Unlocking Your Anxiety Archive
Learn the transformative mental health protocol pioneered by rap star Jay-Z
And welcome to edition 316.
For those of you new around these parts — hello! My name is David and I’m a writer, outdoor instructor and cyclist-at-large with Thighs of Steel.
I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better: stories about the antifragile advantage of veganism, cycling around Britain (twice) and how to find your tree mentor.
Sorry about the technical hitch that meant I appeared in your inbox twice last week. The platform I use, Substack, was having a moment.
Anyway, after the last two intense emails about (man) sloth mode, I think it’s time I wrote about something else… like the mental health protocol pioneered by Jay-Z.
(Yes, I shall be inviting you to give me a hearty slap in the face shortly.)
But before all that, I’ll leave you with one last word to ponder on the dangers of sloth mode, written a couple of thousand years ago by Stoic writer Seneca the Younger:
It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested.
But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realise that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away.
Every time we slip into (man) sloth mode, we’re living a tiny death. And not in the sexy French way.
Introducing The Shortness Of Life 21-Minute Book Club
The quotation above is taken from Seneca’s marvellous essay On The Shortness Of Life, translated from the Latin by Gareth D Williams.
Over the next three weeks, I’m going to be reading On The Shortness Of Life at the meditative pace of just one of the essay’s twenty sections per day.
That’s a mere few hundred words, a couple of paragraphs. A minute’s worth of reading for the learning of a lifetime.
For, as Seneca writes:
Learning how to live takes a whole lifetime, and — you’ll perhaps be more surprised at this — it takes a whole lifetime to learn how to die.
So we’d better get cracking.
See also: The Viktor Frankl 5-A-Day Book Club.
Over the course of 28 mini blog posts, you can join me on a month-long curiosity tour through the transformative insights of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.
Every day, we’ll read and discuss just five pages of Frankl’s masterful distillation of his life’s work: Man’s Search For Meaning.
It could change forever the way you define your meaning of life. (Plus there’s also some great tips for insomniacs…)
Unlocking Your Anxiety Archive
One of the most powerful tools in a Stoic’s mental toolbox is something I call the anxiety archive.
Building your own anxiety archive is a semi-structured, reasonably objective process — a HAZMAT suit and a pair of forceps — that helps you safely hold your fears, raise them to the light, examine them from every angle and see them for what they truly are: allies.
Lurking in the shadows, the nameless monster is most feared.
(Side swerve: it feels like the worst media outlets know and deliberately play on this, right?)
But, if we’re respectful, we can take that nameless monster on a journey of understanding and finish up with a fear that is, not only acknowledged, but accepted and even welcomed as a stir to action.
The journey goes something like this:
Notice anxiety: ‘I feel anxious...’ This is often the hardest part. Practice noticing.
Define anxiety: ‘…about filling up the Dolomites week on Thighs of Steel.’
Interrogate anxiety by questioning its supporting emotion or rationale: ‘Why am I anxious about this? Is there good reason to be anxious? Is a deadline approaching? What emotions do I feel besides anxiety? Where do I feel resistance? What do others expect of me?’
Understand anxiety: ‘This isn’t about the Dolomites, this is anxiety about my procrastination. This is the social anxiety of reaching out to cyclists and cycling groups with whom we don’t already have a relationship.’
Empathise with anxiety: ‘I hear you, anxiety. I hear your persistent alarm signal and acknowledge that I should be doing something.’
Act in concert with your anxiety: ‘I’m going to set a timer for ten minutes, find one cyclist or cycling group and tell them about this amazing ride we’re doing in the Dolomites.’
I don’t take my fears on this journey nearly enough, but I want to share two occasions in the past ten years when I have — and what I’ve learned from looking back.
Building My Anxiety Archive
In January 2012, I was inspired by hip-hop superstar Jay-Z to write up my own ‘99 Problems’.
Mine were less about systemic police brutality and racial profiling and more about ‘only having a single bed’ and ‘the mysteries of bicycle brakes’.
And I only got as far as 23 before I dried up.
Isn’t that amazing?
For all the worries that I had in my life at the time — from the laughably ridiculous (‘A lot of my clothes have holes in them’) to the genuinely worrysome (a bully for a housemate, relationships with ‘no flow’ and ‘No regular income’) — in sum of all of this anxiety, I still couldn’t come up with enough problems to pen a half-assed sonnet, let alone an era-defining rap.
(But, yes, if you’re wondering, thanks to my ongoing battle with eczema, the itch was one.)
Six years later, in February 2018, I wrote down another list of everything that was bothering me at the time.
I did little better: 28 anxieties.
Magic #1: Problems Get Boring Fast
Of course, if I really put my mind to it, I could easily bust out a list of 99 — or even 999 problems.
I mean, just for starters, there’s world hunger, the climate crisis and the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow.
But part of the anxiety archive exercise is to realise that, for me at least, I get bored of worrying long, long before I hit Jay-Z’s 99 problems.
(And I’m not alone: I can only actually count 9 distinct problems in Jay-Z’s famous song.)
As they start to pile up under my pen, a wave of exhaustion overtakes me. Writing down any more starts to feel silly.
Instead, helpful solutions spring to mind, as well as gratitude for the many, many things in my life that aren’t problems.
Looking down at the abstracted, objectified feelings that fill my spreadsheet (natch) gives me a different perspective on my anxiety.
