The Biohacker’s Guide to Dealing With Anxiety
Understand the causes of anxiety and apply evidence-based tactics to manage it
Chronic anxiety can be an absolute terror to deal with — sometimes literally.
I suffered from severe social anxiety for most of my life. As a kid, I was on anti-anxiety medications for many years, but in college, I finally recovered enough to come off of them.
I still have a lot of anxiety around work, my career, and life in general. But on the plus side, I’ve learned how to manage it through a lot of reading and trying solutions that seemed promising.
This guide won’t cover medical interventions like drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy. What it will do is explain what anxiety is, where it comes from, and give you 11 unconventional strategies that I’ve found helpful for combating anxiety in both the short-term and the long-term.
Anxiety vs. Fear
This article is a guide to dealing with anxiety, not fear. Before we dive into things, I want to explain why I make that distinction.
The terms anxiety and fear are often used interchangeably; however, they do not actually refer to the same thing. Fear and anxiety are two related, but distinct, patterns of emotional response. As you’ll see, fear is usually healthy and necessary, whereas anxiety is not.
According to Wikipedia, “Anxiety is distinguished from fear, which is an appropriate cognitive and emotional response to a perceived threat.” Anxiety and fear differ in four ways, each of which makes fear more productive than anxiety.
First off, fear occurs in response to a specific threat, such as seeing a potentially dangerous wild animal. Anxiety, on the other hand, occurs in response to a very vague and diffuse threat — such as being in crowded spaces — or sometimes, in response to nothing at all.
This also means that fear is easier to get rid of — by escaping from the cause of your fear. Anxiety tends to be more persistent because the conditions that cause it are nearly impossible to avoid.
Second, fear is short-lived, because it lasts only so long as the stimulus that causes it is present. Anxiety is very long-lived, sometimes even constant, because it is caused either by a stimulus that is nearly omnipresent or by no external stimulus at all.
Third, fear forces you to focus on the present — on the threat you’re facing, and how you’re going to respond to it. Anxiety causes you to ruminate about the future. Now, thinking about the future isn’t bad for you in general (far from it) but because anxiety occurs in response to a vague threat, it also causes people to think about the future in ways that are too vague to be of practical value.
It’s less like “I have to do X to prevent Y,” and more like “I’m worried something bad is going to happen, I’m just not sure what.”
And that brings us to the third and most crucial difference between fear and anxiety: what it motivates us to do. Fear motivates us to escape from — or in some cases, directly combat — a perceived threat. Anxiety, by contrast, promotes overly cautious behavior in general.
In other words, fear motivates us to solve our problems and anxiety doesn’t. Whereas fear causes you to enact targeted solutions to specific problems, anxiety merely occupies your mental energy and prevents you from coping with your problems in a constructive manner.
Fear, when it occurs, should usually be listened to. Sometime’s it’s irrational, as when watching a horror movie. But for the most part, fear is a healthy reaction that saves us from danger.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is in most cases inherently counterproductive. It doesn’t motivate you to do anything to solve your problems, and should, therefore, be avoided or minimized. That’s what this guide will help you do.
Note: There is one big exception in which anxiety is actually productive. I’ll explain it in the next section.
Ten Causes of Anxiety
There are many, many things that can cause anxiety. This isn’t an exhaustive list; there are definitely others besides the ten listed here, but these are the most common and well-documented causes of anxiety.
Although anxiety is a psychological problem, you’ll see that it can stem from both psychological and physical causes. The mind and body are, after all, not truly separate; each exerts an effect on the other.
Current life stress
People tend to attribute all anxiety to life stresses, such as a difficult work environment, family troubles, financial difficulty, or simply not having enough time to get everything done. In reality, though, life stress is just one possible source of anxiety (but it is a big one).
Work/school, financial hardship, and relationship stress can all contribute to anxiety, and anxiety, in turn, reduces one’s performance at work and/or school. When other factors were controlled for, relationship stress appeared to be the biggest independent contributor to anxiety, while financial hardship had more of an effect on depression.
Past life stress
No, not stress from your previous incarnations — this isn’t Scientology. I’m talking about stuff that happened earlier in life.
