May 19 2013
[Note from Charlie: The response to this post has been incredible. Over 100,000 people have read it, and for the past year, it's been the #1 search result on Google for "cure anxiety." If you want to read a free chapter from my new book on how I cured my anxiety, click here. Otherwise, enjoy the post!]
For a long time, I thought I was going crazy. I’d convinced myself that something horribly wrong was about to happen. I thought I would be stabbed, shot, or arrested every time I left my apartment. I was sure that there was an impending disaster that would melt the social contract and pit my neighbors against me. I saw criminals and undercover cops everywhere I went. All that “world is coming to an end” talk — I bought into it.
Every moment was exhausting. I dreaded being around more than one person at a time. I eyed everyone like they were judging me, pitying me, or attempting to manipulate me. My attention was divided in every interaction: one half of me would pretend to be normal, while the other half would be trying to keep it together.
I could feel various parts of my face twitching, like I was about to crack. My hands shook constantly. It got so bad that when a friend came to visit me, I couldn’t drink a glass of water because it kept spilling just from me holding it.
I tried to behave like nothing was wrong, when all I wanted to do was lock myself in a room and curl up in a ball. If someone had tapped me in the chest, my body would have shattered. If someone had ordered me to cry, my face would have flooded. I felt fragile, weak, and hollow.
I was ashamed. I didn’t want to be around anyone – not because I stopped liking people, but because I didn’t want them to catch my weird energy. I wearily watched my girlfriend cry when I confided that I felt dead inside, all the time, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
I laid on the ground for 20 minutes one night, wondering whether I should call an ambulance. My heart was beating so hard and fast that I could actually hear it, and my left hand was going numb. My first panic attack.
My anxiety lasted for more than a year. It affected how I breathed, how I thought, how I ate, how I slept, and how I talked. I was serious and tired and afraid, all the time. I wanted so badly to return to my normal, lively, care-free, confident self. But I didn’t know how to shake it.
I tried everything to fix myself: meditation, yoga, high-intensity workouts, long runs, therapy, therapy books, keeping a journal, super clean diets, extended fasting, drugs, deep breathing exercises, prayer, etc. I even took a six-week course, made specifically for men who wanted to overcome anxiety. A few of these things helped, a lot of them didn’t. Some of them made things worse.
Then one day, I discovered the cure. When my mind processed it and recognized it was the solution, I started laughing. The answer had been so obvious all along.
In less than one month, I was back to my old self. The cure for my anxiety was free, fun, painless, and immediately effective. I have no fear that those feelings will ever return. If they do, I’ll be able to wipe them out right away.
I hope this post can help you eliminate your anxiety once and for all. It’s not nearly as hard as you think.
“Adults are just obsolete children.” – Dr. Seuss
Have you ever witnessed a little kid working out on a treadmill?
Or meeting up with a friend to chat over coffee?
Or wearing a suit and making cold-calls?
Or attending a networking conference to hand out their business cards?
HELL NO. That stuff is lame and boring. If you saw a kid doing any of those things, you would laugh and wonder what the hell was wrong with them.
Kids don’t run to get in shape; they run to feel the grass beneath their feet and the wind on their face.
Kids don’t have a chat over coffee; they pretend and make jokes and explore the outdoors.
Kids don’t go to work; they play their favorite games.
Kids don’t network; they bond with other fun kids while playing.
There is no ego. There is no guilt. There is no past to regret, and no future to worry about. They just play.
And that’s what I’d forgotten, what I’d been missing, all along.
Giving myself permission to PLAY was the cure for my anxiety. It was a subtle but powerful shift in how I viewed the world.
For two years, I had unknowingly prevented myself from playing. I am a workaholic, which can be pretty horrible when you work alone. No one tells you to stop or take a break, or that you’re burning yourself out. I’d find myself tethered to the internet all day, sitting in a chair for 10 hours and staring at a bright screen. Even when I was “finished,” I’d impulsively check email several times between midnight and 2 a.m. I know it’s dumb and unnecessary and “What could be so important?” and “You need your sleep,” but I did it anyways. I was oblivious to the fact that my nerves were being frayed for hours on end, and that I desperately needed fun face-to-face time with real human beings.
