This piece was first published in 2016, so a lot of the “people are asking me” framing is because I had just started talking about mental health publicly. I am surfacing it again now, in 2023, because I am still asked “How do I fix anxiety quickly?” regularly, and hearing people share their own tale of the wave seems more important than ever.
A few days ago I got a call from a friend I’ve known for years. A magazine writer who frequently travels on assignment, he’s a busy guy. It wasn’t unusual that I hadn’t spoken with him in over a month. But as soon as I heard his voice, I knew he wanted to talk about something. I just couldn’t tell what it was until he stopped his gentle beating around the bush.
“Remember when you told me you had anxiety?” he asked, peering around the hedge.
“AH! You’re calling about anxiety! Gotcha. Yes, absolutely, here with you now,” I said, ready to have the kind of call I’ve been having with increasing frequency in the past six months.
Felix Unger, half of The Odd Couple. Nothing like my friend, but since most of us with anxiety have perfectionist Tendencies, there likely are some similarities underneath.
Let’s call this friend Felix. Now that we both knew why we were there, Felix came out with it.
“I have a beautiful wife and child. I have the job I’ve worked my whole career to achieve and get to travel around the world doing what I love to do. And yet…something’s wrong. I can’t feel things all the way. I don’t sleep well…I think I might have anxiety too.”
I asked the question I always ask: “Have you had any physical symptoms?” I explained: “For me, this was migraines, nausea, and crazy strong neck and shoulder pain. Do you have anything like that?”
He said, “I’ve had a knot in my throat for as long as I can remember, and my stomach feels like it’s being punched all the time.”
With those words, I knew that my friend was arriving at the same place I had in the middle of 2015. Hello, fellow beautiful voyager.
Since Felix didn’t know anything about my project for overthinkers, I gave him the rundown of Tell Tale Signs of an Overthinker to gauge his reaction:
People who think deeply about the world around them. Often researchers, they’re always looking for the answers. Perhaps their friends and family have said to them “you think too much” ever since they were little kids. They’re sensitive and aware of the suffering of others. At times they obsessively want to “figure it all out,” neglecting their other priorities.
Felix: “This is frighteningly accurate.”
He then asked the same questions that nearly everyone does in this situation: “How can I fix this? Can the fix happen quickly?”
I’m starting to be asked these questions frequently enough that I’m forming a consistent response to them. My answer isn’t super simple, but neither is anxiety. My response comes in 3 basic chunks of information. I elaborate depending on time and bandwidth of the person I’m speaking with.
Chunk #1: My timeline and my first steps
I describe being diagnosed by a neurologist with Generalized Anxiety, and then going to UCSF’s Gateway office for a comprehensive diagnosis. Before working on The Beautiful Voyager, I used to tell people that what worked for me in terms of GAD (realizing that anxiety is a spectrum and not everyone with anxiety has GAD) was medication, meditation, and communication.
Chunk #2: The unique thumbprint
Over time and through working on this project, I’ve come to realize how truly varied the spectrum of anxiety is. Everyone’s anxiety is different. What works for me won’t work for Felix. But hearing stories of how others have approached and integrated anxiety into their lives will help Felix start to see how it can work in his. I tell Felix that reading books to introduce new concepts like cognitive distortions, cognitive behavioral therapy, or relaxation techniques are useful places to start. I now think of all of these things—therapy, medication, mindfulness, relaxation techniques and other grounding tactics—as being potential parts of a toolkit someone like Felix could use. Everyone needs a toolkit.
I say to Felix: To start building your anxiety toolkit, you have to know you’re not feeling good. Then you have to be able to recognize feeling better when it happens, slowly at first, in glimmers and shimmers.
Chunk #3: Riding the wave
The last thing I talk about is the wave. I don’t want to overwhelm Felix with information, but the wave is so crucial that it has to be mentioned.
I describe surfing anxiety’s wave to Felix. (The wave is the hormone rush that we’re filled with as we face the things that scare us.) I tell him that now, for the first time in my life, I know when the wave is coming, and I know how to breathe deeply when facing it. It doesn’t mean I don’t ever wipe out.
I end by sharing my hard won mantra: when you’re surfing the wave, it’s all about process, not outcome. If you want to understand our lives as beautiful voyagers, that is the truest thing I can tell you.