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June 13, 2016

Hacking your Anxiety—for the Unenlightened.

*Editor’s Note: No website is designed to, and can not be construed to, provide actual medical advice, professional diagnosis or treatment to you or anyone. Elephant is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional advice, care and treatment.

 

This is the true story of my good friend Tyler. His name isn’t actually Tyler, but we’ll go with that because it sounds way cooler than his real name.

Tyler is in his mid-40s. Married, with kids. He would describe himself as “relatively successful” in terms of his career. He creates software for a living. He’s what I would call a “hacker,” a common quality that he and I share, and that’s what led to our initially being friends. Whether it is computer code or an old car, Tyler is always tweaking something—trying to see how it works and how he can affect the nature of the thing he’s interested in at any given moment. This, in a nutshell, is how I think of Tyler on the surface.

How Tyler thinks of Tyler is different.

Tyler’s view of his own identity can be summed up with one word: fear.

He suffers from chronic anxiety. It is something he will never voice except to those who are close to him. It influences how much he eats, sleeps and works. It is a part of every human interaction he has. But the most profound impact it has on Tyler’s life is how he thinks of himself and the irrational decisions he makes because of it.

This article is about what Tyler did about it. Not to cure it. Just to make things a little better. It’s about hacking your brain—tweaking your emotional response to things that have already occurred, things that made you the way you are—and thereby (hopefully) improving your emotional response to things that will occur in the future.

A couple of things first:

1. Many of you will think that what you are reading here is nuts. That’s fine. Everyone gets an opinion. I’m no psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist and neither is Tyler. We are what I would call “unenlightened.” I don’t do yoga, but do have a yoga ball, and we use it for drunken kickball in the backyard when he’s over. But I would say that we are both “scientists” at our core. We love trying to bring order to chaos. The point is, this is about what worked for him to make his anxiety a bit more tolerable, and it could do the same for you, assuming that you can determine what led to your being this way. But everyone’s situation is different. This article focuses on anxiety as a result of childhood trauma. If you’ve got a chemical imbalance, this won’t help at all, and you should probably see someone about that.

2. Some of this is disturbing. Some of it is disturbing because of my own attempts at humor, but much of this story revolves around domestic violence. If you are squeamish about reading details about violence, stop now.

So let’s get into it.

Chronic anxiety is like waking up each day and realizing you are in the ocean, under the water. You spend all day fighting to get to the surface—swimming to the light. It would be easier to just give in and sink, but the fear of the dark depths below you is too frightening to contemplate. So you struggle on, trying to control the uncontrollable. When you eventually reach the surface and air, it’s usually not until you finally rest your head on that pillow at night, only to close your eyes and feel the waves begin to lap against your face. Those waves are your fears for tomorrow—fear of what you will be unable to control. It is not knowing the firmness of the shore, for you’ve been in this sea of doom and gloom as long as you can remember.

Anxiety (and the underlying lack of self-esteem) has impacted Tyler’s life in ways that he still finds difficult to believe. He’s pushed away people—people who were good for him—simply because it was the only control that he felt he had. Tyler seems to blow up his own life on a regular schedule, just to prove that he’s right about himself. Here are the slogans that run through his head on a daily basis:

I don’t deserve what I have.

I’m not good enough.

I’m fooling everyone. I’ll get out before they know.

They think they love me, but they haven’t really seen me yet.

I’m worthy of nothing.

I knew that terrible thing was coming, and look. I’m right again.

The most minor incident is elevated to the level of full-blown crisis once he’s had a couple of hours of “brain chatter” to convince himself that all is lost. I’ve watched Tyler work 80 hours in a week when he didn’t have to because he was convinced that he (at the time, a star employee) would be fired because no one mentioned that week that he “worked too hard.” The guilt of neglecting his family was not enough to dissuade him from pounding away on the laptop all night.

