How to subdue anxiety ?

15 minutes read —
The dark playground

There are times when one can’t muster the bravado required to simply do the work. In those instances, it just gets pushed aside and some mindless activity takes place instead. It could be anything ranging from doing the dishes to Youtube numbing. In other circumstances those activities would have been fun and enjoyable. But not at this point in time. In fact author Tim Urban goes as far as calling this state of joyless distraction “the Dark Playground”. All there is to be found here is guilt and suffering.

You’ll find a voice screaming at you as if there was no tomorrow ; begging for you to get back on task. And maybe you will even drag yourself back to the work table in front of the work computer, equipped with some sort of work intent. Yet that’s not what would happen. You might find yourself not even doing anything but witnessing the existence of a second voice ; arguing back a million reasons why the work is stupid anyway.

In fact your head might literally get hot from all the back and forth nuking incessantly going on inside. You’ll feel hopeless, on the verge of crying. Yet in the concrete world, you’re just staring at a screen, unable to align a mere 5 minutes of focus-time. How can doing nothing be such an all-consuming, agonizing even, activity ?

It’s not laziness

What’s going-on ? Are we just being lazy ? “Procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare meaning ; to put off until tomorrow. However, the word is also derived from the ancient Greek akrasia ; doing something against our better judgment. It would be so much easier wouldn’t it if we weren’t even aware of the harm we were inflicting upon ourselves by delaying the task. Blissful ignorance has been denied however, and yet we’re still putting it off until it’s basically too late. That surely must mean you’re broken in some crucial and very definitive way.

But wait a minute. It’s confusing to think that this person you have became that’s unable to work to save its own life, is the same person that have once proven capable of focusing for hours on end. Maybe your preferred procrastination method has to do with cleaning up the whole place until doctors are comfortable performing surgery in your kitchen ? How is that lazy ? If you’re a gamer, how diligently have you been farming those mobs to prep’ that epic boss fight that’s waiting around the corner ? Maybe you’re out running all around the city seeking some sun the minute you’re supposed to be slashing that task. Whatever it is ; you’re not unwilling to expend energy. Far from it. In fact you’d be thrilled to be able to do so on task rather than pouring it in random directions. Yet, what is it about a deadline that makes it so hard to channel all that burning energy into the work ?

Well it’s turmoil. Bad mood. Anxiety. Feelings for you. All that good stuff.
Time-management should really be rebranded as emotion regulation. We have to get clear on the goal here otherwise we won’t go far in our attempts to tackle it. Making a better schedule won’t save you. Smarter to-do lists ; that’s not it. I mean those things can help, but it does not seem to me like you’re suffering from planning malfunction. You know exactly what you should be doing. Yet you’re not doing it. At some point this fact becomes so certain you might even start wondering what’s the point in planning at all. How does it matter if there’s no follow-up on your part ? Yeah, well that’s despair. That’s dark, bro.

What is anxiety anyway ?

Anxiety is actually a pretty useful function of the brain all things considered.

All vertebrates attach to sources of energy better known as food, and sexual objects. That’s self-preservation and reproduction for you. Mammals (and some birds) also attach to parental and social objects. But there is one uniquely human feature ; we attach to the future.
See, fear arises when a danger towards any of the previous items is perceived. Gets you motivated real quick to run for your life when a Lion starts to manifest interest in ripping your insides out. You can see this even in rats ; turns out rats run much faster towards a food reward than they would otherwise if you scare them with cat scent.

What we do better than other mammals is the prediction part of what constitutes danger. That we would call “Doubt”, or Anxiety.It’s all about the future. We manifest fear responses when something could, potentially, maybe, do us harm, in some sort of imaginary uncertain time ahead. And you might think ; “sometimes we experience anxiety about past events” but if you play close attention, you’ll notice that what’s stressing you out in those instances is the anticipation of bad outcomes resulting from past events, not the past events in and of themselves.
Anxiety’s superpower is the capacity to motivate action in the present to prevent disasters 5 years from now. This certainly has some evolutionary advantages.

