Choosing Your Shovel: A Field Manual to Leveraging Fear & Managing Anxiety

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Quick disclaimer: There is a significant difference between sporadic spells of anxiety and a chronic anxiety disorder. This piece is meant more to aid with periodic anxious spells rather than treating any condition, which should be addressed by a mental health professional.

Two emotions. Endless misinterpretations.

Fear and anxiety are two of the most perplexing emotions one can have. Both can overtake you and result in a miserable daily life. Conquering fear and anxiety is the work of life and not a life hack that can be acquired by reading a short online essay or listening to a podcast episode. This being said, I’ve personally found the following mindset shifts to be immensely helpful when attempting to control or even leverage fear and anxiety. When these mindset shifts are combined, they may even be able to help the average person pull themself from the occasional bout of anxiety. 

Mindset Shift 1: Fear can be useful when correctly identified.

Fear — ”an unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger.”
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

Though fear can be debilitating, it is an instrumental emotion. Without fear, we might find ourselves attempting to cross busy highways on foot, coming too close to the edges of steep heights, or petting dangerous creatures. Fear is a mechanism to protect us from many of the dangers of life.

While this is true, fear is only helpful when it can be leveraged or applied — when it results in a discernable behavioral shift. When it cannot be, it ceases to be fear. It is, instead, anxiety. 

Mindset Shift 2: We frequently confuse fear with anxiety and vice versa.

One of the biggest reasons we cling to debilitating anxiety is because we confuse it with helpful fear. As we’ve discussed before, fear is instrumental. Anxiety, however, is not. 

  • The shovel of fear can dig us free from a situation.
  • The shovel of anxiety only deepens our rut. 

For this reason, it’s crucial to correctly identify the shovel of fear and the shovel of anxiety. So, the first step out is knowing when you’re clutching the wrong shovel. 

Mindset Shift 3: Becoming mindful of anxious thoughts can help you manage them. 

You are not your thoughts. If this were the case, you would be incapable of thinking about your thoughts. Humans are unique from other creatures on this planet in that we are capable of offering the Director’s Commentary of our own thought process. 

Most of us, however, can rarely distinguish our thinking from thinking about thinking. This thinking about our thoughts can be referred to as “metacognition” but is most commonly referred to as “mindfulness.” 

The term “mindfulness” is meant to be used to contrast our default mode — mindlessness. When our thoughts are allowed to ricochet in our heads without control, the result is a dangerous rumination and can culminate in severe anxiety and depression.

Mindset Shift 3: Mind control is an obtainable superpower if it’s your own mind you’re controlling.

Like stopping a ricocheting bullet, catching a mindless thought before it tears through our emotions can feel like a superpower. Mindfulness, however, is not the act of catching speeding bullets but rather slowing them down to the point of plucking them out of thin air. When a thought or reactionary emotion can be slowed down, its details can be more objectively analyzed, its intent considered, and the most appropriate response deployed. 

Examining Fear vs. Anxiety in Practice

The next time you experience the frantic gloom of fear or anxiety, as soon as you can identify the sensation, do your best to cease what you’re doing and take hold of the moment for yourself.

  • Focus on the raw sensation of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. This present action will help pull the emergency brake on your thought processes.
  • Once grounded in the present, aim to perceive this negative emotion as though belonging to someone else. Aim to observe it as objectively as placing a glass slide under the lens of a microscope for examination. 
  • Carefully inspecting this thought or feeling, ask yourself, “What action is this sensation prompting me to do?” 

Leveraging Useful Fear

If this sensation has practical next steps that can prevent ailment or injury, whether of your body, relationships, career, or overall wellbeing, this is valuable fear. Consider how these steps can be positively applied to the betterment of your daily life. Break each action into its tiniest achievable steps — with no effort too small as long as you’re moving forward. Construct a plan for following these steps with scheduled times and deadlines. 

The following are a few examples of how to possibly leverage useful fear to help resolve a fearful state.

  • If a bodily symptom is fearfully weighing on your mind, an executable action is to present your concern to a doctor. If this action feels daunting, break the activity into smaller parts. Perhaps, start by sending a message to the doctor through email or your health care provider’s online portal. Maybe even start as small as scheduling a time to make an appointment with a deadline for the completion of this action. If even this feels like too much, perhaps your first step is looking at yourself in the mirror and saying out loud, “tomorrow, I’m going to call my doctor’s office.” Again, no step is too small if it means moving forward from your present fearful state.
  • If you’re fearfully concerned about the future of your job, whether due to your performance or the support of your employer, an executable action would be to make a list of actionable items you can take in case your fears are founded. If the fear is performance-based, identify your weaknesses as an employee and develop ways to strengthen them — even little by little. Asking colleagues, even superiors, for constructive criticism can help in this matter and express your dedication to your duties and role. If your fear is with your employer’s support, you can either bring these fears to your employer to quell or confirm them. If you don’t feel comfortable with the potential confrontation, consider taking tactful steps toward securing employment elsewhere.
  • Suppose you’re fearful about the deterioration of a relationship. In that case, an executable action may be to identify why you feel this way and what actions you can take to nurture or remedy said relationship. If, upon closer analysis, the relationship does not seem salvageable, begin devising steps to end the relationship on agreeable terms. 

