If there’s one thing I love, it’s “The Emperor Has No Clothes” moments when you realize everyone’s feeling something…but nobody is saying it.
It happened when I finally got behind closed doors with my friends and we started telling the truth.
How many of us sit and stare at screens for over 8 hours/day?
How many of us focus almost exclusively on our careers and — if I asked you what new hobby you want to tackle this year — would have no idea what to do?
How many of us use stimulants to mask our exhaustion?
How many of us feel guilty or anxious when not working?
If you raised your hand to any of these questions, this post is for you.
Today, I’ve invited my friend Charlie Hoehn to share how he systematically cured his anxiety within one month. Charlie knows better than most people what it’s like to lose control of his work-life balance.
Charlie has done some cool stuff over the years. He helped Tim Ferriss edit and launch The 4-Hour Body, he was a cameraman on Tucker Max’s movie tour, and he developed the Negotiate It iPhone app with me. But Charlie had a tendency to work around the clock. He drank tons of coffee, pulled all-nighters, and never seemed to sleep. I remember seeing him at a marketing conference a few years ago, and he casually mentioned that he’d only slept six hours in three days.
At some point, Charlie burned out and became extremely anxious. None of his friends really knew what he was dealing with because he kept it to himself. It took a while, but he finally figured out how to pull himself out of his funk. And he did it without pharmaceuticals or expensive therapy.
Maintaining a work-life balance has always been a struggle, but now it’s harder than ever. Everyone is online and on their phones at all times. It’s impossible to fully disconnect from work, and we often forget to have fun and enjoy life. Charlie took a unique systematic approach to cure his anxiety AND manage his workaholism, which is why I asked him to share his story.
In fact, he’s going to reveal the exact steps he took. This post will show you how to heal your anxiety, in minimal time, and enjoy your life more… just by making simple changes to your daily routine.
This is important stuff. We talk about living a rich life, but very few people talk about the costs of being ultra-focused on success.
Charlie — take it away.
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What if I told you that your anxiety – panic attacks, paranoia, all that scary stuff – could be cut in half, in less than one month? I know it’s possible, because I’ve done it. All you have to do is systematize a few key areas of your life.
These simple changes to your daily routine can transform your mental health. It won’t happen overnight, and the journey won’t always be easy. But if you stick with these changes for a few weeks, your sanity will be restored.
For many who suffer with anxiety, that means having your life back. It means freedom. For me, it meant being able to breathe, to love, and – most importantly – to laugh again.
Here’s how I did it…
System 1: Replace Bad Content with Happy/Healthy Content
It took me a long time to see it, but the news was my single biggest source of anxiety. The websites I was reading each day talked non-stop about crime, corruption, economic breakdown, and the end of the world.
As a result, my fear of being attacked spun out of control. I became obsessed with protecting myself from every possible threat to my livelihood. I researched what to do if I was arrested and thrown in jail. I spent hundreds of dollars on food and equipment that I hoped would save me in the event of a disaster.
There was nothing inherently wrong with preparing for an emergency, but obsessing over preposterous apocalyptic scenarios, every single day, for months on end? What an enormous waste of time and energy!
It finally dawned on me that my fear of an imaginary future was destroying my ability to enjoy the present.
And what planted those seeds of fear? The news.
When I made the commitment to cut the news out of my life completely, my anxiety plummeted in less than two weeks. The negative information I removed from my conscious awareness freed me from the confines of other people’s frightening narratives. I replaced the scary news with positive, joyful, and fun information.
For instance, I listened to uplifting songs and standup comedy albums. I watched funny and happy movies. I read fiction books that sparked my imagination, rather than workaholic business books that made me feel productive. It really helped.
Your brain is a lot like your digestive system — it requires a healthy diet in order to function properly. That means you need to be selective about what you feed your mind. And the sad truth is that the news is poison.
News outlets don’t really care about relevant information, facts, investigative reporting, biased agendas, or whether they’re poisoning their audience’s psyche. All they care about is numbers: page views, shares, and eyeballs for their advertisements. Even the “truth deliverers” and conspiracy websites play this game.
It’s an impossible undertaking to sort through their incessant distortion of reality, and you can never be sure if what you’re reading is true… But that’s not what this post is about. All I can say is that the news was making me afraid of the world. When I cut it out, I stopped being afraid. You are free to do the same.
How you can use this system: Cut anxiety-inducing information – especially the news – out of your daily routine completely! If your friends are watching the news in the same room, either change the channel or go do something else. If a scary headline appears in your Facebook feed, don’t click it – block it!
There’s absolutely no reason you need to subject yourself to unhealthy unrealities. Replace those unsettling thoughts with positive content that will lift you up. Otherwise, you will taint your thoughts, instill fear in your mind, and continually spoil the quality of your life.
System 2: Optimize Your Sleeping Conditions
Like I said, your brain is a lot like your digestive system. That means you need to give it adequate time to REST and DIGEST. And the best way to do that is by improving the quality of your sleep.
