- What is Anxiety?
- What are the Pathways?
- My Approach to Emotional Response Change
- The Methods
- What Next?
- Further Reading
Anxiety is a fear response that has been suppressed for reasons of social presentability.
There is only a handful of “true” animal emotions. Roughly, these are:
- Desire (same pathway as stimulation, engagement, elation, rapture, fascination etc.)
- Rest (tiredness, deep sleep, catatonia — most of what is considered “depression” is on this pathway)
- Fear (this pathway incorporates surprise, shock, terror etc.)
- Loss (incorporating misery, grief, despondency etc.)
- Disgust (literally the emptying of the mouth or stomach; in the human experience this usually pertains to the rejection of concepts or of emotions (they are “distasteful” or “disgusting”). Some of anger is on this pathway, as is some of shame)
- Contentedness (equanimity, “actual” happiness as opposed to lustful or “wanting” happiness (desire), acceptance, deep peace, “heart-warming” (due to vagus nerve activation))
Every other emotional response not included in the above list is a composite emotional response, being made up of two or more of the above pathways, sequentially or simultaneously.
Anxiety is a composite response, and is particularly nasty because it is a fear response compounded by both loss (“losing face”) and rest (“stand down/withdraw”). Fear is an expansive pathway (making your body expand and become erect) whereas loss and rest are contractive pathways, making your body pull down into itself. This conflict leads to extremely tight internal musculature and the well-known “head down” submission pose.
I could talk all day about the core emotional pathways and how they interact to create suffering, but I am saving that for my future post, Basic Emotions, where I will also show you how to separate composite emotions out into single pathways, and also how to switch pathways so you can consciously choose to use more enjoyable and useful pathways in any given situation.
For now, I want to make my main point here extremely clear:
- If you experience an emotional response on a “core” pathway only, suffering is minimal.
For example, when “pure” fear is experienced, there is not much suffering. It is a clear pathway. It is resistance to the fear — the conflict from the other pathways — that causes most of the suffering in anxiety. An example is “worrying what people think of you” — there is a lot going on there. It’s a not a clear pathway.
The pure fear pathway is expansive. It makes the body become erect, wide, and completely mobilized, with the eyes open wide. It looks a bit like this:
Fear is largely a “scanning” state, looking for threats.
One of your options for exiting anxiety extremely quickly is therefore to engage your body on only the fear pathway. To do this, you simply allow the fear pathway to enact the “fear behaviours”: let your eyes become wide, your jaw to drop slightly, your body to become erect and mobilized, and your adrenal glands to engage without suppression. Scan around yourself for threats, exactly “as the fear wants”.
It is an extremely clear, clean, lightheaded state, somewhat like floating. Posture is extremely good in the pure fear state. The reptilian brain/limbic system is totally in control, so you may no longer feel “like you”. If you have ever been in deep shock or terror, you will know that feeling of being somewhat disembodied, and events appearing to happen “to” you — you are in the world but not of it, completely stripped of control and without individuality.
Allowing the fear pathway to take control with no resistance will end anxiety almost instantaneously. It is a low-suffering state. However, the higher brains are almost totally disengaged while this pathway is active, making you almost entirely reactive, non-functional on higher levels (e.g. for socializing), and unable to enjoy any situation.
I am going to give you much better options shortly, but I recommend you practise engaging the pure fear pathway anyway for a week or so. The reasons for this are as follows:
- So you have the choice. If you’re stuck with “just anxiety”, that’s not a choice. Fear isn’t a functional state, but it suffers less than anxiety, so it’s nice to be able to toggle if you want to. Having a choice of emotional pathways to engage in any situation is always preferable to having no choice. Developing a range of pathway choices is a core ingredient of metaprogramming, which is essentially your ability to select responses to any situation as part of your highly customizable human experience.