Quelling Pernicious Anxiety

The sinking feeling in your gut and increased heart rate are helpful biological responses to approaching the edge of a dizzyingly high cliff. Such sensations are your mind’s signal to your body to be fearfully conscious of impending danger. However, the same sensations while simply lying in bed can be immensely hazardous to your mental and physical health. These are not leverageable sensations but rather potentially debilitating ruminations. 

As previously discussed, properly identifying fear versus anxiety is a practical means of quelling either. When fear is appropriately identified, actionable steps can be executed to leverage and squelch such sensations.  

But once anxiety is identified, then what?

Once anxiety is correctly identified as such—as a senseless nuisance—we can begin to leverage the lack of teeth in these ruminations — aka no discernable executables — to shift our minds to efforts worthy of our attention. We do this by pivoting our thought process from anxiety to the raw perception of the present moment. 

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

― Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching

Mindset Shift 4: Simply sensing the present is your oasis from pernicious anxiety. 

Upon realizing that a particular mental and emotional sensation is harmful anxiety rather than helpful fear, there is a place we can go to manage such disturbing thoughts—the present moment. 

In the present, there is no fear or worry—there is only the moment itself. At this moment, all that need exist for us is the space we occupy and our body’s involuntary biological function. 

  • Our heart beats in our chest, sending blood throughout our body. 
  • Our skin forwards data about the temperature of the airflow of the space. 
  • Our eyes perceive the shapes of objects and the flow of light around us.
  • Our nostrils detect the coolness of inhaled air and the warmth of exhaled air.

None of these sensations of the present moment require thoughts of the past or future. In fact, they can only be perceived clearly once we’ve shelved non-present thinking. 

We can access the escape hatch from anxiety through any of our sense perceptions of the present moment. Tapping into the present perception of our bodies and surroundings rather than our mindless ruminations is immensely useful whenever anxious ruminations seek to creep into our thought process. A constructive way to do this is with a method that I’ll call the Monitor Technique for the sake of this piece.

The Monitor Technique

Unlike a full camera or audio recorder, a monitor—whether a camera’s viewfinder screen monitor, a musician’s stage monitor speaker, or even a medical heart monitor—has the singular job of sharing what exists in real-time. It cannot store sights or sounds. It cannot recall past moments. It cannot process data. Even though it is called a “monitor,” it is usually a secondary computer system or a user that is actually doing the monitoring. In this sense, it should be called an “allows-you-to-monitor.” But for the most part, monitors are nothing more than vehicles for capturing present data.

When you have become more acquainted with the mental and physical sensation of anxiety, instead of attempting to process your way out of such an episode, become a monitor of your present surroundings. Do not attempt to consider how any of these make you feel. Rather, simply observe them as objectively as possible. This is quite literally what many mean when they use the expression, “stop and smell the roses.” 

Here are a few monitoring techniques that have worked for me: 

  • Observe the shapes, slopes, angles, and colors of objects in your vicinity. The arm of a chair or couch. The rise of a window sill. The angles in the edges of the leaves on trees. The sunlight against the backside of a curtain.
  • Close your eyes and allow your ears to absorb the mosaic soundscape around you. There is always sound — from birds chirping to air vents, the whirl of distant lawnmowers, airplanes, cars on a nearby highway, a humming refrigerator, a computer fan, and beyond. You can either let all of the sounds swirl together as one at the front of your attention or isolate one sound to savor. 
  • Sit with your eyes closed and focus on the raw sensations of your breath. Feel the cool and warm air passing through your nose, the rise and fall of your chest, or the space between breaths.
  • Sit with your eyes closed and simply experience the sensation of the surrounding air on your skin. If the air is moving, notice its direction, intensity, and texture. Even with eyes closed, attempt to feel the shape of the space. 

While practicing the Monitor Technique, your anxieties will likely attempt to breach the doors of your focus. Your first impulse will be to fight them, but this too is a mindless reaction. When this happens, simply observe the anxiety itself as its own entity, mindfully note its existence, and then return to practicing the observation of the present moment via the Monitor Technique. 

