slaying the anxiety dragon

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Anxiety’s a real bitch. It inhibits, restrains and constricts. It’s fear, pain and suffering. It prevents us from enjoying life the way life’s meant to be enjoyed. It prevents us from being ourselves. It leads us to say things we don’t mean to say and do things we don’t mean to do. It makes us slaves to our immediate environments by impeding control of our consciousness. It prevents us from realising our potential. A most maddening mallady, it’s the plague of our time. Yet unlike the plague back in the day, we have the tools at our disposal to rid ourselves of this disabling condition. We all have the ability to slay The Dragon. Before talking tactics, let’s take some time to understand the background to what has been labelled “The Age of Anxiety” so that we have some context for thinking about, and ultimately treating, our individual and collective frazzled-ness.

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Firstly, what the f*ck even is anxiety? It’s been said that depression is the result of living in the past, while anxiety is the result of living in the future. While everyone’s anxiety is unique, they all have this in common: it has to do with with the anticipation of future events, either real or imagined. It’s that constant concern about what may or may not eventuate. It’s that gnawing deep in your gut, the sense of being fractured, the frantic feeling of being locked out of the present moment while you fight the potential perils of the foreseeable future. It’s worrying about what you’re going to say next, how you’re going to say it, and the 1,000,001 potential ways it will be received. It’s the unceasing contemplation of that work presentation you have to deliver on Monday. And it’s the never-ending neurosis that follows every text you send that person you’re fancying (FYI “;)” is always too much). In short, anxiety’s a terrible vibe.

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So why’s there so much of it? Why now? Why this moment in history? To be sure, anxiety is not a new thing. It’s been around since day dot. We’ve been worrying about sh*t ever since we evolved from our primate ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago. For the majority of our history, life’s been “nasty, brutish, and short”. The kind of existence worthy of worry. Our next meal was never a sure deal. Our neighbours were constantly threatening to kill us. We lived at the mercy of the elements, prayer our most trusted technology. Our anxieties were thus mostly existential in nature, life and death stuff. Anxiety was what kept us on our toes, alert to threats, a biological mechanism that evolved to keep us kicking.

Slowly, and then quickly, the world changed, along with our way of life. The world around us began to transform as we learnt to leverage the natural resources of the planet. We learnt to think in new ways, do and build different things - tools, technologies, cultures, cities. In what was practically the blink of an eye, “civilisation” happened. All of a sudden most of our basic survival requirements were met without a sweat. Our concerns became less about life and death, and more to do with sex and status - what to wear, where to work, who and how to date. Culture became more complex and so did our concerns. Productivity became the measure of progress, and the method by which we manufactured our sense of self-worth. And so we would work and worry, more and more, with each and every generation. Life became busy, bustling and brain-busting. And yet throughout this radical change in circumstances, the metamorphosis of modernity, our inner lives - our biology - changed remarkably little. Cultured cave-people we became, but cave-people we remained no less.

 Torn between two worlds. 

Torn between two worlds. 

With all our ancient biology, our beings now mistake the sound of our phones for existential threats. Suspicious of all the strangers that surround us, we maintain a constant subconscious defence.  At any given moment our precious little worlds could go to sh*t. DaDING! - and our partner’s just broken up with us. DaDING! - something’s blown up at work. DaDING! - an ex just liked our photo on Insta (from 36W ago…). DaDING! - climate change is getting out of hand. DaDING! - we’re eating ourselves to death. DaDING! - a billion people are starving. DaDING! - Trump is still President. DaDING! - nuclear war seems evermore likely. DaDING! - the machines are about to take over. DaDING!  - DAMN. that new Drake!

Sh*t’s outta control and so our minds and bodies are playing up. That’s the situation. Now it’s up to us to put our Selves back together again.

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So our anxiety stems from the environmental threats that we’re perpetually perceiving. We’re in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Our nervous systems are fried for they’re filled with fear. While there’s more to the story, this gives us a place to start. If we want to slay The Dragon, we must restore function of our nervous systems and regain our nerves.

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Life

Think of your nervous system as like the centre of your Spidey-senses, the home of your intuition, an in-built threat detector, the conduit between mind and body, a source of connection to your Self. Without your nerves intact, you’re no chance against The Dragon.