Suffering emotional and physical trauma early in life, as well as experiencing poverty, can all cause people to be more prone to anxiety later in life. In fact, you can rank the three in that order — childhood emotional trauma causes a lot of anxiety, physical trauma causes almost as much as emotional trauma, and childhood poverty causes only a little bit of anxiety.
Bear in mind that this is after controlling for all other variables. Childhood poverty is highly correlated with other childhood traumas and poverty later in life, so this study doesn’t really capture how damaging it is.
Now, obviously you can’t undo the past. As you’ll see, there are ways to heal the damage inflicted by childhood traumas — it’s an uphill battle, but it can be done.
There’s a multitude of anecdotal evidence that stimulants can cause anxiety, and intuitively most of us know that it’s true, but studies on the subject are largely restricted to caffeine.
Those studies, however, are unequivocal. In one study, caffeine causes children to feel “somewhat more anxious.” Note, however, that the lowest dosage used was 2.5 mg/kg of bodyweight, equivalent to several cups of coffee for an adult. There’s little evidence that caffeine causes a significant increase in anxiety when people consume something closer to the minimum effective dose — something like one or two cups of coffee or a few cans of soda.
People with high trait anxiety tend to be more sensitive to caffeine, and to negative mental side effects such as anxiety in particular. Fortunately, most moderate or avoid caffeine intake accordingly.
Other stimulants, such as amphetamines, ephedrine, and cocaine have a similar effect on anxiety — usually worse, in fact. The big exception here is people with ADHD, for whom some stimulants, particularly amphetamines, can have a calming effect.
In the long run, the effect gets even worse, as stimulant use disrupts your circadian rhythm, further exacerbating your anxiety.
What about nicotine? It’s less physically stimulating than caffeine, and many smokers claim that nicotine calms them down. However, studies do not support this. As one literature review put it, “nicotine contributes to the development, maintenance, and reoccurrence of anxiety disorders.”
Furthermore, “human studies suggest that although smoking may be an attempt to self-medicate, it is also correlated with symptom severity. In line with these results, animal studies suggest that acute nicotine enhances hippocampus-dependent fear-learning in animals that are nicotine-naïve, and this effect is greater in animals withdrawn from chronic nicotine.”
In other words, the only anxiety that nicotine alleviates is the anxiety caused by nicotine withdrawal. In the long run, you’re better off quitting.
Your intestinal microbiome
The intestinal microbiome — those trillions of little bacteria and yeast cells in your gut — is a hot topic right now. It’s been linked to everything from IBS and autoimmune disorders to autism and depression. And now, to anxiety.
Gut dysbiosis — an imbalance in the intestinal microbiome, and the types and quantities of bacteria therein — has been linked to anxiety and depression. Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation — does the gut microbiome actually have a direct effect on anxiety in humans?
Yes, in fact, it does. While it would be unethical to deliberately devastate people’s gut microbiomes to see if they develop anxiety, quite a few studies have used various methods to repair damaged gut microbiomes, and a majority of those studies found that anxiety symptoms significantly improved in a majority of subjects.
In other words, if you have anxiety along with gut dysbiosis, improving your gut microbiome will most likely improve your anxiety.
You know how you can make yourself feel happier by smiling, or more confident by standing taller? Well, anxiety is associated with rapid, shallow breathing, so you can also make yourself feel more anxious by breathing harder, faster, and more shallowly.
Unfortunately, many people suffer from breathing conditions that force them to breathe like that, such as sleep apnea, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And as it turns out, all of these conditions make patients more prone to anxiety.
The cure here is pretty straightforward: treat those conditions. This is a matter to discuss with your doctor. While I did say I wouldn’t give out medical advice in this article, if you have sleep apnea and your doctor told you to lose weight, try this article on how to lose 10 pounds of fat a month.
In the case of vitamin D, the main cause is insufficient sunlight. As for the other three, a poor diet is usually to blame, although nutrient malabsorption can sometimes also be the culprit.
Vitamin deficiencies can be diagnosed with a comprehensive battery of vitamin and mineral tests. However, this test must be repeated several times over a few months to be sure that you have a chronic deficiency, as many vitamins and minerals can test as deficient if you just didn’t eat them over the last 24 hours.
