How low have you ever been? Perhaps you are at your lowest point now, or you have yet to experience a truly low period of your life. It is possible that you don’t even have an accurate barometer upon which to measure your well-being by, thanks to one or both of circumstantial personal tragedy, or a regular intake of alcohol or drugs.
For those of you who are at your lowest point, and for others who have been there and can feel the possibility of being dragged down there again, I would like to share my own experiences with you, and to encourage you that you have the power to be the master of your own well being.
Why Does Anxiety Even Exist?
Throughout pre-civilization human history, although we were capable of hunting, we were also prey for some of the world’s scariest predators. Big cats, eagles and man eating snakes would often attempt capture of us or our young, with the additional worry of non predatory but still dangerous animals administering a deadly defensive sting or bite. We did live surrounded by brutal Darwinian nature after all.
This is where anxiety helped us survive. Any parents who had an attitude of calm indifference to potential threats would be playing a dangerous game with their own and their kids’ chances of survival. If for example, one in every hundred times that you slept while your kids played unattended on the forest floor they would be killed, then parents who let that happen more than a hundred times ought to expect tragedy to strike.
Conversely, parents who were terrified and always on guard gave their kids a much greater chance of survival. The most anxious among them were most likely to have a life of psychological struggle, but also more likely to see their gene pool survive through many generations.
In short, prey animals that do not take survival seriously would soon be ruthlessly filtered out by Darwinian evolution. As an uncivilized world (by modern standards) was the norm for greater than 99% of our history, we shouldn’t be surprised that many of us are still routinely gripped by fear in today’s relatively harmless world.
What Happens If You Give Up?
Our ancestors evidently didn’t give up the struggle, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Quit taking responsibility for your problems in the modern world, and you or your kids won’t land in the jaws of a lion for a sudden violent end to your problems. Instead you will begin the slide into your own personal hell, with the added drama of dragging your loved ones down there with you.
Let’s imagine you are playing with a rubix cube. Very few people will ever have the patience to solve it. Perhaps you come very close, but your frustration builds and builds after an hour of no progress. At this stage you quit.
What are your options now? You could watch a movie, play video games, go to the gym, take a nap or do anything else. Quit a simple unimportant task, and life instantly becomes easier — you can revert to enjoyment or rest.
But what of life itself? Life is the ultimate game, with many more possible pathways than even a rubix cube offers.
However, no such easy way out exists if you give up the challenge. Sure there is suicide, but that is passing on your pain and suffering to those closest to you, which may be an even bigger cross to bear for them than it is for you.
If you have challenges in your life, and you avoid them or put them off, most of them don’t go away. There is no way to revert to enjoyment or rest like when you put down the rubix cube. You have to actually fix the things that are causing your malaise, or the struggle intensifies.
If you don’t clear the air with your partner, the animosity grows. If you delay completing your essay or work project, the sense of a job unfinished will grind you down, providing you with many more hours and days of stress than you would suffer otherwise.
Even the small things, like being comfortable and ready to sleep but knowing you need the toilet. You can’t quit needing the toilet, the discomfort will grow until you deal with it, when you can finally sleep.
The more issues you just ignore in your life, the more your underlying restlessness multiplies, until you are drowning in unfinished business and broken relationships. The ladder takes energy to keep climbing. But let go and you won’t land on silky cushions — you’ll land in a bed of thorns where everywhere you turn, there is even more pain.
Don’t Be Angry at What You Can’t Change
There is little more guaranteed to foster a sense of discontent than a feeling of futility. If you can do absolutely nothing to change something you are angry about, it is time for acceptance, and to turn your attentions elsewhere.
Take politics. While I do not wish to discourage any of you from being involved in political action where change is possible, and where such action has a meaningful impact, it is crucial to recognize when you can affect change compared with when you are simply getting more and more consumed with anger over something that is totally out of your control.
Many people spend hours on social media reacting with incredulity to the political positions of others. These others have a different set of genetic information and have had a different set of life experiences making them who they are.
