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How to Become Bulletproof Against Anxiety and Stress (Without any Medication)

Subhajit Banerjee

February 18, 2024


Over 40 million adults in the U.S. (19.1% of the entire population) suffer from an anxiety disorder.

Worldwide, that number climbs up to 301 million people.

It leads to school dropouts, substance abuse, relationships ending, job loss, depression and even suicide

This is the silent but deadly epidemic no one talks about.

Even today – there’s a ton of social stigma around anxiety.

Many who suffer from chronic anxiety or stress – feel ashamed to seek help. It’s seen as a weakness.

It’s a tragedy.

Because all of this could be prevented with a little awareness.

Anxiety and stress are not the problem.

They are a part of the normal human condition. They are not unwanted remains of evolution like the appendix.

The real problems are the misconceptions around them. And the dysfunctional relationships people have developed with them.

To start with, there’s a ton of confusion about the terms anxiety, stress, and worry.

People often use them as if they’re the same. It makes things even more complicated.

So, let’s clear things up a bit before we dive deeper.

Stress is a bunch of physiological changes that happen inside your body. It lowers your valence and makes you feel unpleasant.

Things or people that cause stress are called stressors.

A stress response is your body gearing up for movement or an action – to fight or flee from the stressor.

It sends adrenaline to increase blood flow to the muscles of your legs and heart. It cuts down blood flow to your digestive system and other parts not needed for immediate action.

This reaction is the same – whether you’re overloaded at work, working out, fighting an infection, or dealing with an asshole boss.

Anxiety is the emotion associated with stress. It’s the cold, clammy feeling of dread and uncertainty.

Worrying, on the other hand, is a cognitive process. It’s a conscious choice to go along with the train of thoughts that pops up in your mind when you’re anxious.

The Dao of stress, anxiety and worry

People struggle with stress, anxiety, and worry because they see them as unnatural and unwanted.

But these play an important role in our lives.

Studies show that short-term hormetic stress gives you immense benefits by boosting your immune system and overall wellness.

You need more of that kind of stress in your life (more on that later).

However, stress becomes an issue when it becomes chronic, and prevents you from returning to the default relaxed state.

Then it causes a host of problems like cardiovascular diseases, weakened immune system, digestive problems, obesity, and diabetes.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion as well.

It warns you of danger. It helps you meet deadlines and handle life’s emergencies.

It shows you care – about improving, maintaining high standards, and the people in your life. The lotus-eaters with a laissez-faire attitude to life don’t get anxious.

It only becomes a problem when every bush seems to hide a fox. Anxiety then starts to dominate your life, steals the joy out of it, and prevents you from living by your values.

Similarly, worrying is your brain’s way of solving problems. But when it becomes excessive and compulsive, it can lead to anxiety and depressive disorders.

So trying to eliminate stress, anxiety, and worry from your life backfires.

You start to judge yourself for not being able to do something impossible. It turns into a vicious cycle.

A better mental model is the Dao philosophy – which avoids all extremes.

Find the “Dao” or the middle path for your stress, anxiety, and worry (wherever it may lie). It will make you more effective in managing them.

So what’s the best way to manage chronic stress and anxiety?

There are 2 schools of thought – the tacticians and the strategists.

Tacticians, like Dr. Andrew Huberman, focus on immediate solutions, overlooking long-term strategies.

Strategists, such as Dr. Emma McAdam and Dr. Nick Wignall, emphasize long-term solutions without giving enough attention to immediate tactics.

But the truth is, you need a balance of both. You need long-term strategic, skill-developing perspectives as well as a few tactical tools in your belt for when the shit hits the fan.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
– Sun Tzu

So here are some strategic habits and practices, along with tactical tips, to help manage your stress, anxiety, and worry:

Strategic habits to tackle stress and anxiety

Mindfulness

A daily mindfulness practice is a gift that keeps on giving. It’s like installing a real-time antivirus scanner in your mind, always on the lookout for creeping anxieties and worries.

Yet, it’s one of the hardest habits to develop.

