Don’t Panic! How to Overcome Anxiety and Cultivate Resilience

People who don’t know me often assume that I am a yogi, free of anxiety and in a constant state of peace. However, I am prone to anxiety, depression, and I was suicidal at some point in my life. So, I have to work hard to stay on the “bright” side of the path.  Not to mention, I hate pain, I hate injuries, I hate useless stress, and I hate losing people I love.

Also, I tend to think if I do things “right,” I should not get hurt.  Like, if I eat right and smear sunblock, I shouldn’t get cancer. If I take enough lessons, I won’t fall on my arise and break my legs, and so on. Next, I am not good coping with any changes I didn’t ask.

There are no guarantees in life. It is unpredictable, and things always change. So, the attachment to results and inability to accept change leads to anxiety.

I am entitled to an action, but the fruits of are not mine. The bottom line, the universe neither cares nor rotates around me.  But, there is much more control over my actions and reactions.

So, the first thing to battle anxiety is to focus on things that are in our control. 

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

I firmly believe how we cope with adversities, pain, changes, and loss determines our success and happiness in life.  To avoid pain is to avoid life.  I am not suggesting that life should be all suffering. But, shit happens.

Admittedly, eating well, working out, chasing my dreams and being loved didn’t remove failures and fuck-ups, but helped me deal with anxiety.

Accepting Anxiety

“Do not let your difficulties fill you with anxiety, after all it is only in the darkest nights that stars shine more brightly.”

Hazrat Ali Ibn Abu-Talib  

I am a fatalist. As a young kid, I was pretty sure that I would die by the age of 30. I often think of my loved ones and my mortality. It helps to keep things in perspective when all is rosy.  But, not very helpful when I am dealing with problems. As my mind dwells in the darkness, I worry about the future as I imagine the worst-case scenarios.

However, under no circumstances I allow myself to dwell in this stage for more than two to three days regardless of how bad things are.

How To Overcome the Anxiety

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

Mark Twain

1) Journaling

Journaling is writing down our thoughts and feelings to understand it more clearly.

This is my number one anxiety trap. I use a notepad or excel document. I “stream” my mind by writing whatever comes to it. Here, I can see my self-talk, feelings and my thoughts. Typically, I write in the morning or at night. You have to find what works for you. 

Exercise: Set a timer for 10 – 12 minutes preferably in the morning. Open up your notebook (or begin a document on your computer). Write about your experiences from yesterday and today. Don’t worry about grammar or sloppiness! Go wherever your mind takes you. Be curious and non-judgment. Write for yourself, and never for any readers. Practice for a few days or a week. Then, reread it with curiosity and don’t be judgemental.  Treat your notes as if you treat someone you love and care about.

Sometimes, I destroy my notes (once I burned my notebook) and other times I keep them.

It doesn’t matter. The point is to take thoughts out of our minds and on the page. Hence, we start the process of getting out of our heads into the experience of gaining perspective.

2)  Cultivating Gratitude

The sense of loss is one of the leading causes of anxiety. Focusing on my blessings instead of what I lost, helps me overcome anxiety.

I made this into a separate point because it is important. I have “gratitude” box in my excel spreadsheet where I write at least five things I am grateful for daily. This exercise requires feeling. I close my eyes and feel gratitude.

Exercise: Preferably the first thing in the morning as a part of your journaling exercise. Find a quiet place, disconnect your phone. Write five things that you are grateful for. For each item, you write about, stay with it for a few seconds and feel your gratitude.

If nothing comes to mind, here is your cheat sheet:

  • the roof over my head
  • clean water
  • one true friend
  • freedom of choice
  • the ability to stand, walk, breathe
  • being alive
  • take some time to find your blessings; they are all around you!

3) Reading and Listening Books

We can’t hide from our problems. Especially when it comes to anxiety. However, taking a break from our heads will do us some great good.

We can escape our own drama into someone else’s life when we read. Getting lost in a story is doing just that. We lose ourselves, our troubles, and our anxieties. It can only be an hour or so. But that hour is all we might need.

Reading lowers our heart rate and eases muscle tension quickly. The best part? It doesn’t matter what we read.

For me, it is science-fiction. Reading (just like writing) is my go activity to help me cope with anxiety.  Douglas Adams told me fantastic stories about life, universe, death and interstellar travel. He took me out of my gloom during my knee injury. I lived in the commonwealth with Peter F. Hamilton when my father died.  Reading is therapeutic. And it heals.

So if thrillers are your thing, you can enjoy the story and relax at the same time!

A note for audio book lovers: as far as your brain is concerned, listening audiobooks is the same as reading. It is not cheating!  If you read books well, you would listen to them as well.

In a 1977 study, college students who listened to a short story were able to summarize it with equal accuracy as those who read it.” Listeners and readers keep about an equal understanding of the passages they’ve consumed. So, you are not cheating when listening to audiobooks!

Practice: set a timer for 60 minutes, disconnect your phone, find a place where you won’t be distracted and read a book.

4) Practice Yoga

If you’ve read my blog, you know that “yoga practice” means a complete package. It includes postural yoga, breathing exercises, and focused meditation. The goal of yoga practice is to cultivate an attentive mindset. The yoga mat is the easiest place to start.  A daily practice tailored to our personal needs by a skilled teacher is golden. 

So, when we experience anxiety, we can carry out what we’ve learned on the mat.

My daily yoga practice is quite simple. I got lucky with my teachers. Nowadays, I can tailor my practice.