Choosing Your Shovel

A fearful mindset tends to result in reaching for one of two shovels. 

The first shovel of pernicious anxiety resulting in aimless rumination is sharp and only capable of digging downward—creating ruts and holes in which to hide. Though seeming like a helpful refuge, the occupant of these ruts or holes will soon find themselves unable to climb out. 

The second shovel of useful fear is broad, better able to dig oneself out from psychological and even physical harm. Though it is a heavier shovel to wield, the more efficiently it is utilized, the sooner it can be stowed until needed again. 

Distinguishing fear from anxiety is not a life hack — it is a skill that requires perpetual sharpening. Honing of the perception of our mental state is aided by regularly “checking in” with ourselves in ways that pull the emergency brake on rumination and align our awareness with the present.  As we sharpen this tool of discernment, we must also remain mindful of which shovel we choose to sharpen — that of useful fear or useless anxiety.


Reminders:

Don’t Abandon the Tools You Forged in 2020

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Take a look before you close the book. 

Though we’d all love to shelf 2020 (or run it through the shredder), there’s no denying that we all learned a lot about ourselves throughout this year. It would be a shame to call 2020 an absolute waste—especially since it had so many lessons to impart. Yes, most of these lessons are how not to do certain things, but also how to lean into the storm of life to keep it from completely knocking us down. 

For some, the lessons they learned and skills developed were how to cope with physical obstacles—lost jobs, lost homes, lost connections, lost bodily health, and even sadly, the loss of loved ones. For others, the obstacles were more mental and emotional—anxiety, depression, isolation, a lack of motivation. The list is endless.

Despite these obstacles, when carefully studied, we can recall the strategies, remedies, and mindsets we used to endure. 

If the tools and emotional armor we developed worked as well as they did when we squared off directly with the travails of 2020, how much more effective could these approaches prove for positive growth and maintenance during times less fraught with adversity? 

Let’s say you were forced to become more frugal with your finances because a member of your family lost their job. Maybe you can take these newfound budgeting skills beyond when money is coming in to save toward your goals. 

Maybe, to better cope with the anxiety and depression of being away from friends and loved ones, you were forced to seek and cultivate new practices to maintain your mental health. These methods could have included meditation, exercise, therapy, spirituality, or new interests. Though developed under immense pressure, these beneficial coping methods should be treated like precious gems you can continue to keep with you.

Before you close the book on 2020 and abandon it entirely—writing it off as a painful memory— remember the tools you forged to help you make it through the storm. These tools can prove to be invaluable companions that will serve you for the rest of your life.

6 Thoughts Upon Reactivating My Facebook Profile After 16 Months

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New eyes. Similar issues.

About 16 months ago, I deactivated my personal Facebook profile for reasons I covered in a previous article. This week, in preparation for a move, I reactivated it to offload stuff on Facebook Marketplace. In the meantime, I decided to give the platform a second look. The following are my thoughts.

1. It was nice to catch up.

For as much trash as I have been talking on Facebook for over the last year, it was refreshing to revisit the profiles of many people I hadn’t heard from since my departure from the platform. Seeing how much their kids had grown, what they were up to, and interacting with them in the comments section was what my quarantine-tarnished spirit needed.

2. It’s definitely not a replacement for socialization.

There are many that use Facebook as a replacement for natural socialization. During these times of pandemic and lockdowns, there’s some logic to this. Still, I believe that this type of socialization may even be worse than no socialization at all.

Let me explain:

In a natural social encounter, any conversation is typically confined to the number of people who can occupy one restaurant booth — I’ll even include those big corner ones that require a butt-scoot to get into and an awkward request to get out of when you have to pee. The conversation darts from person to person — either just two people or seven — like a game of hot potato. And it’s one of the most enjoyable experiences one can have — one that has even been shown to lengthen our lifespan. This is not what happens on Facebook.

On Facebook, I essentially take control of my own jumbotron and blurt something in the form of a post. Others then “react” (their lingo, not mine) with sub-posts of their own. What results is not a conversation, but a subliminal performance for a large audience. And performances, realized or subconscious…are exhausting. That’s frequently why after a scroll session, I don’t feel invigorated, but downright drained — and worse, anxious, which leads to the next thing I noticed.

3. I can’t truly turn it off.

Because it had been over a year since my last posting, I felt it would at least be nice to catch my “friends” up on the gist of what had transpired since we last exchanged the proverbial ones and zeroes. I typed up a 500-ish-word update on the state of my immediate family and posted it along with a few pictures taken since then. The “reactions” immediately poured in — Likes, Hearts, and occasional comments.

“Hmm, how nice,” I thought and then went to have dinner with my family.