Here’s why:

1. You’re too hard on yourself and quit early

Imagine you’re teaching someone to do a bench press. They do half a rep, straighten their hand, and hold the weight at the highest point. Then after a few seconds, they complain that the weight is too heavy and it’s trying to come down.

Do you call them weak?

Of course not. You tell them it’s expected. And you tell them they should have paid more attention in their physics class when the concept of gravity was being taught.

But this is exactly what you do when you start a mindfulness practice.

Chaos is the natural state of mind. So your mind will wander – that’s normal. You need to put intentional energy to bring order into your consciousness.

You do that by letting go of the judgment. You do that by letting go of the stray thoughts. And you do that by refocusing as many times as it’s required.

Mindfulness is a workout of the mind. The higher the reps the better the workout.

2. You use mindfulness as a coping mechanism

Many turn to meditation when already overwhelmed. Then they get frustrated when they find it difficult.

Imagine being attacked by a thug in an alley. Do you pump up a few sets of pushups – hoping to scare him away?

I hope not (for your sake).

It’s the same with mindfulness.

It strengthens your mind, but it’s not a quick fix for stress. Using it only as a last resort can make your anxiety worse.

I used to be stuck in these 2 traps as well. But, this discussion between Dr. Nick Wignall and Dr. Emma McAdam changed my outlook and finally helped me develop a mindfulness habit.

It’s worth a listen.

Journalling

Journalling is one of those cheat codes to life that I can’t talk about enough.

It changed me as a person.

To get the most mileage from this habit, I do these 4 things daily:

  • Writing a gratitude entry
  • Setting intentions for the day
  • Managing schedules and tasks
  • Daily reflection

The Jesuits understood the importance of daily reflection. So they developed Examen for daily reflection and evaluation of thoughts and actions.

It’s a great tool, whether you’re religious or not.

Anxiety and worry stop being unmanageable when you know where you’re heading and keep correcting the course.

”Just like a low resting heart rate is the byproduct of intense exercise, low anxiety is the byproduct of intense self-examination.” — Naval Ravikant

Stop watching “news”

Our brains naturally avoid risk, making us pay more attention to dangers.

News channels know this.

They exploit this loophole to grab your attention. They get you agitated so that you are more likely to impulse buy whatever they are selling.

That’s why news channels and newspapers have been banned in my house for the last 4 years.

It keeps unwanted stress away.

Important news always finds its way to me through friends and social circles, letting me choose what I want to dive into.

And of course, everyone loves to break the big news to the guy who lives under a rock 😁

Regular social Interactions

There’s another reason I prefer to get important updates from my friends (and not from their feeds).

Staying socially connected plays a huge role in reducing stress.

No wonder that people living in the Blue Zones, who have much more longevity than the average, place so much emphasis on social connections.

Research says social isolation increases tachykinins in our bodies, making us feel more fearful and weakening our immune system.

Now maintaining social connections isn’t easy – especially if you’re an introvert like me. You have to be flexible, eat on others’ schedules, stay up a little later, or wake up a little earlier.

But while too much socialization feels exhausting – too little of it causes harm as well.

Aim for a balance that feels right for you.

Find your “Dao”.

Dealing with Stress

Get the big 4 right

Stress is your body reacting to challenges. The better equipped your body is, the better you handle it.

So, how can you prime your body to deal with stress?

Get the big 4 right:

  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Sunlight exposure

I talk about them in more detail in this edition.

If you’re trying to reduce stress from life without focusing on these 4, it’s like trying to draw water with a sieve.

Manage your stressors

We’ve discussed the difference between stress and stressors before.

Trying to manage stress without dealing with the stressors is like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar. It feels pointless and frustrating.

So tackle your stressors first.

How?

Learn to be more assertive.

Stop seeking approval from everyone. Don’t let everyone stack your plate and overwhelm you.

Set and maintain strong boundaries.

Learn to say ‘No’ to things and people that don’t align with your goals.

State your wants and needs – without being obtuse or overbearing about it.

Manage your stressors and you’ll see 80% of unwanted stress disappear from your life.

Remember, courage works better than Xanax.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” ― Anais Nin

Inoculate against the stress response

Stress turns into anxiety because it feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

It feels like you’re in danger.

