I believe inner happiness and an honest sense of mental wellbeing are the most important things in your life; everything ripples from it. You must first put yourself in front of your family and friends, your job and income, even your pets (to all the dog lovers out there, when you are indeed struggling).
Everything will follow. We perceive life through our own lens and the onus is on us to keep it clear – without fog, mist and negativity. How do we do this? We must develop a true sense of self awareness and there are actually ways to practice self-awareness. In knowing and coming to terms with who we are, we may put in place, habits and processes that reinforce and coincide with a subjectively awesome lifestyle – one that, more often than not, makes us happy!
“Tom, is it really that simple?” In my opinion, yes. It just may take some time. For example, for me, some of the anxiety I was dealing with was related to the way I was subconsciously living my life. I wanted to be an AFL player because I “knew” then I’d get all the girls, be rich and famous and live up to the expectations of society’s alpha male normality. However, deep down, I knew the way I was living didn’t coincide with who I truly was. The people I was surrounding myself with didn’t see eye to eye with who I wanted to become. That’s not to say they were bad people, they just had different goals and agendas.
Jim Rohn said that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. The reason I like that quote so much is not because it tells you to cut people out of your life because they’re shit value, but to be aware of the people who want you to succeed no matter what it is, and the people who are impartial to it. It perfectly explains, in a social sense, the significance behind creating a life that works for you and in doing so only allowing the people that make you a better person come along for the ride. It is something I have taken with me through my life with severe anxiety and my life without.
How do we gain a sense of self-awareness?
Mindfulness meditation is one way to attain such clarity, and this is the practice I used to do. Mindfulness is about understanding when thoughts and emotions are particularly strong and when they are soft and gentle. Being able to step back and simply notice what's going on in your head rather than letting the thoughts, however strong or weak, become you is a great tool to have in your inventory. The steps you put in place when anxiety hits you, let alone any emotion, must become second nature. It is crucial that when a “what if” thought pops in your head, you habitually recognize that holding any resistance to it is not the way to go. “Yes Tom, but that's easier said than done isn't it?” Not at all. In fact you've been doing this all your life. Experts say we have approximately 50,000 thoughts a day and in truth, you hold no resistance to 99% of those thoughts, give or take. Now bear with me on this one.
Some of us fear flying. Some of us hate the thought of being in a car crash or being trapped in social situations. The thoughts and symptoms associated with these fears only exist because of the mental resistance we put up in an effort to prevent them from happening within our own minds. Nevertheless, it will always stand true that fear is an illusion. It is a choice. If you allow your anxious thoughts to pass through you without any resistance to them, i.e. “I accept there is a chance I could crash this car yet I am in no greater risk of doing so than the car driver next to me”, then your fight or flight response will lessen in severity. After a bit of practice your, car crash anxiety will dissipate. The thoughts will not remain and to some degree you may even forget you ever had such a fear. Remember, anxiety is a good thing. It keeps us safe.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that anxiety sufferers may only ‘suffer’ because of one particular thought or fear that sticks around. But 1 out of 50,000 isn’t too bad, is it!? This understanding helps put things into perspective when the anxiety emotion is particularly evident. In all my struggles in all those years, I could count my worries on one hand. In fact, I could even relate them all back to a general fear of uncertainty in outcome. This is what I'm talking about when I note the value in simplifying your issues and attaining a strong sense of self awareness. For me, this made huge inroads in my fight to completely abate my inappropriate anxiety symptoms.
There is one last concept I’d like to mention, and that is the difference between pleasure and happiness. There are many things within our lives which we derive pleasure from, but make no mistake. Pleasure will not lead to happiness, nor is it the same thing. And without a base line level of self-awareness, it is quite difficult to differentiate between the two. In my experience, pleasure or pleasurable experiences derive temporary solutions to boredom, stress and that therein. In seeking pleasure, one attempts to escape subjective monotony within their own lives and that can be through many things.
People may find pleasurable solitude in recreational drugs, excessive masturbation, porn, in fatty or sugary foods, or that red notification symbol on their phones. Such guilty pleasures give significant rise to dopamine levels in the brain. Societal norms and mass media marketing consistently and subconsciously reinforce within us that pleasure WILL lead to happiness. That “always being connected”, eating fast food with friends in front of the TV, purchasing new shoes, buying the latest iPhone and Mac, betting on your favorite team and consuming, consuming, consuming – stocking up on the latest everything will maintain a strong sense of self-worth and fulfilment. But unless we begin to look inward to search for our own happiness, self-worth and fulfilment will never come to fruition. The secrets lie within us all.
For me, happiness came about through a sense of achievement in various aspects of life. I found that the more I achieved, the more goals I accomplished, the better I felt and the more I wanted to do it. I became addicted to achieving, but also failing. I no longer viewed failure as “failure”, but rather an attempt to succeed, which I thought was far better than not trying at all. I could happily reside in the fact that if I were to grow old, with a lifetime of failures under my belt, that life would be without regret. The fact remains that a sense of achievement is subjective in nature. I derive the greatest sense of achievement through facing the fears that frighten me most, public speaking being one of them. But it doesn’t all have to be heroics and fear facing and swords and shields. One can also gain a great sense of achievement through little challenges put in place throughout the day. Things like taking cold showers, meditation (a huge one!), cooking dinner for yourself, high intensity exercise; lifestyle changes that bring about a chronic state of happiness moreover a temporary bliss are the ones to look out for, and you can come up with your own.
Ultimately, I guess the only difference between the person I was to the person I am today is that I understand myself a little better, and maybe that's what life is all about: learning what makes you happy and putting processes in place to sustain such feelings. In any case, the anxiety emotion is simple in my eyes. Yes, simple, but not easy. If you can make it rise, you can make it fall. It is therefore, one's own choice whether to lead a happy life or a fearful one.
Tom works as a CrossFit coach, author, podcaster and founder of The Mind Mate. Through personal experience, facilitating conversations about mental health became a strong passion of his.
“I had, for much of my life been anxious. I was ignorant of it, however, having only seen the world through my own lens. Every person’s experience is completely unique and their own, however, I feel it’s time we reconciled that notion rather than move away from it. Becoming more honest with ourselves and others is not only therapeutic by nature, but it also allows for people dealing with mental health issues to learn about and draw upon similarities so they may feel more empowered.”