All throughout dinner, wondering how others were interacting with that post ran in my mind — not in the front, but in the back, like a program running on a computer. While interacting with my family over a delicious meal, the post’s “performance” metrics ran in the background.

After helping get our son ready for bed, tidying the living room, and pouring myself a glass of wine, I returned to my laptop to see how the post was “performing.” Because I refuse to look at social media on my phone, there I was — checking the stats on the equivalent of a family newsletter to my 654 “friends” in the dark.

And for what? Metrics that suddenly felt emptier than ever.

4. I’d trade a million “likes” for one meaningful comment.

Back when I was an avid Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter user, “likes” “loves” and “favorites” were my key performance indicators (“KPIs” for those in the biz). I don’t know what has changed in the past 16 months, but the present significance of these one-click interactions don’t correspond to their intended emotional correlation of “I like this” or “I love this” Rather, they feel to me more like, “I’ve observed this and find it palatable” or even just, “I want you to know that I’ve witnessed your post.”

And while I’d trade a million “likes” for a comment, I’ve noticed that many people’s comments aren’t much more supportive than their single-click versions. Comments that once wielded new perspectives or a truly sympathetic timbre now feel boilerplate, microwaved, and lacking genuine connection — like small talk about the weather or the banal “how was your weekend?” “Not too bad. And you?” chitchat.

beautiful social media comments

5. Let’s face it — most of it is a performance.

I’m far from innocent of the practice of portraying my family life as sterling. While I do feel like my immediate family unit is pretty incredible, there are items I choose to conceal.

  • Like the time when my son tripped on a pillow this week and busted his lip open on the coffee table, leaving some of the skin of his upper lip stuck between his tiny teeth —leaving one of my favorite shirts with toddler bloodstains.
  • Like how I’ve had to call the police multiple times at 3 AM due to the mentally-imbalanced, blood-curdling-yet-involuntary shrieks of an extremely close neighbor whom I believe has been abandoned to live by herself by…who knows.
  • Like how my home office desk is about eight feet from my cat’s litter box.
  • Like how I suffered from severe hypochondria-induced anxiety around the beginning of the summer leading up to my routine CT-scan because I’m in remission from testicular cancer.

Fortunately, my son’s lip healed up in about a day, my anxiety dissipated (or I got over it — not precisely sure which happened), and we’re moving soon away from that poor screaming lady to a home with more room for a home office.

To onlookers who viewed my update, I received comments such as “Glad to see you’re doing well!” — a comment that is totally appropriate based on the filters I subconsciously massaged into the post. But I’m far from the only one. These are the performances and curated lives I see up and down my timeline. While most would say there’s nothing wrong with these, it tends to make one ask two questions:

1. “Is their life actually as amazing as they make it appear?”

And more dangerously:

2. Why can’t my life be that perfect?”

social media disclaimer
Photo by Christopher Ott

As a dear friend Brian Hughes said in a recent email exchange with him on this subject:

“We are all the stars of our Facebook page…love me, acknowledge me, encourage me, agree with me, ‘you go girl’, etc… It’s like blowing air into a balloon but not tying it off. It leaks out quickly and needs more ‘air’ constantly.”

An apt analogy, Hughesy.

6. It’s been ok for me to let go of most of these “friends.”

It’s true that we don’t include our true selves in our posts out of fear of not providing a positive Facebook viewing experience for others. I didn’t post the details about my anxiety or my son’s busted lip because it didn’t seem like the place. I also feared being judged by many “friends” — most of whom are acquaintances at best.

The Game Changer: Dunbar’s Number

Engaging in these social performances for acquaintances can be mentally exhausting. It wasn’t until I learned about “Dunbar’s Number” that I learned why.

According to acclaimed anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, there is a cognitive limit to how many relationships we can effectively juggle — roughly 150. As he put it, 150 is “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” Just think about your own Facebook “friends” — how many of them, if spotted in a pub or coffee shop, would you feel ok about inviting to pull up a chair or bar stool to shoot the breeze?

How many Facebook “friends” have you actually hidden from in public? C’mon — you know you’ve done it.

If we’re honest with ourselves, given the option, most of these people would not bother to maintain an email correspondence with us, much less a meaningful in-person friendship. How do I know this? Because I tried it. After days of both displaying Instagram and Facebook posts announcing my leaving of the platforms and my desire to carry on email correspondence, only one person who didn’t before have my email address reached out. Thanks, Roger.

Everyone else was already close enough friends to already have my phone number and my email address or, I’m assuming, didn’t care to continue a digital friendship with me on another platform.

And you know what? That’s fine. Nobody needs 654 “friends.”