In fact anxiety is extremely common. Sometimes though, the mechanism spins out of control. The anxious mind overestimates the risk of threat, underestimate its ability to cope, narrows attention onto it to the point where it can’t disengage from the thoughts and jumps to the most negative of conclusions. Anxiety disorder are so prevalent that 12 to 15% of the population is anxious enough at any given time to justify a visit to the psychologist. Unfortunately that number has been steadily rising in the developed nations ; for we have not evolved our brains for the lifestyles that are currently the norm. Also I need to mention anxiety disorder is two times more prevalent in girls than it is in males.

So what are you anxious about ? Well that deadline, duh. What if you can’t make it in time ? What if you’re unable to produce great work ? What if it’s too much for you ? Maybe you’re not cut for it and then what ? An interesting thing to note is that there’s a correlation between intelligence, and the severity of the anxiety. That’s right, more brain power means more predictive capabilities. The stronger the analytical capabilities, the stronger at knocking all sorts of reassurances away. Anxiety can come up with all sorts of arguments to justify its own existence. And art people ; they’re pretty smart on average. There’s indeed some correlation between creativity and the IQ thing. And so it follows that it’s not uncommon to witness crippling anxiety in such people.

Avoidant type

When anxiety becomes too much to bear, that’s when we start to procrastinate to forget it’s even there. If anxiety is literally the mind thinking about the future, it ensues that a way to reduce anxiety when it becomes overwhelming is to get back to the present.
Well, whatever you are doing when you are procrastinating ; understand that you are doing it for exactly that reason. Binging a TV show grabs your attention and puts it back where it belongs ; in present tense. A bath ? Same thing. Alcohol or marijuana, same thing. Anything really to prevent you from wandering in hypothetical futures. When anxiety has reached debilitating intensity ; it needs to go down. We make it go down with distraction (that is, until it can no longer be contained).

We can easily see how that’s maladaptive. Remember Anxiety is there to motivate action in the present to prevent negative outcomes in the future. Those negative outcomes aren’t going away just because you managed to ignore the anxiety for a while. The moment you drop the numbing is also the moment you’re back face to face with your problems and with the panicking, essentially.

And maybe you know that already. Maybe you’ve been confronted with the problem so much that you developed some sort of PTSD. Then you might have gone the other way as there is a second possible response to anxiety.

Control-freak type

The thing is, if you’re not going to run then you’re going to fight. And that means reducing all forms of uncertainty as much as humanly possible. You won’t stop until the only thing your mind is able to see in the future is the outcome you desire. That’s perfectionism for you. We’re talking high achieving, hyper organized people. You think up solutions, you implement them religiously. You get some feedback that things are moving in the desired direction. Anxiety goes down. You get a release. In a nutshell ; if you want to reduce anxiety, fix your life, essentially.

Problems start to arise when life remains chaotic despite all our best efforts to keep it in check. This is where obsessive behaviors start to appear.
Maybe it’s working more and more in order to reduce the likelihood of failing, to the point where there’s no time left for anything else, maybe including sleeping. Typical workaholism ; the kind that wears on relationships.
Maybe it’s spending less and less money in order to reduce the likelihood of catastrophe on that front in some far-fetched future ; to the point where even the food budget shrinks to near oblivion. Turns out anxious people make good money managers.
But at what price ?

Sometimes no amount of acting is sufficient to bring certainty into the picture. We can never fully control the outcomes and therefore it’s entirely possible that one would take lots of meaningful steps to reduce uncertainty and still be faced with this much left. There’s a limit to how much effort one can expand. It is entirely possible that all that stress might exceed one’s resilience. It probably will in fact if the streak is long enough.

Crossing that line would be burn-out. Ironically, the people most culprit of overdoing it are very similar if not the same people that used to avoid their anxiety through procrastination : high stress, low self-compassion type people.