When I felt my worst, sleep just wasn’t a priority (not a coincidence). I worked around the clock, drank coffee all day, consumed junk food and alcohol late at night, and checked my bright cell phone screen while I was in bed. I pulled a lot of all-nighters and got used to falling asleep at late hours – usually around 3:00AM. Then I’d wake up a few hours later and do it all over again. And what a shock: I felt exhausted all the time. I was chronically in a severe sleep deficit, which took a major toll on my body.
During the month I cured my anxiety, I made getting consistent, quality sleep one of my highest priorities. First, I optimized my environment for ideal sleep. Here are the changes I made:
- Plug in cell phone charger faaaaar away from bed. It’s extremely tempting to use your cell phone or laptop while you’re lying in bed (the internet is open 24 hours a day!), but this seriously screws up your sleep. The biggest problem with looking at screens late at night is that it’s an unnatural source of bright light. Even if your screen is on the lowest brightness setting, it’s still tricking your mind into staying awake. The best way to prevent yourself from checking screens late at night is by setting up a little barrier. For me, that meant plugging my cell phone charger in an outlet faaaaaar away from my bedroom, so I had to get up and take a long walk in order to check it. That proved to be a big enough hurdle to stop me from checking text messages and email late at night.
- Cover all sources of light. When I was in high school, I covered my bedroom windows with two layers of aluminum foil and black construction paper. My room was pitch black, and I slept amazing every night. Eliminate or cover up every single source of light in your room — including digital clocks and that little green light on smoke detectors — so you can’t see anything. Then wear a sleep mask.
- Lower the temperature to 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooler your room, the better. Sleep in less clothing to prevent overheating during the night.
- Install Flux on computer. Is the bright white light of your computer screen keeping you awake night? This free app will automatically change the hue of your computer screen to a sunset-like amber. Highly recommended.
Next, I had to make a few tweaks to my daily routine. It took several nights to adjust, but within a week, I was sleeping like a champion:
- 5:00 PM — No more caffeine, aspartame, or alcohol. If you’re drinking coffee, energy drinks, or diet sodas after 5pm, then you’re making it much harder for your body to wind down. Those stimulants remain in your blood stream for several hours and keep your energy up. Cut them out. Also, you might think your evening glass of wine is helping you relax and feel sleepy. The reality is that it’s disrupting your deep sleep. The safe bet is to just drink water after 5pm.
- 9:00 PM — No more screens. If you truly want to get your anxiety under control, you’re going to need to do something very difficult… You’re going to have to stop looking at ALL screens — cell phones, laptops, TV’s — after 9:00 pm. I know, it’s crazy. But it works. It takes a lot of discipline to stop looking at screens, so I use the Commit app ($2.99) to remind me to put my cell phone away at 9pm.
- 10:00 PM — Get ready for bed! Every night at exactly 10:00 pm, I’d start getting ready for bed. I’d stop whatever I was doing, hit the bathroom, brush my teeth, and change out of my day clothes. I was dead serious about this rule. Even if I was in the middle of a conversation or near the end of a great movie, I’d abruptly get up and walk to the bathroom. After I finished getting ready, I’d climb in bed to read fiction for 15 minutes, and then I’d turn off the lights and focus on the rhythm of my breath until I fell asleep.
How you can use this system: All of the suggestions above will help you wind down earlier, but the key is getting ready at the same time every night. That’s what sets you in motion toward actually getting in bed, and ultimately re-trains your body to crave sleep at a reasonable hour.
If you take your bedtime seriously, you can get back into a steady sleep routine within a week.
System 3: Guilt-Free Play, Every Day
Exercise is a proven way to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. But what’s the best type of exercise?
Running on the treadmill for an hour?
Doing hundreds of sit-ups?
Self-inflicted torture via P90X?
How about ‘None of the Above.’ All of those activities are lame and miserable. People only do them because they think getting in shape has to be a punishment.
Exercise doesn’t have to feel like work; it can be play (i.e. physical movement that gets your heart pumping, causes you to sweat, and is legitimately fun for you and your friends).
In my experience, the best forms of anxiety-reducing play are outdoor sports. They are social (more than one person is required), mildly competitive, and cause everyone to break a sweat in the fresh air and sunshine (getting 20-minutes of sunlight does your body good). However, any fun play activity that you can do on a regular basis with your friends should work.
Each day, I set aside a minimum of 20-minutes to do one of my favorite play activities. I actually scheduled a recurring daily event in my calendar called Play! I started taking frequent trips to the park with an Aerobie Flying Ring — a flat rubber disc that flies really fast. The Aerobie was perfect for playing catch because I had to call up a friend to join me, and we’d both end up running around while chasing it.
I also played homerun derby with my friend Tucker Max on the weekend, took trips to the driving range, did an hour of circuit training a few times each week, and signed up for improv comedy classes (3 hours every Monday).