So the best strategy is to learn to be comfortable with stress.

How do you do that?

Add a bit of controlled stress to your life.

I do it through resistance training, HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training), intermittent fasting, cold showers, and delving deep into psychology, meta-cognition, and neuroscience (which also helps me serve my clients better).

But you don’t have to limit yourself to these options only.

You can experiment with ice baths, sauna, math, and crossword puzzles – things that make you uncomfortable and need you to concentrate.

Here’s a bonus tip you can try out during high-intensity training:

When you’re sprinting or cycling at 80-90% of your maximum heart rate (zone-4 exercises), try to take in more of your surroundings instead of just focusing straight ahead.

This broadens your vision, which tends to narrow under stress. It helps your mind stay calm even when your body is stressed.

Practice this enough and you get comfortable with handling unwanted stress when it appears.

Tactical solution – Physiological Sigh

Lastly, I’ve got a tactical solution for you.

I learned from this amazing episode of the Huberman Podcast. It’s called the Physiological Sigh.

People naturally do this after getting winded up or when they cry – to calm their nervous system down.

Here’s how it works:

Do a double inhale and then a long exhale. Keep repeating this sequence for 20-25 times.

This signals your brain to slow your heart rate.

It inflates the alveoli in the lungs which tend to collapse under stress. And quickly lowers the carbon dioxide in your body, helping you relax fast.

I have been experimenting with this after my workouts – and it really works like a charm. It also helps when you’re having trouble falling asleep.

(For more on how this works, check out the podcast. It’s fascinating!)

Dealing with Anxiety

The above steps stop unwanted stress from entering your life. But it does nothing for the sticky anxiety that you still have to deal with.

Anxiety is like encountering a fallen tree on the road.

If it’s small – you can pick it up or move it aside.

This is the happy path. You get anxious about doing something aligned with your values and goals – you use your anxiety to guide you and get it done.

But what if it’s about something you can’t or don’t want to do anything about? What if the branch is huge and weighs a ton?

Then you carefully step over the tree and leave it behind. You stay mindful and let it go.

It seems so natural and intuitive right?

But most people get this wrong.

They don’t stay mindful. They try to avoid the cause of anxiety.

Their backpack gets snagged in the roots of the fallen tree. Then they drag the tree along – not understanding why walking feels so hard now.

They don’t realize that at any time, they can choose to let it go or do something about it.

What stops them from doing that?

The myths around anxiety of course.

They believe that being anxious somehow makes them defective.

It becomes so ingrained that the weight starts to seem familiar. Then they just get fixated on finding better ways to carry that weight around.

The society also heaps a lot of guilt and shame on them – adding to their burdens.

It’s like that asshole friend who sits on the tree and sees you dragging the thing around – chuckling inward.

But despite all these challenges, it’s still possible to manage your anxiety.

Here’s what you can do about it:

Staying present instead of getting carried away

First off, dealing with anxiety starts with being aware.

You now know there’s nothing wrong with feeling anxious.

So, get clarity first – is this a real danger, or it just feels scary?

If it’s a real danger, then let anxiety do its thing. It’s trying to help you escape the trouble.

But if it’s not?

Then expand your awareness of it.

Where do you feel stressed in your body? What’s it like?

Do you feel it in your stomach? Your hands? Maybe you get headaches or feel tense in your shoulders or face?

Then, explore how it shows up in your thoughts.

Describe your thought patterns – are they loud? Uncomfortable?

Write them down if that helps. Don’t beat yourself up over them.

When you open yourself up to anxiety like this, you’re telling your brain it’s not a threat.

Acceptance instead of struggle

Picture your life as a car.

Usually, you’re in the driver’s seat, heading where you want to go.

But sometimes, anxiety shows up, loud and bossy. It tries to take over the wheels.

Usually, you react in two ways.

You either take the passive way – i.e. you let it overwhelm you and allow it to drive. Then it usually veers and crashes the car.

Or you struggle with it and boot it out of the car. You do that through drugs, food, alcohol, or cheap distractions.