So, what to do? The human body is complex and The Dragon an elusive bastard. The environmental influences and physiology that gives rise to the beast is different for everyone. While anxiety’s fundamentally a nervous system disorder, our nervous systems are inextricably linked to, and affected by, practically every other system within our bodies. Therefore a deficiency within any one of these systems could be creating the vulnerability which The Dragon is exploiting. Thus the method by which we murder this mallady, as with any prudent health strategy, must be multi-dimensional. To slay The Dragon, we must use our entire arsenal of weapons.

 

The Weapons:

 

Below is a list of some of the most powerful weapons that would do you well were you to wield them. Not only will they help you win the war, they will work to elevate your health at all levels, expanding your consciousness and enabling your potential.

Food

 

Food is the foundation of life. The most important human input. The bedrock of human health. The ultimate enablement technology. A tool for individual and collective empowerment. A must if you’re serious about slaying. For trying to slay The Dragon while eating crap is like trying to sail a ship in a storm without a mast. Sure, you could probably do it, but you’d have to be f*cking stupid. Don’t be stupid. Eat well. Here’s how:

#1 Avoid foods that cause inflammation

Inflammation is like kryptonite. It disables us, depressing all our bodily systems. Therefore the first step to regaining your nerves is eliminating inflammatory foods from your diet. Which foods? They’re the usual suspects: sugar, grains (especially refined ones), processed meats, bad fats (vegetable oils, trans-fats - that kinda thing), too much salt, and all processed junk (pretty much anything wrapped in colourful packaging).

#2 Eat foods that reduce inflammation

Just as there are foods that cause inflammation, there are foods that reduce inflammation. For instance, foods rich in omega-3 - like hemp seeds, walnuts, avocados etc. - have been demonstrated to have potent anti-inflammatory properties. Similarly, there’s plenty of power plants and fungi - think turmeric and reishi - that can help combat inflammation. There are so many good foods - too many to list. Google “anti-inflammatory foods” and dive deep down the rabbit hole.

#3 Cultivate a healthy gut

You’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard all this microbiome stuff. But in case you’ve missed it, our microbiomes are like an entire world within our gut; an ecosystem of bacteria that interfaces directly with our brains and affects our health in innumerable ways. It’s one of the new frontiers of human health. We’re learning more and more about it every day. We’ve discovered there’s more neurons in our gut than our brains (> 100 billion). We now know that our guts produce the majority of the feel-good chemical, serotonin (somewhere on the order of 95%) - a deficiency of which is a known cause of depression. And it’s made up of billions of billions of bacteria, some good, some bad.

Simply, the aim of the gut-health game is to eat foods that feed, and cultivate more of, the good guys (and gals), while avoiding eating foods that fuel the bad variety. A simple guide to follow for achieving supreme gut health is to fuel yourself with lots of fibre (the kind found in all sorts of veggies and legumes), fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi etc.), and avoid all of the inflammatory foods mentioned above. And importantly, eat a diversity of foods, for a diverse ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem.

(Plus, by eating foods that help your gut you’re also creating a gut that will help you fight inflammation).

Also, avoid antibiotics like the plague. While sometimes necessary, they decimate your gut health, and so should only be treated as a last resort.

#4 Don’t eat too much.

Good food is good, but as with anything, too much is bad. Your body has to work to break food down. When you throw a bit too much down the hatch, you stress your body. When you overdo it frequently, your body begins to break down. In addition to packing on a few extra winter layers, you’ll begin to have trouble regulating insulin, your blood sugar will soar, inflammation will ensue, and your gut will deteriorate (Google “leaky gut syndrome”). How do you know if you’re eating too much? As a rule, if you have to ask, you’re probably guilty of gorging. Another rule: if you’re frequently feeling like a pig after feeding, that’s another sign you’re overdoing it. Same deal if you’re not sure where your waist ends and your hips begin. But even if you don’t fall into any of these camps, you might still be going a little too hard at the plate. Any kind of digestive issue is also a solid sign that your gut is struggling and surely needs a break. A couple of handy tips for hacking your appetite and healing your gut: limit your consumption of carbs, especially sugar (the spikes in insulin that follow a carb-dense meal will cause cravings), eat lots of fibre (it’ll keep you feeling fuller for longer and nourish your gut in the process), try eating 1-2 meals a day for a while, avoid snacking, and play around with restricting the time periods within which you eat - i.e. eat within a 10-12 hour window (or even less). Educate yourself and experiment.