When I face anxiety off the map, I tap myself with my forefinger on the forehead or clap my palms, signaling my brain to take a few deep breath instead of freezing.

Exercise: click here to practice 10-minute yoga.

5. Incorporate movement

My daily yoga practice obviously includes movement. But, I wanted to emphasize the importance movement in overcoming anxiety.

Nothing makes me feel better after pumping some iron, hiking, yoga practice, and meditation. However, I don’t always feel up to a  hard workout. Instead, I can do something gentle and still get the benefits.

Gentle yoga, swimming laps, cleaning the house,  or walking in the pool are great options. You need to find the right exercise for you.

Exercise: Go for a 10-minute walk alone, turn your phone off, notice your surroundings, as you inhale, breathe in the beauty of the natural world, as you exhale breathe out and let go. Observe the trees and the flowers, the sunlight or raindrops. Become one with elements. 

6. Understanding the issue

“A problem well put is half solved.”

― John Dewey

Nothing gets me quicker out of my misery than an action plan. But, the first part of any problem is to formulate it. I will show you how I approach problem resolution most logically, you can plug-in whatever you are dealing with and see that it works like magic!

  1. Formulate the problem: I tore my a ligament in my knee [ACL].
  2. Is it a real issue?  << If Not EXIT Else continue>>
  3. How to fix the ACL [create a Google folder, medical research, alternative treatments, medical records,  Facebook recommendations, etc. all in one folder].
  4. Find specialists I trust who overcome or can help with this issue.
  5. Timeline for fixing the issue.

This stage takes a few days to start with. By collecting the data and analyzing the problem, I became more familiar with the terminology. It helps me to understand the issue. So, once I am ready to talk to a specialist if I can’t fix it myself (like I needed a doctor to fix my ACL), I know exactly what to expect. Writing down the questions, costs, pros, and cons. I try not to get stuck here. Sometimes I have paralysis through analysis.

Exercise: What are you anxious about? Formulate your issue and see if you can express your problem.

7. Create Action Plan

Now, I have a clear understanding of the problem and ready to take action.

  1. Do I have a skill set to resolve the issue myself? <<If NO continue>>
  2. Who is the best specialist in the field?
  3. How much would it cost?
  4. How long would it take?
  5. Reaching out to people, reading reviews, scheduling appointments.
  6. Asking questions and comparing it to what I know.

Exercise: Create an action plan for the issue you are anxious that you’ve formulated above.

8. Solution [decision making]

So, I got out of my head by practicing yoga, writing, reading and talking walks. With a clear mind and no anxiety, I formulated the issues; I have a map or an action plan. Now, it is time to resolve the problem.

I like to take my time here. Honestly, I am not very good at making decisions. And the truth is there are no perfect solutions. The surgery possibly could’ve worked for me, the stem-cell regenerative procedure might not have worked for me. Who knows and who cares? I felt the most comfortable with the regenerative stem-cell procedure. I trusted the doctor, I trusted the research. It felt good in my gut.

It was something I can learn a lot about and I figured I can always hop on the operating table later.  So, I scheduled a date and once I’ve decided, there was no going back.

Exercise: Practice decision-making. Start small – like choosing a meal for lunch and sticking to it. Take charge when possible to make decisions and stick with it. 

9. Building resilience

We all cope with adversity or challenges differently. Some of us become traumatized and damaged. Others get angry. Some people move on from the trauma without damage.

Resilience and courage are muscles and can be developed just like any other muscles.

It is easier to deal with anxiety when you have your fundamental things in order (like sleep, relationships, movement, diet, and lifestyle). 

One of my heroes, James Stockdale, was a United States Navy admiral. He studied philosophy (specifically Epictetus teachings) at Stanford University.

James Stockdale plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1965. He became a prisoner of war for seven and a half years. During his captivity, he spent more than four years in solitary confinement. James Stockdale was repeatedly tortured. His shoulders torn from their sockets, his back broken, his legs crushed. He walked with a limp and endured much pain for the rest of his life.

To survive, James Stockdale used  Epictetus philosophy:

  • Happiness demands that we differentiate between what is, and is not within our control.
  • We should try to influence fate, but we can’t control it.
  • So when fate strikes, the measure of a person is their reaction to fate.
  • We can either accept what we can’t change or be miserable.  
  • The importance of seeing bad things as providing a chance to act virtuously, instead of thinking of freedom and happiness as getting and doing whatever we want.

In 1993, Stockdale described his thoughts immediately after his plane was hit:

After ejection…I whispered to myself: I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus…as I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that are “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are “external,” beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.

James Stockdale rejected the false optimism.

He knew that false hope is how you went insane in that prison. Instead, he survived by maintaining realistic expectations about how long he might be in captivity. Unlike his fellow prisoners, who believed they would be set free by each Thanksgiving or Christmas and who lost hope when they weren’t, Stockdale believed he would be imprisoned for at least five years.

What I’ve learned from James Stockdale:

  • We should take misfortunes that lies outside the sphere of our choices and considered them an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it. This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity into opportunity.
  • Focus on things that are in my control.
  • Cultivate a sense of realistic optimism.

To end this article, I’d like to quote a note that James Stockdale received from one of his friends when he was on the verge of a suicide:

Back in my cell, after the guard locked the door, I sat on my toilet bucket – where I could stealthily jettison the note if the peephole cover moved – and unfolded Hatcher’s sheet of low-grade paper toweling on which, with a rat dropping, he had printed, without comment or signature, the last verse of Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

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