It works for a while. But anxiety always returns – louder and more demanding.

There’s a third option, though.

Accept that anxiety is along for the ride. Recognize it’s distracting you. Then you insist it to take the back seat.

Sometimes, you take directions from it if it makes sense.

Otherwise, you mute it (hah, you never knew that was an option, did you?) and ignore it.

But you let go of the struggle against it.

The beautiful paradox is that when you let go of the struggle, anxiety loses its power over you.

“Anxiety is the state of being uncomfortable in your body. Not feeling at home in yourself and wanting to be anywhere else. It’s the fear of a feeling, and it’s only a problem when your rules say you can’t have it.” — Dr. Becky Kennedy (Good Inside)

Curiosity instead of avoidance

Your body’s default mode is relaxation. When you sense a threat, your body has a fear response. Then you face it or resolve it.

Your body knows how to shake off the fear response and return to feeling safe.

But avoiding things you’re scared of makes your brain more anxious. Only when you become curious about it – this circuit is tripped.

It reveals answers to the source of the anxiety. And then, you can do something about it if it’s in your control.

I used to wake up anxious in the morning.

I ignored it for a while. But it kept getting worse.

It was so frustrating to wake up at 4 am, unable to go back to sleep, knowing that I could have another hour and a half of shut-eye.

Worrying about it just added fuel to the fire.

Then I decided to put my knowledge to the test.

I accepted that the internal buzzing of bees exists. I acknowledged that it’s not fun – nobody enjoys sandy eyes and an unrested body in the morning.

I realized that I’m not as helpless or as fragile as I thought. I can take a shower and have my early morning black coffee to make the drowsiness go away. And my body will compel me to go to bed earlier that day to make up for the sleep. There’s no lasting damage.

Then I leaned in more and opened myself to this feeling.

My curiosity revealed that it was just my circadian rhythm getting adjusted to my new routines.

My body, like a well-meaning friend, is pumping cortisol so that I can get out of bed and start my priority tasks of the day. It has become my partner in building my dreams.

I realized that the only things that are turning this helpful process into a monster are:

— my concepts of anxiety

— my interpretations of the changes in my body budget

— and my worries about it

Once I realized that – I no longer felt that there was a need to do anything about it. The monster I imagined was my friend.

I felt grateful to my body for having my back. I started trusting it more.

And just like that, my morning anxiety disappeared.

Bias towards action or movement

Anxiety is an emotion.

As I explained in the above example and this edition on emotion – they are concepts we have created to explain changes in our body budgets.

Anxiety is just your body perceiving danger (real or imaginary) and preparing you for fight and flight.

Avoiding it solves nothing.

Still, most people use avoidance as a default coping strategy.

They doomscroll. They consume information, liquor, calories, or drugs mindlessly.

It brings short-term relief.

But until you close that loop and address what’s causing your anxiety, you’re doomed to stay stuck in this aroused state. Your brain will keep bringing anxiety back – louder than ever.

But what if there’s nothing you can do right now, yet you keep feeling anxious??

Then move! Go for a run, dance, or workout.

Moving helps release the energy built up in your body from the epinephrine released in your body from the stress response.

Be biased towards action. Be biased towards movement. Make it your religion.

This is how you put the last nail in anxiety’s coffin.

Dealing with Worry

Now that we’ve discussed the strategies against stress and anxiety, let’s dig into a few steps you can take to overcome your habit of worrying:

Catch yourself worrying

Feeling anxious isn’t fun.

So you give in to worrying to try and fix it.

It gives you an illusion of control. You get a brief relief because you feel you’re doing something about it.

But it always makes your anxiety worse in the long run.

You can’t control the initial thought that pops up in your mind. Or the emotion it generates.

But, you can always choose where to direct your attention.

This is something that I’ve discussed at length with my mother. But still, she gives in to the false narrative that she is helpless against worrying.

Don’t let that be you. You have more control over your attention than you believe.

Own that power. And watch the worry habit fade.

Harness its power

The default setting of the mind is to paint the worst possible outcome ( a process called catastrophization which is also a cognitive distortion).

