears down and being honest with oneself will calm you and your brain and will limit your anxieties.
The second section of the exercise is to think about what could be the benefits of an attempt or even a partial success. One of my fears is failing at my start-up. But if I constantly think about the chances of failing, I would have given up months ago. Writing down the benefits of a partial success (having a dream job and creating jobs for others) as well as the benefits of just having an attempt (great learning experience) makes the anxiety of failure disappear. Finally, the last section is about the cost of inaction. What is the cost (emotionally, physically, financially, etc) of doing nothing today? How would you feel in 6 months, 1 year and 3 years when you look back and see that you did nothing about your fears and that you held yourself back because of anxieties that you couldn’t control. Would you be proud, disappointed, regretful?
I hope this exercise will help you in dealing with your anxiety. And remember, a mind that is anxious about future events is miserable.