Before I knew what existed at the core of Tyler, I would have described him as an aggressive Type-A personality when it comes to work. What I didn’t know was that he could be ridiculously demanding on a project because he’s scared to death of screwing up—or getting blamed for someone else’s screw-up. His anxiety makes him a complete a**hole to work with.

It has led to him being unfaithful in relationships, simply because he has an overwhelming need to feel wanted and desired. That spike of dopamine becomes an addiction, a dangerous cycle of escape from real life and worry that is difficult to stop. It is not having any hope for the future, wrapped in a sugary coating of impulsiveness. Though he makes a good living, he struggles to save money, convinced that somehow he won’t be here long enough to need it.

This is how anxiety affects Tyler. Maybe it’s different for you or someone you know. The question is, what makes someone feel and behave this way?

Why Tyler is afraid:

Let’s talk about childhood trauma. Here’s how I see it.

When you are a child, bad things will inevitably happen from time to time. You’ve got a developing brain, and it can be greatly influenced by your environment. When our brains are still being wired as a child, and that emotional wiring gets all screwed up because of trauma that happens, it can influence the later connections in a really screwed up way.

So something terrible happens to everyone. In a normal family, when something bad occurs, a child will go to their mother and she’ll make everything better.

“It’s okay. Everything is going to be fine. It’s just a scratch. Go back out and play again. You’ll see.”

When you don’t have that comforting reassurance, and it’s more than a skinned knee, things start to get slightly jacked up in your head. Each experience leads to you to focus completely on what the next terrible thing will be. You’ll see others that don’t have the worries you have, and believe that there is something about yourself that can’t be right. Your self-esteem goes out the window. I think this is especially true in children who have higher IQs or are more in touch with their environment. That would be Tyler, anyway.

Tyler’s father was an abusive alcoholic until Tyler was six years old. He didn’t abuse Tyler physically. But he violently abused Tyler’s mother in front of the boy.

Was she loving and comforting to Tyler? Yes. She tried to comfort him. But it is difficult to take solace in words of reassurance when it keeps happening. Over, and over again. When Tyler’s mother left his father and moved him into his grandmother’s house, his father would show up regularly most Friday and Saturday nights—drunk—and kick the door in. He beat her. Told her that he’s going to show up at Tyler’s school and steal him away. Tyler told me about the night his father dragged him out from under the bed, where he was hiding, and told him that it was time to choose:

“Are you going to be with me, or with this b*tch you call a mother? Choose now. If you choose her, I’ll kill myself. In fact, if she doesn’t come back to me right now, I’m going to blow my own brains out. You can watch me do it.”

He told his father he would go with him, and prayed that he’d hear police sirens before he was dragged away.

But when the police would come, his mother would minimize the incident, never pressing charges. His father would spend the night in the drunk tank. That was until one night when he finally put her in the hospital.

But even after that fateful night, his mother’s reassurances became merely words to him. It felt like delusion. It convinced him that he was right about his own worst fears. That he could always trust his own doubts, not the rosy picture that others painted for him. You grow up quickly in that situation. You assume that everyone is just telling you what you want to hear. I believe that there is nothing worse to a young child, and I mean nothing, than that child losing trust in both of his or her parents.

He began to worry about his mother 24 hours a day. He watched her reaction to anything that anyone said to her, wondering what she thought of the comment someone just made to her. He tried to glean whether bad things were coming by reading her facial expressions. Things a five-year-old has no business worrying about.

This is what put Tyler into a downward spiral to self-doubt and anxiety. It doesn’t matter that the whole situation eventually turned out okay. That his dad went from jail, to treatment, and is still sober to this day. That his parents reunited a year later, and he’s lived all but one year of his life with his family intact. Because once they reunited, Tyler was convinced that they would realize, in their new-found love for one another, that the kids were the problem all along. That Tyler had caused this somehow.