I want to point out ; burnout is truly not something you wish for yourself. This is a strategy that takes place when all else fails. An avoidant one, just like procrastination, except that one can be permanent. If you keep pushing and pushing and uncertainty remains sky high, and your mind can’t find a path through, what happens is it starts to distance itself. You no longer care. This is defensive detachment. And it’s a sad thing to experience.
Maybe you had a goal that you poured all your energy into ; the kind that gets you up in the morning and keep you busy until bed time. It started out of deep love for the thing and so you grew it and grew it to the point where it became all consuming. Now the anxiety that arose from pushing this particular outcome has stolen all the life that once was there. A pain threshold has been crossed. And so you detach. You simply do not care anymore. Not caring means no motivation of any kind to pursue further.
You wake up some day and all you feel is indifference toward what was once a passion. It’s confusing. The part of your identity that’s tied into that takes its toll. You’re left unsure what happened ; burned-out. And that sucks.

Ok at this point you might say well if I can’t deal with the excess anxiety by avoiding it and I can’t deal with it by trying to come in and control everything, then what ? What’s the game plan ?

Physiology of a calm mind

One might wonder at this point what life even looks like without anxiety ? And sure, we will answer that.

CBT therapy states that you could intervene on any of those three entries on a circle : the thoughts, the feelings, the behaviors. Improvement in any of those dimensions tend to snowball and improve the other parts as well. That feelings part though is just an interpretation the brain does based off the signals it receives from the body’s physiology.

On that note ; the first thing to notice when you are in a calm state, at that level, is that your heart beats in a metronome-like fashion. We can measure what is called Heart Rate Variability or HRV. It really doesn’t matter how fast or slow it is beating overall ; as in the average doesn’t matter ; it is the variance that truly counts. In fact HRV directly translate into positive or negative emotions.

To be clear ; as long as it has a steady pulse ; a fast heart rate would translate into passion and excitation rather than anxiety or anger and a slow heart rate would translate into calmness or curiosity rather than apathy, boredom or indifference. When HRV becomes chaotic, it shuts off the frontal lobe and lets the other parts of the brain play out their drama. When instead HRV reaches a state called “coherence”, where the heart beat is stable ; positive emotions arise and focus ensue. That, we would call a flow state. In a nutshell ; regular heart beat ; positive emotions. Erratic heart beat ; negative emotions.

So how to reduce heart rate variability ? Controlling your breathing is a potent method to reach that result. In particular ; the rhythm of the breathing would be of the highest priority. It doesn’t matter the pattern as long as it is regular. You want to maintain a very smooth breathing cycle. If you’re curious, you can check an entertaining presentation by Dr Alan Watkins demonstrating the impact of Heart Rate Variability using a live guinea pig picked from the audience. The talk goes back to 2012, however that part has been discovered and rediscovered many times around in human history. In India, one such method is called Dhyai ; which is a sanskrit word for “to contemplate” ; also called meditation.

Thought patterns of a calm mind

The practice of meditation really just ask you to pick a thing ; anything really, and then focus on it for like 20 minutes or more. Most often it is your breathing pattern. Sometimes it is a mantra. Some people just count in their heads. Some people focus on their “third eye”. Whatever it is, just focus on it as long as you can. And whenever your internal chatter comes back to forefront, just observe the thoughts as you were doing with your object of attention, and then simply let it pass. Come back to were you left. That’s it really, nothing more. It is literally the practice of focusing the mind, again and again and again. And what you will notice happen is that during a meditation practice, you are in effect entirely anchored in the present. You’re not thinking about what could happen in future tense and even when you are, you distance yourself from the thought and place yourself as an observer of the thought as it arises and fades away ; which gets you back into present tense again.

Remember that CBT thing ? Take care of the thoughts and what you’ll find is that the physiology will naturally take care of itself. Anchor your thoughts in the present and the breathing will start to regulate itself. HRV will go down, you’ll feel content, relaxed, focused. Anxiety literally cannot exist in the present. Meditation has received a lot of attention lately from the scientific community. Turns out you can see different parts of the brain light up when monitoring meditators. The prefrontal cortex gets activated while what is called the default mode network, that is the neural signature of the wandering mind, shuts off. In long term meditators, the prefrontal cortex (the brain region associated with learning and emotion regulation) actually grows new neurons while the amygdala (the brain region associated with stress and fear responses) starts to shrink.