#5 Eat organic.

If you knew what went on in the world of conventional agriculture, you’d understand why. It’s more expensive no doubt, but if you want to slay The Dragon, you can’t afford to have poisons floating around your system. If you find it hard to justify forking out the additional $$, some foods are more problematic than others (Google “dirty dozen foods” and stay away from them unless they’re organic).

 

Fasting

 

While it has to do with food, or rather the absence of it, fasting is a separate and supremely powerful weapon and so deserves its own section. Fasting has been a thing since forever. It features in practically all the major religions. The ancient Greeks were all about it: Plutarch (famous Greek dude) is famously cited as saying “Instead of using medicine, rather, fast a day”. Founding father Franklin was a fan: “The best of all medicines is resting and fasting”. However, despite its historical prominence, it’s only just starting to catch on. That’s because the science is only now beginning to substantiate what we’ve known since before science was scripture: not eating is good for you. It sounds strange, the notion that sometimes starving yourself is smart, but it’s not so bizarre when you consider it in the context of our evolution as a species. Remember, for the majority of our existence, we were surviving in environments of scarcity. Procuring food took considerable effort. Uber Eats wasn’t a thing. We were nomadic; moving around searching for greener, more satiating pastures. All of this roaming around, in conjunction with the vagaries of the seasons, would’ve had us being exposed to frequent bouts of famine. Those who couldn’t endure died. Those who could lived. Survival of the fittest, y’know the story. Over time we became adapted to scarcity and all was good. But we no longer live in an era of scarcity. Quite the opposite. We now live in an age of abundance. Everything is within reach, and “reach!” we’re repeatedly told. Our bodies reward us for eating as if we might never get the chance again. And so we eat, and we eat, and we eat; three meals a day, plus snacks (obviously). We never give ourselves a break. But we now know a break is exactly what our bodies need. Turns out that by simulating conditions of scarcity we can reduce inflammation, boost brain function, improve insulin sensitivity, cleanse ourselves of damaged cells through the process known as autophagy, and kick our metabolisms back into gear by switching our fuel source from glycogen (from carbs) to our own fat stores. So play around with prolonged water fasts - anywhere between 24 - 72 hours (36 hours seems to be a sweet spot) and see for yourself. Besides the physiological benefits, fasting will completely change your relationship to food (naturally enough). No longer will you feel the need to eat according to the arbitrary cultural norms that have been set for you. Instead you will learn to eat according to when feels right for you. There is also a powerful psychological and spiritual dimension to fasting that flows from the discipline required to abstain from indulging your impulses - a kind of mental power that will help you slay The Dragon. Get around it.

 

Mind-body practice

 

Our existence is more cerebral than it’s ever been. For most of the day of most of our days, we’re stuck in our head. We’re part of the Information Age, the Knowledge Economy, the Digital Revolution. An era of unparalleled opportunity. However, for all its upside, our times come with considerable commands. Most of all, it requires we exert more mental effort than we’ve become adapted to. For most of us, our jobs demand our sitting around all day begging our brains to bestow brilliance. Throughout the shift from an economy dependent upon physical labour to one based on cognition, we’ve prioritised our minds at the expense of our bodies, neglecting the knowledge that the two are inextricably bound. We have become devastatingly disconnected from our bodies, hence our sense of fracturedness. In order to mend our psyches, we must therefore begin to reconnect with our physical forms.

How? Simple: move. Do things that get your body moving and move mindfully. Walk, run, sprint, jump, dance, swim, yoga, lift weights, cartwheel, make love, surf, cycle - it’s all good. But it’s not all about what you do, how you do it, how you move, is equally important. Use your method of movement as a means of connecting to the present moment. Feel yourself move. Focus on the sensation, and embrace it, whether it be pleasant or painful. Don’t spend your moments of movement thinking about whatever else is going on in your life. Allow your thoughts to calm. Immerse your mind in your motions. Be the movement. Be the moment. Be your body.

