A Holistic Guide to Overcoming Anxiety
Coping with panic attacks and daily anxiety required me to try a wide range of professional and self-help methodologies
During my final year in college, I was plagued by constant worry and anxiety that took away from my ability to perform, cultivate meaningful relationships, and fully enjoy the opportunities life afforded me. Although I did a great job of masking it to the point my roommate didn’t even know, underneath I was a neurotic mess.
I could barely sit through class, often feeling trapped, fearing another panic attack. At work, I had a leadership position, and I felt I had to power through but felt I never performed up to my potential, skirting certain responsibilities that might have aggravated my anxiety. Socially, I was never satisfied, colored by the nagging depression that tends to accompany anxiety disorders. Like an outcast stranded in the middle of the ocean, I felt I was constantly treading water, just barely staying afloat.
Looking back, my anxiety was a manifestation of self-doubt, lack of direction, and spreading myself too thin. At my lowest point, I remember asking my therapist if I’d ever overcome my anxiety. I wasn’t fully satisfied with her answer. She told me yes and no — that it’d be something I’d constantly have to manage throughout my life. While this is not untrue — we are all born with natural levels of anxiety innate to our physiology — the problem with this thinking is that it encourages people to internalize their anxiety as part of their identity instead of seeing it as something that can be conquered.
I’m happy to say there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
In this guide, I hope to share the steps I took that led me to a place where anxiety is no longer an overwhelming factor in my life, and I’m able to live free from the panic and dread that for too long hampered my ability to be my full self. I recognize that not everything here will be universally applicable, but it is what worked for me.
Acknowledge and Accept
“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”
— G. K. Chesterton
This was the case for me with my anxiety. It wasn’t until I had a full-blown panic attack and the nurse in the hospital recommended I seek professional help that I finally realized the gravity of what I was dealing with.
Before that, I was in denial. How could the athletic, confident guy I was growing up have anxiety? Ultimately, my attitude toward anxiety was deeply flawed, embedded in the narrative of hypermasculinity and the stigma around mental health.
As a basketball player my whole life, the courage of guys like Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Guy to speak out on their mental health issues did wonders. Learning that I was not alone was a key step in accepting my anxiety and was the first step of many on my journey to overcoming it.
For those who may not relate to those NBA and college basketball stars, anxiety disorders affect nearly 20 percent of the population, making it the most common mental illness in the United States.
Know that you’re not alone and taking action to deal with your anxiety is a bold step many aren’t always willing to take.
Seek Professional Help
Once I had accepted the fact that my anxiety was indeed a problem I needed to deal with, the next step was seeking professional help. Although this seems like a logical step, only one in three people receive treatment for their anxiety.
It’s not just that people aren’t willing to get help, rather the social stigma around receiving services remains a serious factor. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, nearly 1/3 of Americans have feared being judged for seeing a therapist, and one in five have lied to avoid telling friends and family about their mental health issues. Unfortunately, the stigma is worse for younger generations, as 50% of Gen Z and 40% of Millennials fear being stigmatized.
To be totally honest, I felt “weak” for having to go to therapy. I’d even avoid telling my roommate, saying that I had an appointment or I was meeting a friend as I scampered out the door.
I couldn’t have been more wrong to think that way.
Therapy was immensely beneficial. Two reasons come to mind: 1) Having someone to talk to who is not a family member or friend, but a professional who deals with anxiety disorders, helped me to further contextualize my experience, and it opened the door to understanding what I was going through. 2) I had someone to hold me accountable. Especially when it came to following through on the ensuing steps in this guide, having someone there to ensure I was making progress and handling the setbacks made a world of difference.
The type of therapy I received is what’s referred to as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which dives into your thought processes and works to rewire limiting or harmful behaviors that are often at the root of the anxiety. Multiple studies have shown that CBT is “both efficacious and effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders.” By learning coping skills and strategies, you can better control your thinking and build self-confidence.
While CBT is one of the more common options for anxiety, other forms of therapy (some of which are used in combination with CBT). A recent article by Ben Blum describes a revolutionary treatment called internal family systems (IFS) that’s on the rise in psychotherapy. The point here is that there are several types of therapy out there, and the key is finding the one that best meets your needs.
