André Pena

@andrerpena

Taming anxiety and hacking your way into productivity

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” ― Dale Carnegie.

I’m not a mental health professional, but I’ve coping with Anxiety Disorder for 14 years now, so I feel more than entitled to talk about it.

When I first decided to seek treatment, about 10 years ago, my primary complaint wasn’t exactly the body and mental manifestations of anxiety. My biggest problem was that it was directly impacting my decision making and most importantly, my productivity.

One of the most prominent traits of my personality is creativity. I really enjoy building stuff. I mean: Really. I usually spend 1.5 to 3 hours a day studying, hacking on side-projects and more recently, writing. And then one day I started noticing that I was getting home, after a regular day of work, feeling too exhausted to be productive, or even too excited to get anything done. Then I thought: “How can I be so worn out if my job basically consists of me sitting in a cozy chair, under air conditioning, typing stuff on a keyboard? It’s not like I’m a mason carrying bricks all day long. I can’t be that exhausted”. Yes, software development is definitely mental-taxing, but I knew I was crossing the line. My next thought was, “OK, so, I’m very stressed because of X, Y and Z”. Then I got X, Y and Z sorted and nothing changed; Which led me to therapy; Which let me to a psychiatrist and ultimately being diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder.

This is how Merriam Webster describe Anxiety:

“An abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it”

It strikes me that I have never had any reason to feel this way, whatsoever. I have a great career, I can’t complain about my health, my relationships are OK, so, why? People with AD often really hate to be asked: “Why are you so anxious?” because there’s no obvious answer. There’s no clear rationale behind it. Of course, as the above description states, anxiety is almost always rooted in an underlying fear, and I imagine that everybody suffering from AD, deep inside, is aware of what that fear is. The problem is that it’s not, in any way, grounded in reality.

In the same Reddit thread I found the above image, I came across this related quote:

“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened. “— Mark Twain

Now back to the subject: Productivity. We all want to achieve great things in life. In order to do so, you need to: Deeply understand what success means to you; Identify exactly what it takes to get there; Make a plan and make sure that, by the end of each day, you’re a little bit closer to your target. There’s no such thing as overnight success. Success is built brick by brick. And the only way you’ll be able to put on a brick, every day, is by getting in the right state of mind. You need clarity of thought. You need to be able to focus.

This is how I think productivity relates to anxiety:

You see? Anxiety is not necessarily your enemy. You can use it in your favor. I like to think of it as a wild horse: If you’re able to tame it, it can take you far. If you fail, it can crush you. It’s like a wave, it can destroy you or carry you on.

Taming anxiety

Mindfulness

Mindfulness, as Wikipedia describes, “is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment”. It’s inspired by elements of Buddhist traditions, but it got particularly popular in the west through the work of Jon Kabat Zinn, more specifically the book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, which I strongly recommend.

In order to learn how to practice Mindfulness, I recommend subscribing to Headspace (I’m not affiliate to them in any way) and training every single day. As with everything in life, continuous small acts become habits. You have to build momentum. Headspace has “packs” for each type of difficulty you might be passing through: Stress, anxiety, depression, dealing with loss, dealing with pain. The price is worth it.

A typical Mindfulness session goes like this: You start by sitting down and taking deep breaths. Deep breathing has an instant relaxing effect. Then you have to silence your mind and Mindfulness has an interesting way of achieving this. Instead of trying to halt your thoughts whenever they come, you minimize their occurrence by cycling your focus in three main areas: 1) Your breath. 2) Different parts of your body and their contact with the surroundings. 3) The environment, specially the sounds around you. When you are actively focused on one these three things, while controlling your breath, your mind will be less likely to wander because you can’t actually focus on two things at the same time. This is kind of the “secret” of Mindfulness. Of course there’s much more into it but it’s essentially about being deeply present in the moment, more aware.

Work on the roots of your anxiety

Deep inside, changes are that you know the triggers of your anxiety. If you don’t, you should definitely see a therapist. Knowing the roots of your anxiety is key to minimize its effects. As stated before, these are generally associated with a hidden fear, usually not grounded in reality. You have to take action. Remember: Little acts turn into habits. Are you afraid of dying alone? Hit the gym and work on your social activities. Are you afraid of losing your job? Study and work to be the best employee you can. Are you afraid of not having enough money in an eventuality? Start saving.

I know it’s the type of thing that is easier said than done, but there’s no secret. Stop slacking off and take action. Change your life style. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Start now.

“I like to think of ideas as potential energy. They’re really wonderful, but nothing will happen until we risk putting them into action” — Mae Jemison
Source / Attribution

Biohacking

I’ve been in therapy, for many years, with both psychologists and psychoanalysts. It’s always helpful and everybody should do it, but, in my specific case, nothing was more effective than psychiatry. Yes, medicines.

I take medication, more specifically benzodiazepines and Serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. It strikes me that in the 21th century, it’s still kind of a taboo to “take medicine for your head”, but if you think you suffer from AD, you should really meet a psychiatrist and take medicine if he/she agrees. Benzodiazepines improve the effect of certain neurotransmitters and are tranquilizers. They have immediate effect, make you calmer and, most importantly, help you with your sleep. Trust me: Having good nights of sleep is the #1 priority for dealing with anxiety. Serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, as the name implies, reduces the absorption of neurotransmitters, making more of them available. This type of medicine has long term effect in both anxiety and depression.

If it’s perfectly acceptable that there’s a chemical imbalance in your stomach that causes you heartburn, why wouldn’t it be possible that there’s a neurotransmitters imbalance in your brain? And why should we be ashamed of that?

The #1 misconception about psychiatric drugs is that they will make you a zombie. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The primary role a psychiatrist is to A/B test the effectiveness of certain drugs and dosages until he/she finds the perfect combination that will lead you to the optimal life-quality.

Exercise

This one is very important and obvious. I won’t delve into, but you should really hit the gym and get your body moving.

Eliminate procrastination

Procrastination is the receipt for worrying and anxiety. Use Google Keep to track all those “unpleasant” stuff you unfortunately have to sort and make sure you’re tackling at least one every day. Answer e-mails and instant-messages right away.

Use tools to offload your mind

A simple trick you can use to minimize worry and maximizing productivity is to offload your mind into apps:

  • Google Calendar: Remember your appointments.
  • Google Keep: Quick way to remember stuff you have to do.
  • Evernote: Create notebooks and take notes of everything.
  • Trello: Create lists for everything: Life goals; Topics you have to study; Aspects you have to improve, or even shopping lists;
  • LastPass: Forget your passwords, this app handles everything for you. It’s even possible to write secret/encrypted notes with sensitive data like bank passwords (It’s up to you whether to trust them or not. I prefer to trust).
  • Monefy: Simple way to keep track of your daily expenses.
  • Your bank app: Yes, don’t forget to constantly check your financial status. Always good to avoid surprises.

Final words

I tend to be harsh and judgmental towards my own actions and I have to be mindful of that all the time to avoid being absorbed by anxiety. I find this funny because, at the same time, I’m deterministic. I believe that, as Wikipedia states, “all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes”. As such, rationally, I believe there’s no reason for one to judge him of herself, or anybody. Things are the way they are and they couldn’t have been different.

Let’s just cultivate acceptance, specially towards ourselves, and keep doing whatever we’re doing, but this time, better than before.

To learn more about me, please visit https://aboutdevs.com/andrerpena

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