In Conclusion

While the sounds of crickets in my inbox after announcing my departure from most social media platforms would have made me feel down in June of 2019 when I originally left Facebook, these days, that’s not the case. The fact that so few have reciprocated my requests to continue friendships offline leads me to two possible conclusions:

1. I’m a jerk.
2. We don’t need to fake being friends.

  • Genuine friends would want to hear about your highs and your lows.
  • True pals will return your calls.
  • Legitimate buddies will actually check up on you.
  • Real amigos will put their phones away when you sit down for a drink.

When they ask you how you’re doing, they’re not just making small talk — they genuinely want to know.

I feel immensely blessed to have wonderful people in my life. I wish the present times allowed for more in-person interaction, but for now, I cherish the one-on-one interaction of a phone call or even an email or text correspondence.

So, I’m deactivating again — not because I’m better than Facebook, but because I’m too easily fooled and distracted. A multi-billion-dollar industry wants my attention. And it wants to convince me that these 654 people are my “friends.” 95% of them aren’t, and I’m ok with that. If anything, that frees me up to focus on the 5% who are. If I can enjoy a pint with the 32.7 of them that remain and ask, “how are you really doing?” through good times and bad, that means more to me than a billion “likes.”


If you enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Thanks. – Ken

Helping Relieve Anxiety & Depression With God’s First Question

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Disclaimer: This piece is not meant to treat those experiencing clinical depression and anxiety—which should be addressed by a medical professional. However, for those with the occasional episodes of anxiety and depression, to quote one of my favorite writers, Patrick Rhone, this could help. 

A great deal of anxiety and depression stem from our own broken emotional time machines. 

These time machines can trigger a spiral of depression when we replay moments of anguish or regret—whether these are accurate depictions or warped perceptions of said events. In other instances, these malfunctioning flux capacitors can spark bouts of anxiety by painting worst-case projections of the future. Whether we’re reeling over a past disappointment or spinning rotisserie-style in our beds over what the future may bring, there’s a question we need to ask ourselves—the same question God asked of “us” in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, Verse 9. 

איכה

Ay’yehkah?” — “Where are you?”

This is the question God articulated as the first two humans scurried into the bushes to hide their newly-realized nakedness.

This one-word question seems odd. Surely, if we can determine our friends’ precise coordinates using a device we keep in our slacks, the Creator of the universe can locate two fig-leaf-bikini-sporting folks in a garden. The simple explanation is that God knew precisely where they were, but that the man and woman, themselves, did not. Their emotional compasses were shattered. They were blinded by the realization of their wrongdoing and trembling over the imagined consequences as they heard God’s footsteps in the garden tiptoeing closer and closer. 

The question God put forth was not was in order to obtain an answer but to inspire them to ask the question of themselves. And us. 

One of the devastating impacts of depression and anxiety is that they sap the pleasure from the present moment. In most instances, we’re too wrapped up in the past or the future to look at where we are. We’re emotionally time traveling in our backfiring machines, gasping on its exhaust, incapable of simply taking a breath to shelf any time that isn’t right now.

How do we shelf the past and future? Well, with three steps. 

Step 1: Realize that you’re not your thoughts and emotions…with practice. 

One of the biggest lies that we tend to believe is that we are our thoughts and emotions. 

When we’re feeling depressed, we remove the word “feeling” and believe, “I am depressed.” Likewise, when we’re feeling anxious, we remove the word “feeling” and believe, “I am anxious.” 

(As a dorky dad would say, “Nice to meet you, anxious—I’m dad.”) 

Ugh, what terrible identity, right? But it’s not who you are. You’re not depressed—you’re Anthony, and you’re feeling depressed. You’re not anxious—you’re Jessica, and you’re feeling anxious. This understanding is necessary when appraising your thoughts and emotions. 

How can we do this? With practice.

  • Sit with your thoughts. 
  • Watch as they approach like a meteorologist watches clouds in the sky. 
  • Become mindful of when the storm clouds of negative thoughts and emotions arrive.
  • Monitor and appraise these thoughts and emotions—not like someone in the path of the storm, but as a meteorologist tracking it from another place. 
  • Practice this and grow accustomed to the sensation of these thoughts and emotions. 

Step 2: Ask yourself, “Ay’yehkah?” — “Where are you?”

Indulging a negative thought or emotion can make you feel downright stuck. Much like trying to floor the gas pedal to free a vehicle from a muddy ditch, attempting to not think about a thought causing anxiety or depression can wear an even deeper rut. How can you rock yourself free from this emotional thicket? By taking a shotgun to our time machine. 