 

Breath

 

Though we pay it little attention, our breath is super important. The way we’re breathing sends a specific signal to our systems. Short, shallow breath says “we’re in trouble!”, while long, deep breath tells us “we’re good.”. To slay The Dragon you must breathe as if you weren't scared sh*tless. When your breath is short and sharp, The Dragon smells fear. When you’re breathing consciously and powerfully, you signal strength. So breathe like the warrior you are, large and in-charge. Your breath is also the means by which you fill your brain with oxygen. More oxygen = more brain-power. Learning to breathe properly, as funny as it sounds, takes some practice. To speed up the process, perform practices that pay particular attention to the breath - yoga and meditation being two of the best, and most popular, examples.

 

Posture

 

Same as with your breath, your posture makes you feel a ways. Slouch and you’ll feel like a sorry slob - easy pickings for The Dragon. Stand strong and you’ll feel fearless. So stand strong, my friend.

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Stress

 

Our systems are constantly being stressed. Pollution. Sh*tty food. Bad drugs. Lack of sleep. Long hours. So it may come as a surprise that more stress is a solution. But it is. See, while our lives may seem manic, and in many ways they are, they’re also remarkably comfortable. Comfy clothes, comfy couches, comfy cars. We’ve taken control of temperature and made transportation effortless. Everything is catered to convenience, anything available at the click of a button.

Psychologically, modern life is super stressful, but physically, it’s not nearly stressful enough. Our systems have become soft, incapable of managing life’s turbulence. Thus The Dragon lives. However, by re-introducing certain kinds of stress into our lives, we can begin to strengthen our systems. By occasionally making life harder, we can make life easier. For instance, frequent intense exercise. It’s tried and true. When you periodically push yourself in the gym or on the track, you’ll begin to find everything else in life just gets easier in comparison. That’s because your system is adapting, along with your psychology.

A lesser known, but similarly powerful form of beneficial (“hormetic”) stress, is hot and cold exposure. By shocking your system with short bouts of intense heat (think sauna or hot yoga) or freezing cold (by any means), you make it more resilient. Fasting is another example. Play around with them all. Have fun with it. Find the right amount of stress. And find the activities that make stressing your body enjoyable and you’ll be slaying in no time.

 

Better living through chemistry

 

Humans are two-legged living breathing walking talking running dancing chemical factories. Our guts and brains work in synergy with our other systems to incentivise our survival and satisfy our souls. Most of us start out in life as shiny, smoothly running manufactories, churning out all the right drugs at all the right times. Slowly, but ever so surely, life begins to wear us down. Sh*t happens. We begin to be worn by the weight of existence. No longer are things so sunny. Our factories become rundown, machinery falters. Our biochemistry begins to turn toxic as we struggle to produce a sufficient supply of the good-stuff. Dissatisfied with our dispositions, we drink and we indulge. Whatever it takes to make life worth living. However, despite our best intentions, perhaps not surprisingly, our efforts only mask the pain, making matters worse. Frequently flooded with external sources of satisfaction, we no longer feel the need to produce our own. It becomes a slippery slope. The more we medicate, the more medicine we need, and the less we manufacture. But it need not be this way. We can make ourselves feel better, without running ourselves into the ground. We can improve our biochemistry, healthfully and sustainably, and in doing so, improve the quality of our existence.

How? Virtually all of the weapons already mentioned have profoundly positive biochemical effects. Fasting, meditation, yoga, exercise, real food, hot and cold exposure - they all improve the function of our factories. Wielding these weapons frequently will transform your life. You will begin to remember what it was like to be a kid, with the kind of inner peace, joy and contentment felt by those who are yet to be hit in the face with the force of life. In this state, The Dragon will be subdued without a sweat.

 

Sleep

 

Living is tough. Being awake takes a toll. Sleep is when and how we recover. It’s even more important than we appreciate. Get around 8-9 hours a night. Make it a priority. Improve the quality of your sleep by avoiding any screens or bright lights before bed, develop a routine that helps you unwind, and make sure the room you sleep in is as dark as possible. While the productivity paradigm we find ourselves in glorifies those who never sleep, those who never sleep eventually break down. If you want to slay The Dragon, and live a long time, you’ll need to be well-rested, always.

 

 What sleep (recovery) looks like. 

What sleep (recovery) looks like. 