Poor coping skills
Poor coping skills aren’t exactly a source of anxiety, but more a reason why life stresses cause you anxiety when they otherwise might not. So what are coping skills? They’re the following — good coping skills listed first, bad ones second:
- Flexible vs. rigid problem-solving
- Frankly acknowledging your problems vs. being in denial about them
- Tackling your problems vs. avoiding them
- Impulse control vs. impulsivity
- Constrictive self-criticism vs. extreme perfectionism or negativity
- Stable vs. unstable mood
- Being focused vs. unfocused, particularly when solving problems
External locus of control
“Locus of control” is a psychological concept that refers to whether you perceive most events in your life as being inside or outside of your control. People with an internal locus of control feel like they’re in control of their lives; people with an external locus of control do not.
Understandably, an external locus of control is associated with anxiety and depression, as it creates a sense that any number of things can go wrong, and if and when they do, there will be nothing you can do about it.
Paradoxically, an external locus of control can be an escape for some people. While it makes you feel powerless, an external locus of control also absolves you of responsibility for your problems. Thus, a desire to avoid blame can kick the psychological can down the road — people avoid blame now, but feel more anxious later, since blame avoidance feeds their sense of powerlessness.
Illness and inflammation
Anxiety can be caused by inflammation, a marker of poor overall health as well as short-term illness.
When sick, anxiety can serve as a sort of “sickness behavior,” an adaptive behavioral change that occurs when someone is sick. Lethargy, depression, and anxiety can actually be good for you when they occur due to illness and last for a few days, as they cause you to want to stay inside and rest.
This is the one big exception I mentioned earlier — anxiety can be good for you when you’re sick, since it motivates you to do nothing in particular — i.e., to rest. Anxiety may also motivate you to seek medical attention, which is also good for you.
In fact, one of the signs of an oncoming heart attack is a sudden feeling of intense anxiety, sometimes described as “a feeling of impending doom.” No joke — sometimes you can just tell that something is wrong, even if you don’t know what.
When chronic inflammation causes chronic anxiety, however, it stops being good for you. Rest is a good short-term solution, but sitting around doing nothing over the long term isn’t great for you, even if you’re dealing with a chronic illness.
Note that since obesity and sleep debt both cause persistently elevated levels of inflammation, losing weight and getting more and better sleep can both be effective long-term treatments for many people.
Genetics and epigenetics
There is probably no aspect of human personality or behavior that is not affected by our genes. As such, you should not be surprised that anxiety has a sizable genetic component. Thankfully, there’s actually something you can do about it.
While you can’t change your genes per se, you can change your gene expression. It’s called epigenetics — a set of mechanisms that regulate how genes are expressed and how active they are. While your genes tell your body how to make a certain set of proteins, epigenetics tells it when to make those proteins, and how much.
Epigenetics has been shown to have an impact on anxiety, as well as on related issues like stress and depression. Interestingly, epigenetics are both heritable and changeable. In other words, you may have inherited “anxiety epigenetics” from your parents, but you can change those later in life.
So how do you change your epigenetic expression to become less anxious? Essentially, by doing all of the other stuff that people do to manage anxiety. There isn’t any special “epigenetics hack” that scientists have uncovered yet — instead, this mostly explains how the things we already know to be effective work.
11 Unconventional Tactics to Reduce Anxiety
Note: If you are seeing a therapist or taking prescription medications, talk to your therapist, doctor or psychiatrist before trying any of the following.
Exercise until you feel lightheaded
When you feel anxiety coming on, you can head it off by exercising until you feel lightheaded. Not until you pass out — which is extremely hard to do anyway — but close. Note that I’m not talking about doing a long workout here, but rather a single long set.
To immediately kill your anxiety, stop what you’re doing and do squats, pushups or a similar high-rep bodyweight exercise for 2–3 minutes. Keep pushing past the point of muscular fatigue, past the point where you want to stop. Keep going until you’re breathing heavily, get lightheaded, and you truly can’t do another rep.