When you realize that you’re experiencing a moment of anxiety or depression, audibly ask yourself: “Ay’yehkah?” — “Where are you?” (You don’t have to say the Hebrew, but I find it keeps people from wondering if I’m talking to them and instead makes them think I’m just clearing my throat. 😉 ) 

What’s the point of asking ourselves this question? It forces us to put our feet on the ground and wake up to the present moment. Why the present moment? Well, because it’s probably not that bad. In fact, it’s probably pretty great

Just think about where you are when you’re experiencing anxiety or depression. If you’re “trapped” in your home, you’re home—likely your favorite place. If you’re near a window, you can see the sky, may be able to hear birds singing, or have the ability to open it and feel a breeze. You may be close to your family—the people you cherish and who cherish you. Even if you’re anxiously tossing and turning as you try to sleep, you’re snuggled up in your warm, safe bed. What could be better? 

Asking “ay’yehkah—where are you?” can help you realize that you’re not in the present and motivate you to return. If you were to regain consciousness in that precise moment and look immediately at what lay before you, it would likely be pretty awesome. 

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca

Step 3: Attempt to live 60 seconds at a time. 

After nuking your broken emotional time machine by recentering your focus with  a full-throated or even whispered “ay’yehkah,” strive to live in 60-second increments. The past is already over. The future is anyone’s guess. What is certain? Only that which lays before you in this 60-second increment. Not 24/7 political news. Not sinking in the contrived infinity pool of social media. All that exists are these 60 seconds. Live within that time like a dolphin in the aquarium inhabits its tank. 

My prayer is that you come to realize that you aren’t thoughts, that you sledgehammer your dysfunctional emotional time machine with a robust “ay’yehkah,” and cannon-ball into the pool that is the right now

The water feels fine. 

3 Ways of Quelling Hypochondria-Induced Anxiety

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Disclaimer: I’m by no means a medical professional. I’m just a guy who has lost many nights of sleep due to nervous anxiety. The following are a few ways I manage my thoughts.

Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m a hypochondriac. About once a year for a span running either a few weeks to as much as over a month, I’m convinced that I have some malady that will take me down—either kill me or forever change my life. 

If he knows he’s a hypochondriac, shouldn’t that be enough to remind him that he’s acting irrationally? 

Well, not exactly. You see, I’m also a cancer survivor. In 2017, I was diagnosed with stage 1 testicular cancer. Though primarily treated with one surgery where my right testicle was removed, I’ve been in remission and under surveillance ever since. Still worse, I experienced one of the most significant setbacks for a hypochondriac—I was right

Fast forward to 2019. I began feeling a recurring dull pain in my grown. 

Oh great. Not this again.

While a second pass of testicular cancer in remaining testicle was possible (it’s happened to others before), it was highly unlikely. I consulted my urologist. The verdict? The testicle was completely normal. I had also just started a strenuous jump rope workout routine from having never really exercised regularly in my life. He deemed that the likely culprit for the inner groin pain and told me to contact him again if it persisted. It didn’t. After a few weeks, I didn’t experience any groin pain or further associated anxiety. 

Fast forward to 2020. Not one, not two, but three of my friends have been battling lymphoma—successfully, but not easily. Needless to say, it’s on my mind. 

Later, during the covid pandemic, I read Beastie Boys Book. If you’re unfamiliar, one of the founding members of Beastie Boys, Adam “MCA” Yauch, died from cancer of the salivary gland. Between my friends battling lymphoma to reading about Adam, I started to swear that I felt something happening in my own throat. Swallowing began to feel strange. I began checking my own lymph nodes multiple times a day (by the way, this is a great way to agitate your lymph nodes—just sayin’). 

Weeks went by. Lymph node checks on the couch while watching TV or reading books became a common twitch. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, wondering if something was going on. Still, one situation continued that most every hypochondriac can attest to: I felt like something should be wrong, but there wasn’t enough wrong to justify a doctor’s visit. 

At this time, I also discovered one fascinating thing about the throat: it’s incredibly responsive to…wait for it…anxiety. There’s even a name for it—globus pharygenus. It’s the harmless nervous lump you’ve likely felt in your throat during an intense or traumatic event—ranging from a job interview to a funeral. It doesn’t help that the more anxious you become about it, the worse it can become. It’s almost like your body is trolling your emotions. 

1. The Perspective-Correcting Question

Most days, any perceived “symptoms” would only flare up when I would think about them. Noticing this stimulus was key to a question I would later use to largely quell my anxiety. 

“If you had woken up today with your complete memory of the last six months erased, anxieties and all, would the symptoms you’re feeling at this moment justify a doctor’s visit?”

Once I asked myself, I knew the answer: no. I probably wouldn’t even register them as “symptoms.” Suddenly, I felt a great weight lifted from my shoulders. But why? 