How you can use this system: Make Play part of your daily routine. Schedule 20-minutes of Play in your calendar (that’s only 1.3% of your day!) so you’re regularly having guilt-free fun doing an activity you love, with people you enjoy.
Oh, and one more thing… GET OFF YOUR PHONE.
How often do you see people doing this while they’re supposed to be having fun with friends?
If you truly want to get your anxiety under control, you need to disconnect. If the lure of the internet is too tempting, just turn your cell phone OFF. I know it’s fun to share your life, but social media is destructive when it’s compulsively used to gloss over how lonely and insecure you feel. Stop trying to convince everyone on Instagram that you have a wonderful life. Face the fact that you don’t, then go play so you can make it better.
System 4: Protein + Vegetable + Healthy Side, for Every Meal
When I was at the height of my anxiety, I was regularly eating foods that I knew were toxic on a daily basis — fast food, junk food, ice cream, pizza, alcohol… But I didn’t care. I was just so desperate for quick and easy forms of comfort, even though they ultimately made me feel worse. The food highs disappeared as quickly as they came, and I’d run off to find another stimulant to numb my bad feelings.
Then I swung in the complete opposite direction, and got ridiculously rigid about my diet. I would only eat vegetables and fruits. The result? I lost 25 pounds, and felt lethargic and depressed.
It took a while for me to get back in a healthy eating routine. What helped me most was copying my healthy friends’ eating habits. I just studied what healthy people ate, and then I copied them. After a few weeks of regularly emulating the routines of my healthiest friends, I was feeling and looking vigorous again.
Here’s the eating regimen I eventually settled on. I still eat this way now, and I feel great:
MORNING — 8:00 AM
- Skip breakfast. Drink up to 1/2 cup of coffee, no more than that (too much caffeine is bad news for anxious people)
- Take Vitamin B and fish oil. These are vital nutrients that your brain needs to function properly, and they’re depleted when you’re stressed out for long periods of time. I started taking both of these at the same time, and it took about a week and a half before my mind felt noticeably calmer and lighter.
AFTERNOON — 12:00 PM
Lunch is comprised of three ingredients: (1) Protein + (1) Vegetable + (1) Healthy Side. It’s basically a variation of the Paleo diet. These are the foods I most frequently eat:
- PROTEIN: Grass-fed beef, free range chicken, cage free pastured eggs, wild Alaskan salmon
- VEGETABLE: Kale, spinach, broccoli, zucchini, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, bok choy
- HEALTHY SIDE: Avocado, almonds, blueberries, cherries, black beans, sauerkraut, sweet potatoes
I frequently assemble my lunch at Whole Foods’ salad bar (bit expensive, I know, but my compliance for sticking to my diet when eating at WF is 100%). I also eat gluten-free Thai dishes (meat and vegetables) and occasionally have Chipotle’s burrito bowl with fajita mix and steak (no rice, no queso).
For drinks, I only have water. No beer, no diet sodas (aspartame is poison), no fruit juice or beverages containing milk. Just water.
Notes: Have as much of the one protein and one vegetable as you want. Limit the quantity of your healthy side to one handful. Eat until you’re full. Cook and eat with plenty of KerryGold Irish butter (healthy source of fat).
Foods that are NOT allowed: No bread, crackers, pasta, rice, fried foods, fast food, pizza, chips, popcorn, candy, ice cream, soda, beer… Basically anything that’s made of wheat, sugar, or chemical ingredients you can’t pronounce
(If you prefer to have more leeway to cheat, follow Tim Ferriss’ highly effective Slow Carb Diet — it’s another variation of Paleo eating, which helped both of my parents lose 20+ pounds of fat in one month).
EVENING — 7:00 PM
Same rules as lunch: (1) Protein + (1) Vegetable + (1) Healthy Side. Eat with a healthy source of fat, like KerryGold butter. Drink water.
That’s it! Just two big meals per day — three ingredients — at noon and 7pm.
Pretty simple, right?
How you can use this system: Try eating this way — protein, vegetable, healthy side — at lunch and dinner for the next two weeks. Assess how you feel at the end of each week.
Don’t chastise yourself if you break the rules and have some junk food every now and then. You’re just trying to get in the habit of eating healthy meals, while cutting most of the toxic crap out of your diet. Your transition to a healthier diet should be gradual and forgiving, rather than abrupt and perfect (which is impossible).
* * * * *
Anxiety builds up slowly over time, little by little each day, until it becomes a glaring problem. It’s not going to disappear overnight, but it can evaporate if you focus on making your life a little bit better every day. And the way you do that is by setting up systems that work in your favor.
Systems are what get you in a healthy routine, while eliminating options that are making you feel worse (e.g. the news, unhealthy food, checking screens late at night).
Don’t expect to be back to normal overnight (you won’t). And don’t expect to do everything perfectly (you won’t). Just set up these four simple systems:
- No news
- Quality sleep
- Daily play
- Healthy meals @ 12p and 7p
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