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.