And then it tries to figure out a way to avoid that. Even when you probably will never encounter that scenario.

This is the problem-solving mechanism of the brain gone awry. Such a waste of time and mental energy!

While writing about this, my mind is catastrophizing. It’s thinking about:

— how people will say I’m a hack and I don’t know what I’m talking about

— how I’m going to be attacked and torn down by an online mob

— how negative and caustic comments will hound me.

Mind is a fertile ground. Leave it empty and untended and weeds will grow in it.

So what do you do to get out of this trap?

Plant the crops you want.

Instead of projecting an outcome you fear and running away from – project an outcome you want and run towards it.

When you run away from something you train your brain to treat it as dangerous.

But when you run towards it, you tell your brain you’ve got it under control.

It increases your confidence. And it decreases your stress response the next time.

Don’t confuse this with some magical, new-age bullshit of “manifesting what you desire”. It doesn’t work that way.

When you try to influence an outcome over which you have no control – it makes you even more in despair. You don’t want that.

Instead, remember your locus of control. Visualize yourself taking action toward an outcome. Make it as concrete as possible.

Maxwell Maltz talks much about this in his classic “New Psycho-Cybernetics”. This is how elite athletes prepare themselves mentally before their big day.

Give it a try. You won’t believe how effective it is.

For me, that looks like imagining how I would feel when I write my best take on this topic. How satisfying it would be to imbue my truth into my work. And how great it would feel to meet my self-imposed deadline.

This imagery fills me with drive and motivation.

Maybe this is what people call courage?

(If you want to learn more about how to deal with worrying and overthinking, read my in-depth take here.)

The thread that ties everything up

So, you’ve got a bunch of smart strategies and tools to tackle stress, anxiety, and worry.

Feeling better? More confident? Hopeful?

Now, you’ll hate me for what I’m about to do next – but it’s gotta be done.

Sometimes, despite everything I’ve shared, you’ll find yourself feeling totally lost. Nothing seems to work.

Let me share an excerpt from a coaching call with a client as we were wrapping up:

“Yesterday was tough. I felt so lost like I was fumbling around in the dark, trying to find my toolkit, but I couldn’t find anything. I felt utterly helpless like I was drowning.”

He was talking about a sudden overwhelming feeling of despair he felt one evening when all his negative self-talk was just too much.

It took a long time for him to settle down.

You will have days like this, too. I know I do (Childhood trauma plays you dirty like these sometimes).

And when that happens, even with all the knowledge of tools and strategies – everything will feel useless.

But there’s one thing that lights a beacon in these dark hours. It serves as a bulwark against the pull of the gaping maw of this void.

Do you know what that missing piece is?

A meaning and a purpose for life.

It may sound too wishy-washy (I used to think like that too).

But trust me, a clear purpose is like a safe landing space. It is where you come to perch when you’re exhausted from flying against the sudden sandstorm created by your inner pain body.

This is where you rest and recharge – till you have the strength to take off again.

Having a clear purpose makes you resilient against life’s roller coaster rides and episodes like these.

It makes you what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as an “autotelic person” – someone with “transformational coping skills” and driven by internal goals.

Becoming this kind of person means stress and anxiety just roll right off you.

So how do you craft such a compelling purpose? How do you become “autotelic”?

I’ll dive deeper into this topic later (maybe in a future newsletter).

But for now, just know it’s simpler than it seems.

It doesn’t matter what you dedicate your life to – as long as it’s something meaningful to you.

After all – life has no meaning but what you assign to it.

 

We have covered a lot of ground here.

Do not try to start all of it at once. It will only overwhelm you.

Instead, start with the strategic habits.

Once you’ve made some progress there – adopt the steps for reducing stress in your life.

At this point, you will be already familiar with the mindfulness and reflection practices. The strategies for managing anxiety and worrying will feel easier.

Drop a mail to me if you have any questions about implementing this.

But remember, this is a lifetime’s worth of journey you’re undertaking.

So no point in hurrying and falling on your face.

Be patient and kind to yourself.

Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

P.S. If you want to work with me 1:1 and make your mind bulletproof against anxiety and worry – book a call here.