Your screaming at them in caps lock will not change them nor will it make you happy. You are actively feeding your own negative world view by engaging in such outbursts, with a hit of dopamine making worse your brain chemistry in the form of likes or replies to your anger.
Such interactions cause a ripple effect. If you want a higher percentage of happy hours in your day, reduce the amount of time spent in conflict.
How do you feel for the rest of the day if you start your morning with an argument with someone? Yes, that is a rhetorical question. It is hard enough to avoid the occasional necessary conflicts with those close to us, so why go seeking more fuel for your fire on social media with largely unnecessary conflict, if you want it to be extinguished?
If you are angry at your government over, for example, the price of fees for your kids’ education, but you also have an alcohol or drug dependency problem (if you have even admitted as much to yourself), then ask yourself the following questions truthfully:
Which is the biggest threat to my children’s future, my government’s policies, or my own alcoholism/drug dependency?
Which one of those things can I definitely change to make my children’s future better?
If you sort yourself out, your children only have one problem. One which, as a more functional, happier human being, you may be able to positively affect, either through working harder to save enough money for them, or through leaving no stone unturned in finding alternative routes for them such as scholarships or relocation to a cheaper city or country.
The children of depressed, drug dependent and / or alcoholic parents however, now have two problems: Difficulty navigating their educational options as they grow up, and an even worse one closer to home: parents who are useless at encouraging their talents and whose negativity drains any potential out of them before it has been realised. And that is without even mentioning the potential for neglect or different forms of abuse.
This isn’t to discourage political action; but rather to encourage individual action relating to your and your family’s or friends’ own immediate situation as a priority first.
Essentially, is an attitude of, “The government is failing my kids, so I am going to fail them too,” acceptable? Absolutely not. And it applies to yourself and your own potential even if you don’t have children.
Whatever society or political situation you are in, being the best person you can be will bring you immeasurably greater wellbeing than relinquishing all responsibilities because you perceive life to be unfair.
I spent most of my life as an atheist, but I remember clearly a quote from the bible on a plaque in my grandmother’s house when I was a child. It took me years of debilitating anxiety and occasional bouts of depression to suddenly recall the beauty and relevance of this message:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
You can change yourself. You can’t change a great deal else, but you might be able to if you fix yourself first. Be wise enough to recognize this and don’t waste your valuable energies barking up the wrong tree.
Be Prepared to Question Everything that Makes You Who You Are
Everything that makes you you, has led you to where you are today. If you have hit rock bottom, then that combination of life experiences, ideas, actions, inactions, interactions etc is what has led you to this.
Some aspects of what make you you, no doubt are not to blame. But some things among that mix are, and only you can flesh them out.
To do this the first step is to consider that you could be wrong about everything, and evaluate honestly all the ideas, emotions and feelings you hold dear, and to look even further inside to identify those feelings so deep seated that you are rarely conscious of their presence.
Perhaps for example, you have an oppositional streak, in which you as a default position attack any new idea someone presents you with, without even realising why you are doing it. Perhaps you are doing this now, reading my words with a cynical attitude that you already know better than me, and yet you might never have realized this is as much a part of you as your eyes being brown/blue etc.
If so, has such cynicism ever made you happy, or aided an achievement? I am not referring to honest open minded skepticism here, but to the contempt and disdain many of us have for someone before even hearing them out.
Not only has this needless cynical streak failed to give you anything positive in your life, it has also affected you in ways you won’t realise: opportunities not presented to you owing to your poor first impression; friends that have drifted out of touch with you as your negative energy drags them down with you; potential romantic partners thinking twice and not going on that first date with you after seeing too much of your dark side.
It is an evolutionary throwback from uncivilized times which brings you no long term benefit in the modern world. Recognise this and master your self. You have the power to change or at least limit your the worst aspects of you. And why wouldn’t you want to do this, if it will improve you?
If you only see the bad in people, options, ideas and everything else, sure enough all the blessings life has to offer will find their way to others at your expense. Thankfully, the opposite works in your favour.