They either look silly (buy some new clothes, Dave) or they become puzzles to figure out (talk to my neighbour or move house).
My mind becomes active rather than reactive. I can put away the archive and get on with my day, lighter.
But the anxiety archive isn’t only of use in the moment. I recommend storing your archives on a computer for posterity so that you can enjoy…
Magic #2: This Too Shall Pass
Browsing through my 2018 anxiety archives from the vantage point of today, I am amazed to find only two remain in full force.
Another eleven are notably quieter for the passage of years, still something I think about from time to time, but now scarcely worth a mention.
That means that more than half of the anxieties on that four-year-old list leave me with nothing more than a wry smile at the memory.
It’s immensely reassuring to recognise that I am, for example, no longer anxious about the state of my arteries or whether or not I’m ‘good enough’ to write entertaining, interesting, useful stuff.
Of course, I could fill this email with a dozen more juicy anxieties that have crept up on me since 2018, but — and here is where the magic is — the strength of building an anxiety archive is that it gives me incontrovertible evidence that ‘this too shall pass’.
From my anxiety archive, I know that there’s a solid chance today’s most pressing anxiety will, given time, become tomorrow’s wry smile.
Unlocking My Anxiety Archive
With the distance of time between us, I can see from both my 2012 and 2018 anxiety archives that the worst rarely happens and, when it does, it is rarely the catastrophe that I foretold.
Indeed — and here is where I invite you to give me a hearty slap in the face — these difficult moments were hidden opportunities for growth.
What we once considered weaknesses, with practice and patience, become strengths.
For example, the breadth of work that I do, meandering across industries and skillsets, was once a great source of anxiety.
For years, I believed that I had no focus, no commitment and no purpose.
The exact same breadth has, since 2018, become a source of strength.
I am a writer: I write this newsletter, as well as comedy with Beth Granville and environmental science journalism.
I’m an outdoor instructor, working weekends with kids as they plan, organise and execute their first overnight expeditions.
I’m also a director and cyclist-at-large at Thighs of Steel (please sign up to the Dolomites week in August — it’s so beautiful!)
This plurality of interests is, well, interesting. My diverse portfolio is, by its nature, more robust to shocks. Much is work that I can do from anywhere, setting my own boundaries.
Most importantly, however, I truly value this work and my enthusiasm carries over into a more positive relationship with myself and the rest of planet.
It took a lot of energy to get here — and anxiety was an integral part of the process.
Anxieties Are Allies
Anxiety doesn’t have to feel like a darkened, locked room; we can choose to feel this emotional force as a powerful motivating ally.
But before we simply let our anxieties pull us along, willy-nilly, we must first harness the energy by noticing, naming, interrogating, understanding and empathising.
As a regular part of our self-driving engine of inspiration, we can also then go back through our anxiety archive to identify and celebrate how we found the strength to grow in years gone by.
You see: buried in our own personal anxiety archive we will find the proof that we already possess everything within ourselves that we need to in order to rise and meet today’s challenges — not in spite of our fears, but thanks to them.
NOTE 1: Anxiety can be devastating. The anxiety archive is intended as a mental health check-up, not an emergency intervention. Don’t hesitate to see a professional counsellor if you think you might need one.
NOTE 2: Tim Ferriss does a more structured version of this Stoic-inspired examination of anxieties, which he calls ‘fear-setting’. You can read about Tim’s process on his blog.
It’s been a week of water and heat
Yesterday I went for a sauna, a serendipitous, super-heated rendezvous with an Italian shamanic healer and, Paulo, a New York-born Italian-Irish dad who takes daily saunas so that he’s ‘mentally and physically ready’ to fight.
Paulo grew up tough. His own grandma would slap him if he chewed his food more than three times — I guess because not gobbling a scarce meal must be ingratitude.
Tough, ya know?
While myself and the shamanic healer sweated on the top deck pine, Paulo paced the tiles below, arms wheeling, trying to figure out how he could have been raised with such hardship and his own children with smartphones.
Winding back the clock, on Monday, I surfed my first proper waves — a 3.5ft primary swell, if that means anything to you.
I say ‘surf’… Apparently, the Bournemouth surf has a notoriously short interval between waves. As the first of a set broke over my board, the second was on top of me, smashing said board into the back of my head.
There’s a good reason why surf schools teach you to protect your head and neck when you come off. Takes practice though!
That night, as I did my yoga, half a cup of seawater flushed out of my nose.
Before all that, last weekend, I hosted my first ever Warmshowers cycle tourers, a pair of wonderful Dutch women doing a loop of southern England, before one cycles on alone to Portugal.
Pam and Laura were full of that energy you can only get from riding a really long way.
I’ve stayed with some incredible Warmshowers hosts all over the UK and Europe and, finally, I now understand the vicarious gratitude that my hosts must have felt.
There is a boundless joy in being able to open my door and offer so easily the solution to every need. A hearty stew on the stove, a couple of dry towels, a capful of washing detergent. A chair, a bed. Peace.
Pam and Laura’s Saturday night out in Bournemouth sounded like a blast: their pragmatic fleeces and practical shoes sharing bar space with a tirade of stag and hen fancy dressers.
Two species eyeing one another over cocktails and cider.
If you’re a cycle tourer not yet part of the Warmshowers network, please correct that immediately.
Until next time, if you’ve enjoyed this email, please share the love. Thank you.