For most of us with irrational anxieties about our health, the severity of these delusions are intensified by the weight we give them. We’re not anxious about the supposed “symptom” we’re presently feeling this moment, but we’re instead recalling all of the anxieties we’ve logged away in regard this feeling before. Every time our minds shift to the worst-case scenarios in regard to this feeling, we’re essentially picking the scab on an emotional wound that our minds are trying to heal every day.

So, what is the answer? When assessing how you feel, keep your assessment to that specific moment—not the anxieties of the past. Ask yourself, if this moment was the first time I felt this perceived “symptom,” would it justify a doctor’s visit? Almost every time, the answer will be “no.” Every day that this is the case, the more the wound of your own anxiety can heal until you can successfully leave it behind. 

So, what if it does justify a doctor’s visit?

For many of us hypochondriacs, we fear making that doctor’s appointment because of what it may reveal. When this is the case, simply make an appointment for a routine checkup. Though you’d feel silly about making an appointment about what may just be an anxious sensation, making an appointment for the exam will feel less ominous. During the appointment, you should probably tell your doctor about the symptom that is worrying you, but also definitely acknowledge the anxiety you’re feeling regarding such sensations. Either way, the doctor will be able to assist you to relieve your anxiety—whether via treatment of your body, your mind, or just a friendly pep talk. 

2. Journal Daily

In addition to asking yourself the magic mind-erasing question and seeing your doctor when necessary, my next recommendation is among the easiest—journaling. Every day, write down how you’re feeling, physically and mentally. In most instances, the simple act of putting your thoughts and emotions into words will help you process them. Don’t hold back. Feel free to write down your worst fears, your highest hopes, and everything in between. Your mind will thank you. 

3. This Too Shall Pass

And my last bit of advice: when you’re wracked with anxiety, whether from hypochondria or other stress, utter and embody these four words: “this too shall pass.” Anxiety has a way of suffocating our perceptions of the future. We feel like we’re going to feel this way forever. Guess what? You’re not. This too shall pass. 

You’ve got this. 

I Didn’t Understand Anxiety…Until I Got Cancer

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For those who have never experienced it, anxiety is a largely misunderstood condition. The unacquainted may not even deem it a condition, but rather a mood, an emotion, or an attitude. For most of my life, I was one of these people.

The Happiest Man in The World Has Anxiety

My mother once introduced me to a friend of hers by saying, “This is my son. He’s the happiest man in the world.” For the most part, she was pretty right. Even though on paper, there’s nothing extraordinary about me, I make a special effort to be content with life — happy with my lot and appreciative of my blessings. I’m very happily married. I’m a dad to a little boy who amazes me every day. I have a supportive base of family and friends. I’m a member of a close-knit spiritual community. I have a challenging job that I enjoy. To most, I display no reason why I should understand the anxiety that is capable of causing someone to nearly collapse in the shower…until that happened one day.

In March of 2017, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in my right testicle. Though that sounds severe, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. The survival rate for someone with a testicular cancer diagnosis still stands at around 99% if caught early enough. Heck, Lance Armstrong’s stage three embryonal carcinoma testicular cancer left a dozen golfball-sized tumors in his lungs with multiple tumors in his brain and he went on to win seven Tour De France races — which, even with the help of some illicit pharmaceuticals, is still quite impressive for a man who should be dead. My testicular cancer was more subtle — stage 1 classic seminoma, which my urologist told me, “If I had to choose which cancer to have, it would be that one.” After having my right testicle removed, a week at home to recover, and some scans to confirm that it hadn’t spread, I was essentially given a clean bill of health.

orchiectomy recovery
3 days after my orchiectomy (testicle removal surgery). I’m being silly. I wasn’t actually in a ton of pain unless I tried to bend over, sneeze, cough, or poop.

I’m a Hypochondriac

Though I healed up physically, the diagnosis left me a bit rattled. Past hypochondria that I once laughed about could now be stated almost as a diagnosis. 

Hi, I’m Ken — and I’m a hypochondriac.

Before long, every ache, bump, or swelling was “something” to me. I’ve typed and subsequently deleted many messages intended for my doctors. Though obsessive, no symptom ever seems severe enough to mention to a physician, yet every symptom feels important enough to provoke intense rumination.

Is it a fear of death? Oddly enough, I don’t fear death. I’ve physically been around death. I write about death as part of my job. Death isn’t scary. What is scary to me is not knowing what is happening within my body and ultimately the nature of my future.

Not Again

It wasn’t long ago that I started experiencing a dull ache in my groin. After a self-examination of my remaining testicle deemed it healthy, I wrote off as the result of too many squats in my workout or a change in the weather — nothing worth mentioning to my doctor. A month later, the ache persisted, and my anxiety skyrocketed.