What made matters worse were the idiotic rituals I’d fallen into. Drinking coffee all day, then drinking alcohol with friends on the weekend. I didn’t get outside, I didn’t move enough, I didn’t sleep enough. My weeks were a cycle of over-stimulation and numbing.
I read Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. The message of the book hit me like a brick wall – it explained what I’d been doing wrong this whole time. I had completely deprived myself of play for nearly two years! Even when I had been “playing” (doing fun activities with friends), I would still feel guilty or self-conscious. My mind was elsewhere: what I’d done wrong in the past, how I was compromising my future, and how I was wasting the present. I was so critical of how I was living my life that I couldn’t be in the moment.
Getting out of that mentality saved me. I remembered how happy I’d been growing up, even just years before, and I knew why I’d been that way: I’d always allowed myself to play.
“A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition: it’s a health risk to your body and mind.” – Stuart Brown
The real problem had been my state of mind. I’d become increasingly adept at rejecting any form of “non-productivity.” I couldn’t allow any form of play if it didn’t contribute to earning money or doing something “meaningful.” Even when I was with friends or doing something that was supposed to be fun, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the time I was wasting. I wasn’t being productive; I was losing valuable time. I had to get back to work!
What would the world do without me and my important work?!
Without realizing it, I became very serious, even though I’d never been serious in my entire life. I couldn’t play because that meant I wasn’t working, and I couldn’t really work because I always felt tired and jaded (because I never let myself play!) This resulted in me convincing myself that life was a miserable grind for adults, and that I needed to be very serious if I wanted to get through it. I approached everything this way, and treated my work as a form of self-imposed slavery.
Little did I know how limiting that mindset was, and how much it was hurting the work I was doing.
Play is what has driven and shaped every beautiful part of our culture. Music, concerts, books, cooking, sports, movies, television, fashion, art, video games… We pay for these things so we can experience the fruits of another person’s PLAY. And the most virtuous form of work, according to some of our most revered and accomplished minds, belongs in the realm of play:
“I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” – Thomas Edison
“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein
“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” – Steve Jobs
“Without work, all life goes rotten, but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.” – Albert Camus
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.” – François-René de Chateaubriand
I know a lot of really, really accomplished people. Some of them approach their work in this way — they play. Others are very methodical, rigid, and systematic. It doesn’t look like play – it is unquestionably work. And it took me a long time to finally realize… I do not function well in the latter group.
I HAVE to approach work as play, otherwise my work sucks. When I tackle a problem with a sense of play – voluntarily because I’m inherently attracted to it – my creativity and optimism and happiness soars. I become fascinated with the world. I fall in love with people. And whoever I’m working with helps me make the game more fun, and our positive energy becomes contagious.
I realized that nearly every important career decision I’d made had been rooted in play. All the cool jobs I got – and the very concept of FREE WORK – ultimately came from me viewing the work as a form of play. They were activities I didn’t need to be rewarded or paid for (even though I was), because they were fun. It didn’t feel like hard work because I got to “play” with cool people, I got to be challenged and learn a ton, and most of the time, it felt like it was just a game I’d made up. And that’s where my best work came from: the belief that I was creating and playing my own game.
Once I saw that I’d forgotten to treat my work as play, I knew what I had to do in order to fix it. It was simply a choice.
When I moved down to Austin, a friend introduced me to his buddy David via email, and suggested we should meet. David replied to me with the usual request: he asked if I wanted to grab coffee. I paused a moment, then wrote back:
“Hey David, good to meet you. This is an irregular request, but you want to meet up at a park and play catch? Haven’t done that in awhile and it’s a lot more stimulating than sitting around and drinking coffee.”
“SURE THING. Playing catch sounds like a f*ing blast! I’ll ping you in a bit and if we can’t do it today, let’s play ball tomorrow!”