Convinced they were going to leave the children behind, Tyler would get out of bed at night and put on his tennis shoes so that he would be ready to chase the car. He’d obsess about having the best tennis shoes he could get, believing they’d make him run faster. That’s fear of abandonment on a f*cked-up scale. His mother would often find him in the morning, asleep on the floor where he had been peering underneath the door to see if they were packing their bags. She told him to stop getting out of bed at night. She never asked him why he did it. This was a pattern of disengagement that would continue into adulthood.

(Note: I lovingly tell Tyler that his Indian name is “Sleeping With Shoes On.”)

So there is what he was dealing with—what made him the way he is today. That, of course, is the most crucial part of this. You have to know what it was that caused those neurons to be lined up the way they are. Because this hack involves scrambling them up and laying them down differently.

Step 1: When Did You First Feel This Way?

Therapy. I think it is far more difficult for a guy like Tyler to get the courage to go to therapy than other people. One of the challenges with his brand of anxiety is that he feels as if every action he takes is being judged and is a reflection just how abnormal he is. “Real men don’t go to shrinks,” he blurted out to me one night over drinks. I had no idea what he was talking about until later.

The key thing that Tyler got out of therapy was that he understood how the things that happened to him as a child had affected him—are still affecting him. Though he knew that what he had been through was not normal, he didn’t have any idea these things were still with him. He thought that perhaps he was just overly sensitive. It was when the therapist asked him to write down his entire history and they then discussed it that the revelation came.

“You’re not crazy,” the therapist told him. “You never dealt with what happened. You’ve never even discussed it with your parents in all these years. You believe that nothing will be okay, ever, because you haven’t accepted the fact that it’s over. That everything turned out okay. That things will always be okay. You’re waiting for the door to be kicked in again. You’re still ready to chase the f*cking car.”

From an outsider’s perspective, you would think that once you understand this—that this is what happened and why you are the way you are, it should be enough to fix it. Now you can just turn it off, right? Wrong. The mind is an amazing piece of machinery. It isn’t even remotely that simple. But understanding the root cause is more than half the battle.

Step 2: Meditation

“Are you f*cking kidding me?” he asked his wife shortly after seeing the therapist. “He thinks that sitting quietly and thinking of nothing is going to help me?” Tyler doesn’t eat granola, and he does wear socks. Asking him to meditate is like someone telling him that if he bangs on the side of his laptop, the errors in his code will magically fix themselves. It was a struggle for him.

But, to his surprise, it helped.

He works at home, so once everyone is gone for the day, he sits in the bedroom closet with the door closed, in the dark. He’s begun to take himself out of what he might be feeling or reacting to at any given moment. To recognize when he was off center and to just bring himself back. He’s started to feel more connected to himself. When he told me this, I told him that a man bun would look really good on him.

But in fact, the meditation is what led to this hack. It was seeing the difference that meditation made in him that prompted Tyler to take it further—to realize that there are ways that he can affect his brain that are more like hacking than anything else.

Step 3: Self-Induced Schizophrenia

Okay, here comes the Twilight Zone stuff.

Tyler is sitting in that dark closet. His mind is wandering. He’s thinking about his five-year-old self. About what happened. Suddenly, he gets up, and goes down to the basement. Digging through boxes, he finds a picture album and takes out a picture of himself at five. He finds a few more from that period. He takes them back upstairs and lays on his bed, studying them.

He begins to picture how his mouth might have moved when he spoke at five. What might he have looked like when frightened? He stares at his five-year-old face for so long that he can move his gaze from the photo to the corner of the room and see himself standing there. He sees himself playing with a truck there, humming a song.

What Tyler’s doing is bringing his five-year-old self into existence. I know, it sounds crazy. Just read.

Soon he finds himself doing this throughout the day. Sitting on the sofa, watching Netflix, he’d see himself on the floor, sitting cross-legged and staring up at the screen. He’d see himself walking by his side on the way to the mailbox. He says that he did this sort of thing for about a week. Understand this: he was literally connecting to part of his past. Making it new again. 40 years after the fact.