Because insurance and location are important factors in finding the right therapist, Psychology Today has a search engine that filters by location, insurance provider, and type of therapy so you can find an affordable and effective option.
Even if you start seeing a therapist, you needn’t consider it a hard commitment—if you feel it’s not the right fit, change providers. Sometimes it takes seeing multiple therapists before finding the right one. If you can find someone who listens well, who makes you feel comfortable, and who is good at what they do, then you’ll be well on your way toward learning to manage your anxiety and live a better life.
Adopt a Healthy Mental Diet
After starting therapy, the first item on the agenda was changing my mindset. To start thinking more positively, I needed to rethink where my thoughts were coming from.
Similar to our food-based diets, the information we consume has a direct impact on our mental health. Due to the excessive worry and fear that accompany anxiety, certain types of information can accentuate that negative thinking.
Two prominent mediums come to mind: social media and the news. According to psychological research, technology-based social comparison and feedback-seeking lead to more depressive symptoms, particularly in adolescents.
“Scanning, checking, and obsessing online can interfere with our mood and our ability to function.”
From my own experience, I was doing these two things: scrolling mindlessly on Instagram and constantly checking Apple’s news app (which I have since deleted). Not only is the majority of news negative, but there’s so much of it that it can be overwhelming. Likewise, when you’re already dealing with anxiety and depression, seeing photos and videos of friends living it up while you’re lying in bed feeling like a lazy bump on a log can lead to a vicious cycle that only plunges you deeper into your misery.
To shift my thinking from victim to victor, I changed the type of media I was consuming on a daily basis. The one source of media that had the most drastic impact on my life was the “School of Greatness” podcast from Lewis Howes. I listened to the podcast nearly every day, as the inspiration and motivation imparted by Howes and his guests was a game-changer. Not only did the positive messaging help put me in a better mood, but many of the guests reveal the challenges and hardships they faced on their journeys to greatness. Hearing about the struggles successful people went through was fundamental for being able to contextualize my current predicament within the bigger picture.
Switching over to more positive, inspirational media can make a big difference in the way you think, which in turn can reduce worry, fear, and self-doubt. Researchers found that when participants practiced replacing worry with envisioning positive outcomes, they reported a significant reduction in the frequency of intrusive negative thoughts as well as overall feelings of fear and anxiety.
By adopting a healthy mental diet consisting of positive and uplifting information, you’re setting yourself up to think more positively. Having an optimistic outlook is fundamental for the growth mindset needed to overcome anxiety and to build resiliency in the journey toward rediscovering yourself.
The new influx of positive messaging not only put me in a better mood, but it also gave me the motivation to get back in the gym on a consistent basis.
The part of my anxiety that manifested in a lack of self-confidence was that inner voice reminding me I wasn’t living up to my full potential. I had let myself go a little, not working out and living a largely sedentary lifestyle as I poured my time into studying and extracurriculars. Feeling weak and out of shape resulted in lower levels of confidence, negative self-talk, and insecurity.
Following the winter break from university, I made a commitment to get back in the gym. Although there were ups and downs here and there, missing my fair share of workouts in the first few months, I remained consistent.
The best piece of advice that kept me going was the idea of just showing up. Instead of focusing on the results or how painful the workout was going to be, I knew if I could accomplish the simple task of changing into my workout clothes and getting my ass to the gym, the rest would take care of itself.
It’s no surprise that research shows that exercise can have significant anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects, including a handful of physiological and psychological benefits. Most notably, exercise helps regulate mood and emotions, enhances our adaptive response to stressors, serves as a natural antidepressant, and even increases neuronal growth — which has been historically used to treat anxiety and depression. Psychologically, exercise can reduce sensitivity to anxiety, bolster self-efficacy, and function as a mindfulness technique equally as effective as meditation and quiet rest at reducing anxiety levels.
My specific training regimen consists of weightlifting four times a week, which studies show greatly improves anxiety symptoms regardless of sex. Part of the reason for this is that in men, exercise boosts testosterone, which researchers say reduces fearful, avoidant, and submissive behavior. For women, working out balances estrogen levels that when low increase their vulnerability to trauma and heighten the fear response.