If you’ve truly pushed yourself hard enough, you’ll feel tired — but your anxiety should also be gone.
If it isn’t gone, immediately do the same thing again with a different exercise. So if you did squats first, do pushups second. The goal here is to maximize overall tiredness, not local muscular fatigue, so some people may need to rotate muscle groups to prevent a single muscle from being the limiting factor here.
This technique works because a) it’s harder to be anxious when you’re tired, anxiety being a high-arousal state, and b) exercise causes your brain to release calming, pain-relieving endorphins.
Work standing up
This is particularly effective for people who tend to get anxious while working, as it provides just enough physical activity to both help you focus while giving you just enough exercise so that you won’t have excess physical energy, which can spill over into anxiety.
In practice, you can’t stand up all day long, and you don’t need to. All you need to do is work on your feet until you feel fatigued, then switch to sitting down until you start to feel the urge for physical activity again. Rinse and repeat.
Equipment-wise, you have a few options here. If you work from home, you may be able to simply place a laptop on your kitchen counter. Otherwise, your main options are a) a full-on standing desk, b) a height-adjustable workstation that goes on top of a regular desk, or c) a smaller height-adjustable laptop stand that goes on top of a regular desk.
Cut out all stimulants
This one’s a no-brainer. Cut out all caffeine, nicotine, pre-workout formulas, and anything else you might be using to give yourself more energy. Maybe not forever, but at least for a week.
Sure, it’s easier said than done, but here’s a little secret: it’s actually easier to cut out all stimulants for a week than to gradually dial back your intake.
How could this be? Well first off, quitting is faster. It only takes a week to completely reset your tolerance when you quit, and you’re already over the worst of it by day three. Gradually dialing back your intake will take months, if you can stick to it at all.
Second, when you slowly reduce your intake, you’re constantly ramping up the difficulty. That means nearly every day, you’re doing the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But when you quit? The worst is over on day two, and it only gets easier from there.
You can make quitting even easier by strategically supplementing with amino acids to replace those depleted by stimulant use, and by substituting your old habits for new ones. To learn more, read my guide to quitting caffeine.
Sleep on a strict schedule
Because anxiety can be caused or exacerbated by circadian rhythm disruption, it can be alleviated by maintaining a regular sleep schedule.
Force yourself to adhere to a strict schedule in which you sleep eight hours a night, every night, at the same time. “Strict” is somewhat relative here — you can establish a six or seven-hour core sleep time, with an hour or two of flexibility on either side.
As an example, my core sleep time is 2–8 a.m. Most nights, I’ll actually get to bed at midnight, but sometimes I’m up until 2 a.m., and sleep in until 9 a.m. or even 10 a.m. But those six core hours never change, barring unusual circumstances like flights or major parties.
Yes, this might mean saying no to late nights. If sleep loss is contributing to your anxiety, that just might be a sacrifice you have to make.
Now, obviously you can’t force yourself to sleep on command. What you can do though is force yourself to get into bed at a certain time, and to follow a set evening routine before that.
In fact, it’s better if you measure this habit by getting to bed on time, rather than by how much you actually sleep — putting pressure on yourself to sleep is likely to be counterproductive if you have anxiety already!
Sit and meditate for a few minutes every day. You can start seeing results with as little as two minutes of silent meditation a day, but over time, you should aim to increase that to ten minutes a day, or two five-minute sessions.
To learn exactly how to build this habit and why it works, read this guide to meditation by Silvia Bastos.
L-theanine is an amino acid which occurs naturally in a variety of plants, most notably green tea. It has a mild calming effect — one that reduces anxiety and jitteriness, but otherwise isn’t really sedating. Theanine is particularly known for negating some of the side effects of caffeine, which is why the most popular nootropic is caffeine and theanine in a 1:2 ratio.
There are two ways to use L-theanine. First, you can take it with caffeine to prevent caffeine-induced anxiety. In this case, take 200 mg with your morning coffee.
Second, you can use it on its own to prevent anxiety that isn’t caused by caffeine. In that case, take 100–200 mg, 2–3 times a day.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the mildly sedating, minimally-psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. It’s sort of like THC’s lesser-known sibling. And as it happens, many people find it highly effective at reducing anxiety.