Step 4: Embracing the Inner Child, Over and Over Again

Do you have any idea how hard it is to write “Embracing the inner child” when you’re just an average, beer-drinking, milquetoast kind of guy? Of course you don’t. But it’s really f*cking hard.

Tyler began to picture his five-year-old self in the closet with him during meditation. I know, that sounds creepy, like some horror movie. But five-year-old Tyler was not intimidating. (He told me that if you buried him in an evil pet cemetery at age five, like in that Stephen King movie, he’d come back to life with nothing more ravenous in him than an above-average desire for tacos.)

Eventually, he pictured his five-year-old self sitting on his lap in that dark closet, his arms cradling his younger self. The key is, present-day Tyler was the parent now. Five-year-old Tyler was crying, relating exactly what had happened in full detail. Every incident, spoken in his head, imagining his five-year-old voice. Here is an example that he shared with me. Skip the next paragraph if you’re squeamish.

(Crying) “I woke up next to mom in the hospital bed. They let us sleep there with her. Me and mom were sharing the pillow. There was something wet on my face when I woke up. There was blood on the pillow where it had seeped around the bandage on her head. Then I remembered why there was a bandage there. Last night, he broke in again. First, he kicked her so hard in the back that he broke her tailbone. While she was on the ground, he put his boot on her head, grabbed her by the hair with both hands and ripped it out. Some of the skin came off too. Just like he was pulling a big weed out of the ground.”

(I debated long and hard about putting in this detail, but I want you to understand what we are talking about here. Imagine your mother. Imagine you are five and you are watching a man do this to her. These are the images burned into Tyler’s head 40 years later. He can still see every detail. In the world of domestic violence, this is a relatively tame example.)

Tyler held his younger self tighter through each story. There were lots of them. More disturbing than the one above, and I won’t mention them here. He spoke out loud to his younger self in that closet. Telling five-year-old Tyler:

“Do you remember that the next day was better? Do you know that you’ll become a man someday who has a family that loves him, and you’ll have kids of your own that you’ll protect with your entire being? They loved you, your parents. This is what addiction does to people and families. They were both trapped in something that they didn’t know how to get out of. But it turned out okay, Tyler. Have you noticed that everything is always okay in the end? It will always be that way. Just let yourself believe that for today. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”

He didn’t count days and weeks that he did this. But it was real therapy for him. He was finally resolving things in his head. He began to wake up each day, a little closer to the surface. He didn’t have to fight all day to get to the air.

This hack comes down to seeing yourself resolving situations from your past. You are hacking your response to what occurred. Eventually, you catch up to current-day you. You start to recognize what happened today for what it truly was and not ascribe some sort of false meaning to it that you’ve cooked up in your head. But even if it was bad, that’s okay. Don’t lie to yourself. You’re not telling yourself that this never happened. This did happen. Sh*t will happen tomorrow too. You are just trying to make yourself react differently about things. It’s all about that first reaction. Convincing yourself that everything will be okay. Even if you’re the one who f*cked up. Let it go. Breathe, dammit. Breathe.

It also is not about blaming people or forgiving people. It’s about you loving yourself. Not about changing the severity of what happened. About changing what it means for your future. You’re tricking your brain—forcing yourself to think that someone told you it would be okay back then, and it was. Completing the circuit, even if that guardian in the closet is yourself.

What? You don’t think it’s possible to trick your own mind this way? I’ll bet you’ve done something like this before without even realizing it. Jean shorts being fashionable comes to mind.

One other tip. Unlike Tyler, I’d recommend you do the closet at night. Right before you go to bed. Let sleep “solidify your mental progress.” Tyler will get a kick out of me sounding enlightened.

Tyler still has anxiety. But not as severely as before. Most of the time, he will tell you that he feels better about life. He feels good about the future. I think he feels amazingly good about himself.

Now if he could have convinced his 20-year-old self not to get those god-awful tattoos.

For Sleeping With Shoes On. I love you, bro.

 

 

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