I’ve substantially reduced my anxiety over the past 5-10 years.
Many of the important steps along that path look easy in hindsight, yet the overall goal looked sufficiently hard prospectively that I usually assumed it wasn’t possible. I only ended up making progress by focusing on related goals.
In this post, I’ll mainly focus on problems related to general social anxiety among introverted nerds. It will probably be much less useful to others.
In particular, I expect it doesn’t apply very well to ADHD-related problems, and I have little idea how well it applies to the results of specific PTSD-type trauma.
It should be slightly useful for anxiety over politicians who are making America grate again. But you’re probably fooling yourself if you blame many of your problems on distant strangers.
Here are some feedback loops which caused my anxiety to appear more inevitable than it was:
- Anxiety made me look low status, and looking low status sustained some of my anxiety. Both by making me look less interesting, and making me feel reluctant to interact with people.
- Anxiety interfered with my creativity / willingness to experiment.
Anxiety impels us to focus on a small class of identifiable threats. In contrast, feeling safe enables us to entertain a wider variety of ideas, due to increased willingness to make mistakes.
- Anxiety makes it harder to sleep well, and sleep deprivation increased my anxiety.
- The narrowed focus associated with anxiety impaired my ability to notice changes in my emotions. That made it harder to evaluate which kinds of social interactions made me more or less comfortable. It also made it harder for me to relate to people by talking about emotions with them.
- Anxiety caused me to have a narrow focus which interfered with my awareness of body language (both mine and other people’s). That limited my ability to improve my social interactions.
- I suspect that when my body language was more nervous, that made people more cautious about interacting with me. In particular, it probably discouraged some people from asking me personal questions, and that’s a sure way of avoiding feeling connected.
I sometimes notice that I’m less comfortable being with nervous people, so I assume this is a fairly common reaction.
- When I’m anxious, I use up more energy on filtering out inappropriate comments. And since that filtering happens in subconscious parts of my mind, it was hard for me to notice what was happening, and easy to attribute it to generic introversion. Even a small loss of energy can impair my ability to have good conversations. This seems like an important part of why people are introverted.
- Anxiety caused me be irrationally frustrated by mistakes, and focus too much attention on past mistakes (roughly along the lines of attempted telekinesis). This sustained my anxiety by causing my system 1 to overestimate the frequency and importance of small mistakes (via availability bias). It also made small mistakes actually important to me, because I accurately anticipated that they would frustrate me more than they do now that I’m better at shrugging off minor mistakes.
- Sensory overload: I often have problems with feeling overloaded in noisy or crowded social situations. That effect seems stronger when I’m anxious. So anxiety reduced my ability to become more socially involved, which contributed to my social anxiety.
- Anxiety may contribute to learned helplessness, which impairs the motivation I needed to try new things.
(I’m unclear about how many of these are independent phenomena versus just different ways of describing a smaller set of core problems).
A clear understanding of these feedback loops would have made it easier for me to break them.
Why did humans evolve to have anxiety?
Presumably it had something to do with avoiding harm from lions, snakes, mosquitoes, and unfriendly humans. I expect that our ancestors generally knew enough about their environment that they could confine their anxiety to a few specific times and places.
Hunter-gatherer societies rarely generated anxiety over career decisions, moving to a new tribe, or the need to adapt to new culture.
The one area where constant anxiety might serve some evolutionary purpose is to deal with problems of social status within one’s tribe. I’m a bit unclear why that produced general anxiety rather than more special-purpose anxieties. More likely, constant general anxiety is an accidental byproduct of processes that produced more specific anxieties in our ancestors.
Our ability to find new tribes today is abnormally high by any historic standard, and our risk of being killed is abnormally low. So there ought to be much less excuse for persistent anxiety.
Yet we may still be guided in part by instincts that tell us we’ll starve if we leave our tribe. So we often stick with the devils we know, rather than finding new tribes which will treat us well.
In spite of all our options, it seems common to think of anxiety as something which is largely dictated by our genes. There’s certainly a wide range of default anxiety levels in modern environments. But something seems wrong with treating our default levels as inevitable. It seems likely we’d have less pervasive anxiety if we could recreate the relevant features of hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
The straw-man version of psychiatry treats anxiety as a purely chemical. The chemical imbalance model results in patients becoming permanently dependent on their psychiatrist to prescribe drugs. By some strange coincidence, psychiatrists and drug companies tend to prefer this model.
The feedback loop model suggests drugs have value as one-time nudges, to enable us to experience new possibilities, that we can later achieve without drugs. Such nudges might include:
- more normal sleep providing the energy needed to interact with people better.
- better awareness of how much better it feels to have low anxiety.
- better ability to experiment with different social interactions.
Neither model should pretend to be a complete model of anxiety. A full model would need to cover many different reasons that cause us to be concerned about the future. A focus on feedback loops seems more conducive (than the chemical imbalance model) to discovering the root causes of each person’s anxiety. Neither model is powerful enough to be a reliable solution.
So, how did I overcome those feedback loops?
- positive psychology: gratitude journals, meditation, and morning pages.
Xanax helped me the most (maybe more due to when I tried it than due to any special benefits it provides). It enabled me to experiment at a critical stage with feeling more social confidence. But I ended up taking it regularly for years, which was probably more than was healthy. I wish I had been able to use it only for social events. Maybe there was a low dosage that would have enabled that. But withdrawal difficulties, plus restrictions related to its prescription status, made it hard to experiment, and I lacked the knowledge needed to question my psychiatrist’s bias toward permanent use.
It seems like other legally available drugs such as alcohol and phenibut ought to have helped me, but I can’t figure out whether they made any difference to me. I’m going to be a bit evasive about illegal drugs, but there’s some promising evidence for some of those.
- CFAR drew me into a culture that promotes frequent experiments with new self-improvement ideas, improved introspection about what problems matter most to me, and improved introspection about potentially conflicting subconscious motives.
- social interactions:
Ok, when I said many of the important steps look easy in hindsight, I was downplaying the difficulty of maybe 20% of the problem that involved who I interacted with, and how I approached those interactions.
I often faced tradeoffs between meeting interesting people, but under circumstances which usually lead me to act as a spectator, versus meeting people who seemed less interesting under circumstances that were somewhat conducive to me being social.
It feels like my progress in this area involved plenty of luck, and some changes that were highly tailored to my needs.
I don’t have clear ideas about how important each of these were. The changes were sufficiently slow and subtle that I rarely knew how to attribute benefits to specific actions.
The first 10% of my anxiety reduction only produced small benefits, whereas subsequent similar sized improvements felt bigger – going from 30% to 20% of my original anxiety levels was much easier to observe, due to larger percent difference, and due to my improved awareness of my emotions.
Throughout most of this journey, I was mostly not focused on altering my anxiety, due to a combination of pessimism about how feasible that was, and limited awareness of the fact that I had high anxiety. Sometimes I was focused on becoming happier. That was probably as good as a focus on reducing anxiety. But mostly I was just trying out new things such as meditation with only vague guesses about what they would do.
If you approach it more deliberately than that, I wouldn’t be surprised if you can accomplish in a year or two what it took me a decade to accomplish.
P.S. – SlateStarCodex has a long and fairly good post on treating anxiety, somewhat biased toward what scientists and therapists find easy to measure.