Encourage others instead of obstructing them with your disdain, be constructively critical instead of openly hostile, and remember that it doesn’t actually matter whether or not you are right when communicating with others - only what is right - and see the cumulative difference in the positivity that comes back at you.
Life is Just a Game
Picture a video game in which your character has a health meter. You start at zero, and can go up to +5 or down to -5 depending on the decisions you take. -5 means you lose, but like life, you get a few more chances, but hit -5 too many times and it is game over. Reach +5 and you ascend to the next level.
This truly is analogous to life. Throw negative feelings and actions at yourself and the world, and you increase the likelihood of negativity affecting you. Too much negativity feeds more negativity.
Where on the spiral down are you? Halfway down, and embracing a “Fuck the world” attitude because it validates your world view that everything sucks, caring more that you remain right about something, than you do about being a happier, healthier person? Don’t be surprised to find yourself three quarters of the way down next time you evaluate your position, and from there it is even harder to pull yourself back up.
Perhaps you already recovered from one life threatening situation brought about by your own impulsiveness or addictions, and like in the video game, you got another chance. Your best friend stepped in to help you.
Unfortunately, then your negativity brings that friend down with you the next time you ignore their advice and keep hating / drinking / insert negative behaviour. In your next episode, they are no longer there for you and you may not have anyone else to offer you that extra life you get in the game.
So how to you get to +5? With less instantly gratifying, impulsive life choices. With clear achievable plans and goals, and thoughtfulness with your every utterance and action. With pleasure that comes after beating a challenge, and not with hedonistic, easy pleasure masquerading as true happiness which leaves you even lower once it wears off — and it always does. With modifying yourself to a reasonable degree to fit in with the world around you, and not expecting the entire world around you to modify itself to fit in with your cynicism. With judging and improving yourself, rather than judging others who you can’t improve.
It isn’t what anyone wants to hear, but get the basics right and you have won half the battle. What are the basics? Attempt to integrate these things into your life, and if you don’t notice incremental improvements to your daily wellbeing then you actually do need a mental health professional, unlike the vast majority of people who take the medication without first evaluating and changing their lifestyle.
You will of course have the occasional downturn in your mood while on this journey; this is to be expected and is not an excuse to throw in the towel. Make most days better than the day before and you are going in the right direction, even if you still hate Mondays.
Essential Steps to Long Term Well Being
- Daily exercise. Almost guaranteed to lift long term spirits despite the short term muscle ache, and also very likely to fix any faulty sleep patterns. Specifically relating to anxiety, a fit person’s resting heart rate is much lower than that of an unfit person. This means that if you do get worried, the increase in your pulse doesn’t take it off the scale to a panic inducing level. I suffered from about 20 or 30 small panic attacks and one or two huge ones per week for about six months. I had never been fit, but then I went to the gym for 45 minutes 6 days a week and it 100% fixed me.
- Little to no intoxication. This includes caffeine; keep it to the mornings only. Escape from your problems and they are still there when you sober up, except now you have even less energy to face them. Much of the reason we attach so much importance to the ritualistic weekend intoxication is simply advertising anyway. Talk to anyone over 40 with a lifelong drink or drug habit and you will see someone who is half the person of those who kept it to moderation or abstained altogether, even if they likely were more charming and funny as younger adults. Face the fact: You are literally killing various cells in your body. You can expect your physical and mental well being to respond accordingly. If you are approaching 40 with a substance abuse problem and are not already a total asshole to everyone around you most of the time, you are almost certainly about to become one. You won’t even realise you are being one. And when that happens, people will start being an asshole to you too. It will be 100% your fault yet you will find others to blame and they will justifiably resent you for that.
- Consistent sleep routine of approximately 7 hours per night (around 8 or 9 if you are a teenager) getting up and going to bed at the same time every day. If you feel the need to catch up on your sleep, do it at night and not in the morning! You may have been up until 4am. Set your alarm for 9am, accept you are going to have a shitty day, and get to bed the next night at 11pm instead of sleeping until noon and settling into a new cycle. It might take several days to fix, but don’t give up. A week or more of no intoxication — especially not marijuana within a few hours of bed (some will find it easier to sleep, but most will find it harder to get up) — will really aid this goal.