 

 

light

 

149,600,000km away there's a giant ball of energy that powers our galaxy. We call it The Sun. It's the centre of our little universe, the thing from which all Earthly life is born. Without it, there's no us. We literally revolve around it. For millennia it's been telling us when to wake and when to sleep, when to work and when to play. Given its somewhat significant role in the natural order of things, it's not entirely unreasonable to imagine that it plays a similarly solid role in regulating human health. Not unreasonable at all, it turns out. We now "know" it's rather essential. Not getting enough natural light is linked to all kinds of health problems - from depression and anxiety to hormonal dysfunction and practically everything in-between. It also turns out there's a lot of us who aren't getting enough of the stuff, for in all our human genius, we've cleverly constructed environments in such a way so as to ensure we're perpetually in the dark, starved of the goodness of the golden glow. We've managed to cut ourselves off from our primary life source; you couldn't script a more sadistic story. Every day we stumble out of our beds, walk around our caves for a while, eat, jump into and drive our sun-proof cars, park underground, work under junk-light all day, leave work, maybe exercise indoors (more junk-light), get home, eat, rinse and repeat. It's a low-light, low-life existence. And so we're feeling the effects. All this darkness is taking a toll. 

However, inconvenient though it has become, we can still leverage light; it just takes a little more effort, a lot more prioritising. Every day, make a point to get outside, especially in the mornings (it's how your body knows to wake up and will help you sleep at night). Don't worry if it's overcast out; a little light is lots better than none. Try and talk your way into taking the office or desk space at work that gets the light. And for a cool hack, check out light therapy.

Whenever you're struggling to make it a priority or can't muster the motivation to brave the cold and get outside, just remember: we're products of our environments, shaped by our surroundings; a dark existence will breed a dark inner landscape. So get yourself some sun, get yourself some life.  A being low on light is a being low on life. Empower yourself to slay The Dragon by emerging from your cave. Power up. 

 

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Connection

 

We’re spiritual creatures that require connection with fellow creatures of our kind. So find your kind, connect with them, and never let them go. Spend time with those who soothe your soul. Slaying The Dragon takes a tribe. Find yours.

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Create confidence

 

Going up against The Dragon takes some guts. It can be scary facing up to your Self. To succeed, you’ll need some confidence. Cultivate it by doing things that make you feel good about yourself, and avoid that which diminishes your sense of self-worth. Do the things your ideal self would. Be the person you know you are.

 

Psychology

 

Our minds are our greatest gift, but they’re also our cruelest curse. In the battle against The Dragon, we must learn to understand them so that we can leverage them for all their power. When The Dragon is running rampant, our minds take on a terrible tune. Our self-narrative becomes negative, our thought patterns dark and defeatist. First, understand that this is NOT you. This is the sound of The Dragon. Don’t be deceived. When you have a cold, you don’t become the cold; you don’t identify as the cold, you treat it and defeat it. So don’t allow yourself to become The Dragon, regardless of how much you might feel as though it defines you. The trouble with The Dragon is it will twist your sense of Self until you are no longer you. No matter how dark it gets, maintain separateness from it, for to slay it you must keep your eyes on the target. For those who wield their weapons wisely, there will always be light at the end of the tunnel, victory a guarantee.

 

Taming the pocket pest

 

Before you can slay The Dragon, you must first tame the pocket pest - your phone. Learn to use your device, rather than be used by it. Develop a healthy relationship with it. Don’t be a slave to it. As with all relationships, the relationship with your phone requires space. So set aside time that you don’t touch it during. Use it to better yourself. Don’t use it to gawk at others glorified galleries.

 

And so there you have it: the weapons you need to eliminate The Dragon and enable your potential. Wield them wisely and watch as you become the person you knew you were destined to become, the person the world needs you to be, for you have so much to contribute, so much to offer. It’s a crazy cool time to be alive, don’t waste it living in fear. Keep in mind the stakes of the game. The world is plagued with problems, problems you have the power to solve. The world needs you to realise your potential. And finally, if you’re reading this, know that means you’re one of the privileged many. Not simply because you have the special pleasure of reading this (although that too), but because you have the means to read it. The means by which you read this (probably a smartphone with more compute power than the rocket that sent man to the moon) provides the means by which you can make change - in your own life, in others, in the world. Make the most of it. The quality of our future depends on it. It’s time to slay The Dragon once and for all.

 

@nathanmcniece

Nathan McNiece