CBD comes n many forms, including edibles, tinctures, capsules, vape oils, and oral sprays. While a lot of this comes down to personal preference, the route of administration does determine how fast it takes effect.
Vape oil and oral sprays work the fastest and are therefore ideal for combating sudden, acute anxiety attacks. Edibles take the longest time to take effect, but also draw out the effect for a longer time, making them ideal for all-day anxiety relief. On the other hand, tinctures allow you to adjust the dosage more precisely than edibles, so they’re preferable from that standpoint.
Flooding is a therapeutic technique for rapidly overcoming phobias and anxieties by rapidly exposing yourself to large amounts of the stimulus that cause your anxiety.
As an example, if you suffer from social anxiety, flooding might entail going to a networking or speed-dating event where you’re forced to talk to a lot of people in quick succession.
This can be scary, and obviously isn’t for everyone. It tends to work best with low-grade anxiety, rather than anything that causes full-blown panic attacks. If your anxiety is bad enough to require therapy, talk to your therapist about it. But if you haven’t been clinically diagnosed with anything, it’s likely to be very effective, if you’re willing to go through with it.
Much like quitting caffeine cold-turkey, flooding has the advantage of providing rapid results and quickly getting you over the worst part of the process, so things get easier from there. The fast results also serve to motivate you to work on your anxieties more, which a gradual approach might not provide.
This tends to go hand-in-hand with meditation, although it’s not quite the same thing.
Practice breathing as slowly as possible from your belly, rather than your chest — if you’re doing this right, your stomach should push in and out as you breathe; your shoulders should not rise and fall.
This sort of breathwork is a core component of the Wim Hof Method; for more information on the method, read this article.
Eat probiotic-rich foods
As I mentioned earlier, studies show that probiotic supplements can effectively treat anxiety. However, supplements typically have between one and six different strains of probiotic; your gut naturally contains hundreds, if not thousands.
Probiotic-rich foods — typically, lacto-fermented foods — will give you a much broader spectrum of probiotic strains that more closely mimics that found in your gut. Those foods include:
- Yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt
Fermented foods tend to be sour-tasting, which you may or may not like. You can get used to the taste, but it doesn’t hurt to mix them with something else to improve the taste either, such as kimchi fried rice, Greek yogurt with fruit in it, kombucha with mint tea, etc.
For best results, consume one serving of a fermented food or beverage (not alcohol, ya loons) per day.
Follow a low-FODMAP diet
This is the other big thing you can do to improve gut health. FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that the gut has difficulty digesting. Recent research suggests that FODMAPs can be responsible for many of the gut issues that have popularly been attributed to gluten.
By far the biggest sources of FODMAPs are wheat and barley, so a low-FODMAP diet has a lot in common with a gluten-free diet. Other FODMAP-rich foods include beans and bean sprouts, lentils, peanuts, cashews, pistachios, asparagus, onions, carrots, apples, pears, mangoes, celery, sweet corn, and dairy products that contain lactose.
Low-FODMAP foods include meat, fish, eggs, lactose-free dairy products, almonds, pumpkin seeds, oranges, grapes, melons, oats, rice, quinoa, most gluten-free wheat products, bananas, alfalfa, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and bell peppers.
Cut stuff out of your life
What do I mean by stuff? All kinds of stuff.
Cut out physical stuff that clutters up your home and workspace. To paraphrase Marie Kondo, if you don’t use it and love it, throw it out.
Cut out obligations that take up your time. Work you’d rather not be doing, weekly get-togethers that don’t leave you evenings to stay home and relax. If they cause you anxiety, cut them out.
Cut out habits that contribute to your anxiety. Constantly checking email, pounding back coffee.
Start an experiment in minimalism — see how much stuff you can cut out to take back your time, space and energy.
You Can Overcome Anxiety
These techniques have helped many, many people overcome chronic anxiety, either on their own or in conjunction with medical treatment. Once you understand what causes anxiety and what exactly is happening in the brain and body when you feel anxious, you can formulate smart, effective strategies to deal with it.