And it was a blast. It removed the pressure of us having to talk and impress each other, so we could just focus on the game.
I used to feel a bit nervous on first dates. I had to be “on” for hours at a time. The last date I went on was great — the energy wasn’t uptight at all because we played around the whole time. We ordered whisky Shirley Temples, shot cherry stems through our straws at random people, and cracked jokes about the karaoke singers. There were no attempts to be cool or charming, or thoughts about where this date might take us — it was all about making the moment fun.
That’s how I’m approaching my meetings and dates from now on: what games can we play together?
Life is funny. Back in college, I used to read Tucker Max’s site and think, “What a fun guy.” I’d go out with my friends and drink, and we’d try to create our own crazy stories. Now, Tucker is a close friend. We play homerun derby together every weekend. We come up with fun pranks we can pull. We make inappropriate jokes until we’re doubled-over laughing.
I just finished six weeks of improv classes — three hours every Monday. Every session, I was thrust into situations where I was essentially guaranteed to fail and look foolish. At first, I was nervous and slightly mortified. My heart beat rapidly and I would sweat when I had to perform in front of 15 other people. But by the end of the six weeks, improv became a tremendous source of strength. All of us were there to play, to go with the flow and say “YES” to every possible situation we were thrown into, to cheer each other on and have fun together. We all looked foolish, but we all trusted each other. And that’s how it should be all the time — saying “YES” to every moment, knowing it’s another opportunity for you to embrace life and have fun (Improv, by the way, was the most effective remedy to curing social anxiety that I could have possibly conjured).
I’m signing up for more improv classes. I’m scheduling travel. I’m having fun because I’m making play a priority. And you know what? I feel 100 times better than I ever thought I would. I’m back to my normal self. I love life again. (I’m even writing a book about it)
Play is what we all LOVE to do. Play is where our subconscious naturally guides us. Play is the state where we are truly ourselves, once we let go of our egos and fear of looking stupid. Play immerses us in the moment, where we effortlessly slip into flow. Play allows us to imagine, to create, to bond with and understand each other. Play is what creates our strongest social circles.
And most importantly, play utterly destroys anxiety. Play gets you around other humans, face-to-face, and allows you to form a real connection with them. Play allows you to stop taking your life so damn seriously, so you can start living again.
Life was never supposed to feel so serious or scary in the first place! The people who try to convince you that it has to be that way just aren’t very good at playing. They’ve forgotten what it’s like. So have a laugh, remind them, then go find better playmates. Everyone is looking for someone to have fun with. Go out, create your own games, then get others to join in. Just play.
You don’t need more money. You don’t need more free time. You can always do it. Play is a state of mind – it is a way to approach the world.
It’s only a choice: Anxiety or Play. Take your pick.
“Man is God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games… What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play…” – Plato
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UPDATE: For several months last year, this post was the #1 result on Google for the search “cure anxiety.” More than 100,000 people have read it, and many of them requested more information. So I put together a short book — based on this post — called Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety, which reveals everything I did to conquer my anxiety and return to my normal self (click here for a free chapter).
The book is a step-by-step blueprint for curing your anxiety — quickly, painlessly, without drugs, and without having to spend thousands on therapy. There’s nothing else like it on the market, and it’s been really well-received so far. Here’s a message I received from one of my first readers:
“After reading your book, everything clicked for me… I can’t explain how nice it was to know that someone finally understood AND has solutions to change these feelings… The answers I’ve been searching for and asking doctors about for almost the last 3 years, you were able to summarize in one book.”
I’m also going to be offering a 6-week support group to guide you — step-by-step — through the process of healing your own anxiety. The book is available for sale now (paperback, Kindle, iBooks, and PDF – Audible to come), but you’ll have to wait for the support group to open up (won’t be for at least another month). If you’re interested in the support group, please fill out this form.
Also, you can check out my 8-minute interview with NPR on TED, where I talk about the anxiety I felt after quitting two jobs in a row.
Finally, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter, where I’ll keep you updated on everything I’m working on.
Thanks for reading!