The same ruminations returned. What could this mean? Should I research it online? Ah, of course not — that would only lead to a downward spiral of false information…or false hope? What would I hope to gain from such research? What if it says its nothing? What if it says I can’t have any more children? But I don’t want to bug my urologist. He’ll probably tell me I’m being paranoid. Would he actually tell me that? He’s a urologist, not a psychologist. But he’s a doctor…

After taking some time off from lower body exercise, the ache subsided…but remained. Though still present, the ache wasn’t necessarily the reason I made an appointment with my urologist. I made an appointment with my urologist due to my anxiety. Even if what he told me was the worst news imaginable, it would hopefully end the ruminating.

That Time I Had an Anxiety Attack in the Shower

While taking a shower the morning of my appointment, I decided to perform one last self-exam for myself before the doctor’s examination. An action I had performed dozens of times before now had new importance. My senses were heightened to detect any new detail. Due to my intensified focus, I felt a particular part of the epididymitis, the connecting tube on the backside, in a way I hadn’t before. My unfamiliarity with what I was feeling sent a wave of anxiety rushing over me. My empty stomach sank, and I felt a nervous retching-sensation creep up in my throat. I grew lightheaded and fell against the shower knobs. My knees wobbled unsteadily as I fought to turn off the water. I sat down on the floor of the shower, taking deep breaths until my stomach settled and my head felt more balanced. What had just happened to me? 

Stoic Anxiety — An Apparent Oxymoron

As I got dressed, I remembered the knowledge of the Stoic philosophers regarding fear and anxiety. A practice of the stoics was to periodically and deliberately seek discomfort. Some would dress for a time primarily in rags, sleep on the floor, do humiliating acts, eat the most basic food, or no food at all to induce the pangs of hunger. The idea is that once they had experienced what it would be like to be mortified, poverty-stricken, hungry, or without the comforts they had known, they would no longer fear such an existence.

I sought to see how I, too, could use this technique to settle my anxieties. The advantage I had in this regard was that I had already experienced what I feared. Thinking back to my past bout with testicular cancer, I recalled that, from the perspective of physical pain, it wasn’t as agonizing as I had assumed it would be. Sure, I was in pain and bending from the waist was virtually impossible (some have compared it to recovering from an appendectomy or hernia). Still, I even walked from the surgical bed to my dad’s car. A week later, I was back at work. Come to think of it, the worst part of my cancer experience was the anxiety stoked by the unknown — wondering if the cancer had spread. In this instance, due to a CT scan taken a month before my symptoms first appeared, I knew that was highly unlikely. Even if it was true, that was a pain for a later time that I needn’t torture myself with now.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

– Seneca

To quell my anxieties, I considered the logistics of managing a second diagnosis of testicular cancer — mostly how to optimize recovery, how to keep the cat from jumping on my lap onto my surgical incision…again (probably the most painful moment of my life), and how to hug my toddler son without wincing in pain. As I started to plan for the worst pragmatically, free of vague ruminations, I began to see the fangs of my anxiety dull and its claws retract. I accepted my fate. I was ready to step into my doctor’s office and receive my second diagnosis of testicular cancer. In fact, I was almost looking forward to it…if only to get it over with.

What happened next was quite unexpected. My doctor found nothing of concern and said I likely strained my groin due to being a fitness idiot who doesn’t know how to stretch properly (ok, maybe he said it different, but that was the gist).

This guy scooped out my right testicle. Thanks. Dr. D.

Though I was immensely relieved by his assessment, the lack of cause for alarm left me perplexed. I had accepted my fate, but it wasn’t meant to be. I felt like I had packed a tuna salad sandwich for my journey…to a five-star sushi restaurant.

It’s Not All Trauma-Induced

My anxiety had been brought to life by a traumatic event, but for many, this is not the case. For some, anxiety comes on completely unprovoked — leaving a person feeling blindsided and without hope. For others, the tiniest stressors, virtually undetectable, can slowly accumulate into a full-blown anxiety avalanche. The one sin that we need not commit is our continued ignorance of Anxiety and depression best exemplified in one of the most hurtful rhetorical questions in existence; what do you have to be anxious about?

Our mindset must be of the now-famous quote by author Brad Meltzer:

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

Myself, the boy I made with my remaining testicle, and the cat who jumped on my incision a few days after surgery and I let live…a bottle of lotion, for some reason. 

Just a reminder that November is Men’s Health Month. If you’re a man between 15 and 35 or you know one, go here to add a monthly reminder on your calendar to check yourself for testicular cancer in the shower. Early detection saves lives!


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