In addition to resistance training, I strive to incorporate at least one day of play into my routine, which I categorize as anything fun that makes you sweat. In my case, that’s often playing basketball but has included anything from hiking to going for a swim.
If pumping iron is not your cup of tea, aerobic exercise works just as well for reducing anxiety levels. Whichever form of exercise you choose, health experts recommend at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Breaking that time up evenly throughout the week — such as an hour workout Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — will ensure you’re getting the correct amount of time in while sticking to a consistent schedule.
While physical activity is one of the best antidotes for anxiety, the power of supplements also helped. The crazy thing about adding supplements is that it was over a year into my journey before I had even heard about them. Neither my therapist nor doctor had recommended these supplements, yet both my experience and the research demonstrates their overwhelming efficacy.
The first supplement I experimented with was ashwagandha.
According to some research (though more is needed), ashwagandha may help reduce stress and anxiety by regulating chemical signaling in the nervous system, improving brain function, and most notably reducing cortisol levels, otherwise known as the stress hormone. Taking it seemed to help me. You can find recommended dosages and drug interaction information on WebMD.
Most recommendations are to take ashwagandha for only 60 days at a time, so I started looking for something to take in its stead. L-theanine became arguably my favorite supplement. An amino acid most notably found in green and black teas, I found L-theanine to be calming without inducing drowsiness — a common side effect of other anxiety supplements and medications. Despite all of this, my favorite thing about L-theanine is the fact that it mitigates the adverse effects of caffeine, such as anxiousness, headache, and jitters while boosting alertness, turning my favorite morning beverage into somewhat of a wonder drug.
To complement the power players of ashwagandha and L-theanine, I take a host of supporting vitamins and minerals that round out my supplementation. In addition to taking a multivitamin high in B vitamins, I take magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which have been found to be effective for combatting anxiety. Magnesium alone boasts an array of neurological benefits that research shows can be beneficial for treating anxiety.
Together, these supplements helped without adding any serious side effects. There are certainly other supplements out there for treating anxiety, but these are the ones I’ve used to great effect, and the research supports my own evidence.
Check with your doctor to get their recommendations for your own experiment with these supplements (or others) to craft a personalized lineup that works for you.
Be Bigger Than Yourself
When I was at the peak of my anxiety, one of my major symptoms was the feeling of being disconnected from others and the tendency to be too self-absorbed. In conversations with my therapist, I had discussed the desire to volunteer as a basketball coach, the idea being that putting others before myself would reinject meaning into my life and free me from the thrall of my self-absorption. While coaching basketball never came to fruition at that time, the desire to help others as an antidote for my anxiety influenced me to participate in a service program after college, teaching at an under-resourced school.
Specifically, I’ve been teaching English as a New Language (ENL), working with immigrant students predominantly from Central America and Nigeria. The beauty of this role has been that I get to help students on a daily basis — students who are facing challenges far greater than my own. Not only do they not speak the language, but many are coming from war-torn areas and have gone through the stress of leaving friends and family behind in the hope of a better life. Being one of the few teachers who can relate to them and speak their language, I’ve been able to foster relationships with my students that I know has had a tangible impact on their lives.
Luckily for me, the school was also in need of help with the basketball team, so I stepped up as an assistant coach, finally realizing my desire to coach basketball. The result was many long days and late nights, but being in service to others over the past year has given me a sense of fulfillment that was not possible sitting at a desk all day.
Thankfully, you don’t have to make an entire career change to reap the benefits of putting others before yourself. Recent research demonstrates that having compassionate goals focused on helping others compared to self-image goals geared toward status and approval is associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as better relationships with those around you. The study mentions numerous ways to practice compassion, but the most notable are through supporting others, making a difference in someone’s life, and avoiding self-centered behaviors or doing things that may be hurtful to others.
It’s no secret being bigger than yourself can lead to greater overall well-being. Another study also found that giving social support compared to receiving it resulted in increased protection against negative psychological outcomes and reduced stress-related activity in the brain. This is what’s been referred to as the “helper’s high” and is something we should all pursue, especially if anxiety and depression are holding us back from living our best life.