- Daily reminding yourself what you have to be happy or thankful for, instead of what you have to feel sorry for yourself or angry at the world for. Write a list in a bedside book of a few things every morning and say it out loud. “I have a bed (many people don’t),” is a perfectly acceptable way to start, as is “I have a supply of clean drinking water.” Remembering not to take things for granted in this way reminds of how much worse life could be.
- Regular healthy meals. No missing meals under any circumstances — food is energy. Have less of it and you have less to fight your malaise with. Cut out unnatural sugar, replace with honey if need be, ignore fad diets and nutrition gurus. Just eat lots of different fruit, veg, nuts, proteins and limit fats. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than this, though some of you may have intolerances you might want to consider (if getting fit and stopping intoxicating yourself doesn’t fix your perceived symptoms first)
- Set daily realistic goals, no matter how simple, and make sure you achieve them. “I will finally post that letter,” or “I will eat three meals today” are fine to start with. Achievement creates a degree of happiness. Start achieving even small things and work incrementally upwards.
- Do something to improve your own situation every day. It could be anything, like improving your vocabulary, introducing a new type of fruit to your diet, applying for a new job, cleaning your kitchen etc
- Do something good for someone else each day. We are social animals. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to scratch one another’s backs. Seeing other people benefit from your efforts will give you some joy, especially those close to you.
- Cut off or limit the influence of people in your family or circle of friends who always discourage any plans or ideas you have. They are holding you back and making you more like them. You might have had a whale of a time with them partying while intoxicated in your twenties, but now you are in your thirties or forties and going nowhere. Time to go somewhere, but those people want you to stay nowhere.
- Seek out new or existing friends who always encourage you, and whose social lives don’t revolve around intoxication. It may surprise you that someone your existing group had always dismissed as not cool or a loser is actually someone with a much kinder heart and who will be more beneficial to your own wellbeing. Night hours are harder to navigate without intoxicants if you have addiction or impulsiveness issues. Therefore take the advice about sleep above seriously. If 80% of your waking hours are in daylight, you have a smaller window of time to resist temptation in. But trying to get from 7pm until a terrible bedtime of 4am without a drink or a spliff will be a real challenge. Look for evening activities that do not involve intoxication. If you spend a small fortune on alcohol every week, you can at least try to spend some of this money on an evening class, or join community groups, local discussions about philosophy, or offering to teach your own skills to those around you for free if you can afford it. Social options involving intoxication are easy to find, just walk into a bar, but you only need a little imagination and effort to find things to do without it.
- Don’t be afraid to evaluate a world view you thought was set in stone. Whatever age you are now, the chances are you have a large percentage of your life still to come. This means you will learn new things and ideas. So why be so sure that your position on any one thing is definitely the correct one? How can you possibly know? Some such ideas provide a baseline of discontent. Are you sure you aren’t rooted to sadness because of an idea which, if you were only open minded enough to consider you might be wrong, actually is wrong? You might only feel attached to this idea because a particularly charismatic person in your circle when you were young encouraged you to believe it, and not because it is a suitable world view for you. If you are nihilistic, you need to make everything matter instead of nothing.
And, most importantly… No excuses for yourself. Nobody else cares what BS you have convinced yourself to justify continuing your self destructive path, you are only lying to yourself. Remember, this is not supposed to be easy, but your daily existence after giving up and sliding further down the spiral into self loathing is even harder to bear.
Here’s hoping a percentage of you will make some or all of these changes to your lives and that ripple effect will spread out, meaning we can all enjoy a better world, with not only ourselves benefitting, but our friends and loved ones too, and others being inspired by us beating our demons so that they can begin a similar journey.
To try is to make some progress. You don’t need to achieve perfection on day one. You simply need to take steps in the right direction every day, compare yourself only to who you were yesterday and not to anyone else or to your ideal imagined person.
Small steps lead to the top of the staircase. Lie down and you stay at the bottom. Start taking those steps now and look forward to the amazing life that awaits you.