Charging/discharging batteries

One assumption that you may or may not make is that in order to reduce the likelihood of experiencing burnout, the b best course of action would simply be to pace oneself. Work less and you should be good. Well, its not that simple isn’t it ? You might have noticed that it feels very different working on an assignment or some client work when comparing that to free-form personal work. When doing the later, there’s sometimes no difficulty what so ever staying in focus mode from early morning to late at night with close to no interruption. When tackling the former however, it might feel instead like everything is straining. What is the difference ?
I will adventure and guess that expectations that are the culprit.

That client work starts with a brief. There’s a clear goal that’s stated in words. And then you build a mental image of said goal in your mind. You’re collecting references, doing construction drawing, you’re envisioning a final in your mind with such clarity. And then you execute on your plan ; you start painting. At every single detour you’re comparing what you just put on the page to what’s on your mind. And there’s a difference. There will always be a difference. You end up feeling down because you didn’t manage to paint a picture on par with your expectation of what that picture should be. And that statement is true irrelevant of how good your final picture is. It might be a perfectly fine piece of art ; but to you it still falls short compared to the goal you set up in advance. You are taking damage on the moral department. You’re discharging your batteries.

Now compare that with personal work. This is something you do on your own time. You just start drawing. There’s no plan, at best a vague direction and that’s it ; you’re doing it on autopilot. Very little to no expectation. In that scenario, each time you deviates you are creating positive surprises for yourself ; “wow, it turned out not that bad”, “it’s better than I expected”. Think about it, if you start drawing with the expectation that all you’re going to produce on that sitting session will essentially be scribbles ; each time you end up drawing something half-decent creates a spike in positive emotions. This is probably what got you hooked to the art practice in the first place. It used to be a worry-free space where you essentially surprised yourself by outdoing what you thought you were capable of times and times again. That’s play, essentially. You’ll find most healthy artists that work a lot have maintained a personal practice time ; this is how they balance out the strains of assignments. You’d find those same artists are unable to maintain the volume when all they are doing is assignments. It’s not the hours. It’s about charging vs discharging batteries. It’s about expectations.

Bringing meditation to the art practice

So I have this quick fix for fellow procrastinators out there. You have this assignment that’s due and you typically can’t get yourself to work on it before the last minute, if at all. How about a subtle change in thinking. What happens if instead of telling yourself “I have to work to do that thing and meet that deadline”, you switch to something akin to “I’m just going to work for this set amount of time tonight” “I’ll make myself available, and try to focus during that time. If I can do that I will have done my job, regardless of whether the project gets completed or not”. By doing so you remove the expectation that you have to slash down that gigantic project. You’re not thinking about the potential for failure, or the potential for sub-par work. You’re not thinking about any of that. That part is not in your hands anyway. It never was. Your job is just to be present. Ancient cultures often thought that inspiration came from the gods, and that the artist was only providing the hands to be borrowed for the job. There’s real psychological benefits to that sort of reasoning.

The next level would be to incorporate the teachings of meditation directly into the art practice. It all starts with awareness. Artist Steven Zapata talks about that topic a lot on his YouTube channel and I would gladly recommend taking hints from his philosophy. It’s all about putting oneself in the same position that we had when we were contemplating our breath or coming back and back again to our mantra. Catch yourself whenever you are getting frustrated ; whenever the chatter comes back. Maybe there is this tree in the painting ; you need to change its scale. But doing so means repainting a lot of the background. “What a drag” you think, in anticipation of the pain that you will experience when attempting to fix the problem. Catch yourself in that moment. You’re doing it again. You’re thinking beyond the present even if not by much. You’re getting out of flow at that precise moment. Just observe your frustration arise and let it go ; do not entertain the thought. Pay attention to your feelings moment to moment ; do not fight them. Now you are free to take a back-seat and watch yourself fix that tree and that background where you would have otherwise delayed it by an other couple of hours I’m sure. It doesn’t even feel like you’re the one doing it. How strange, isn’t it ?

Remember ; anxiety cannot exist in the present.