There are so many ways to help others — from remedying the needs of family and friends to working with the most vulnerable populations. The key here is aligning your skills and interests with the needs of others. For me, I speak Spanish, experienced growing up in a foreign country, and played basketball at a high level. If you’re an athlete like me, you can find ways to help out with local youth sports. If you like to cook, you can make homemade meals for those who can’t provide for themselves. If physical labor is your thing, you can volunteer for Habitat and build affordable housing for struggling communities. One extreme example is Susan Filis, a retired nurse volunteering at an immigration center giving flu shots to vulnerable migrants. Get creative. There’s never a lack of people in need, and helping others may just be the best way to help yourself.
Pursue Your Passions
At the end of the day, I believe anxiety results from a misalignment between what one is doing and their life purpose. I mentioned the voice inside my head in reference to working out, but that voice is even louder when it’s talking to me about my passions.
Ever since high school, I have had a burning desire to write a book and be a writer with the power to educate, entertain, and inspire. Nevertheless, throughout college and into my first job, I fell into the mindset of “one day.” One day I’ll write a book. One day I’ll become a writer. One day I’ll have a platform to influence the world in a positive way.
The problem with “one day” is that your dreams and aspirations are indefinitely postponed. One day is rooted in the idea that you’re too busy right now — that what you’re doing is more important than your passions.
The age-old adage rings true here: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Yet, 70% of American workers say they don’t feel satisfied with their jobs. To make matters worse, research shows that a lack of job satisfaction can lead to more anxiousness, depression, and stress.
The fact of the matter is that we only get one shot at life, and studies have found that regret is directly tied to anxiety and depression.
“If you had one shot or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or let it slip?”
Adopting this mindset, I began pursuing two creative outlets: writing and podcasting. Instead of saying “one day,” I took the first step toward becoming an author by working on building out my portfolio, honing my craft, and beginning to grow a following. I also launched a podcast with my best friend where we explore some of the most pressing social issues through insightful research and analysis while featuring some of the best specialty coffees from around the world.
Through engaging with these creative outlets that capitalize on my gifts as a writer and thinker, I’ve felt more fulfilled, passionate, and excited about what lies ahead. A big part of this is I’m taking ownership of my life and actively working toward my dreams and aspirations instead of sacrificing them to the bottomless pit of one day.
Pursuing your passions needn’t mean quitting your job or upending your life. I’m still working full time for now, but having those creative outlets gives me a passionate energy that spills over into other areas of my life.
I purposely put this section last because I believe it’s one of the final steps in the journey toward rediscovering yourself. When you’re overwhelmed with fear and worry, it can be incredibly challenging to pursue your passions and carve your own path.
Nevertheless, as you move toward a healthier, happier place, beginning to do what you love and share that with the world is invaluable for leading a life of your choosing. In the words of Jim Carrey:
“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
Bringing It All Together
Aside from the advice outlined in this guide, it’s worthwhile to consider a few other ways to combat anxiety that I either experimented with or were already part of my core lifestyle. These include mindfulness and meditation, eating a healthy diet, and getting better sleep. While not core to my transformation, these have been shown to be highly effective for reducing anxiety levels.
Living with anxiety can be a debilitating state that prevents you from being your full self and living life to its fullest.
When I was ensnared in its trap, it felt like I’d never get out. Yet slowly but surely, as I followed the advice outlined in this guide, the torment began to subside.
I’d be remiss to say the journey was easy. It was a little over a year by the time I overcame the worst of it, and it required a continuous commitment to building a healthier, more fulfilling life.
Transformation is a process, not a destination.
While anxiety no longer has a stranglehold on my life, it’s up to me to continuously optimize my lifestyle in ways that are true to myself and who I want to become.
It’s tempting to throw up your arms and accept anxiety as part of who you are, but in doing so you’re preventing change from ever happening. Despite all the noise about rising rates of anxiety, there are tangible steps you can take to overcome it.
When you envision the future, think about the story you want to tell. By taking action to overcome anxiety, you’re beginning to write a story premised on resiliency and perseverance as opposed to one of defeat and regret.
Whether anxiety is new to you or you’ve been dealing with it for years, remember that your current reality is not definitive of who you are or what the future holds. Taking the initiative to embark on the path toward rediscovering yourself is a life-changing endeavor that’ll leave you with a greater sense of self, personal strength, and the confidence to face whatever else life may throw your way.