- So you learn the non-resistance way to experience pathways. Being able to get onto and experience a pure pathway is an invaluable skill. The skill is transferable. It means you will later be able to experience a pure contentedness pathway for example, or a pure desire/engagement pathway. It will help with your concentration meditation, which is essentially a pure desire pathway pointed towards your object with a pure contentedness pathway running in the background. Non-resisted pathways are also essential for good posture, since it is the expansive pathways that make you upright. Pure pathways, whichever they may be, tend to give a very clear mind with minimal or no verbal thoughts.
- So you master the territory. Buddhist systems, e.g. the Theravadan Map, contain “stages of insight” you must pass through (master) to reach enlightenment. Many of these stages correlate directly with what I am calling “core emotional pathways” in this post — for example, contentedness equates with the Equanimity stage in Theravada, tiredness with Dissolution, loss with Misery, desire with The Arising & Passing Away, fear with Fear, disgust with Disgust, and so forth. These maps can essentially be seen as a challenge to you to learn to experience each core emotional pathway in its purest form wherefore it causes you the least suffering. If you know you can experience fear without suffering for example — because you have mastered the territory — you will never fear fear again and therefore you will have the choice to avoid composite emotions concerning fear. Enlightenment in this sense can simply be seen as the total mastery of all emotional pathways, to the degree that they flow from one to the next without resistance and therefore without suffering. I will be writing more about emotions and their relationships with various spiritual maps in my Basic Emotions post.
I first noticed the pure fear response and its ability to exit the conflicted anxiety state a few years ago at airports. I do a fair bit of flying and, at the time, the knowledge that I was about to be whisked around the world in a metal tube thousands of feet in the air induced a completely involuntary fear response which always started the night before the flight. I also didn’t like crowds of people, so an airport was basically my idea of hell. On one particular trip I was trying to check in at the airport and was experiencing my usual massive anxiety while simultaneously trying my hardest to look cool and in control, like Snoopy in shades. I was completely fed up of experiencing this rigmarole at this point and began to investigate the source of my muscle tension. I quickly found, to my surprise, that it was actually the resistance to the fear — via my efforts to maintain a certain public appearance — that was the source of most of my tension. I looked around, realized that I didn’t know anybody there and would never see any of these people again, and let my eyes grow wide and allowed the fear response to dominate completely. A weight quickly lifted from my shoulders and my posture began to become extremely straight and light. My main concern about maintaining this state was that I might look like a wild-eyed weirdo to onlookers (not to mention airport security). I went and checked how I looked in the mirror and, while I didn’t look great, my own perception of how insane my face would look was grossly overstated. I decided that, for the sake of reducing tension and suffering, choosing to experience pure fear was actually a valid choice I could add to my tool bag.
By the time I got on the plane I was completely exhausted and exited into a kind of comfortable numbness, at which point I didn’t care at all about the takeoff or anything else on the flight. Fear is a high-cost state which cannot be maintained for very long, and it always exits into a mixture of the rest and contentedness pathways, probably due to opioid release (also known as endorphins). The extreme form of this state is the numbness following shock.
By the time my next plane journey rolled around, my worry about both the flight and the crowds at the airport had diminished tangibly. It seems that experiencing pure pathways which don’t result in actual injury work far quicker to imprint a “safe” flag for that situation the next time around. In all the years prior to this, the conflicted anxiety state, with the interminable internal chatter, had been derailing the learning process. Conflicted states rarely lead to a satisfactory outcome. By the time of the flight after that, my fear was negligible. I now even enjoy a full night’s sleep before flights, these days.
I am about to give you some far better alternatives to the fear pathway, which utilize more enjoyable and functional pathways from the outset, but first I want to talk about the social aspects of anxiety which I just touched on.
During the airport experience I noticed that the majority of my tension came from suppressing my own fear in order to maintain an outward appearance of calm. This led me to the realization that the majority of our internal conflicts come from our obsession with how others perceive us. Of course we do not want to exhibit a pure fear pathway, because “fear equals weakness”. Additionally, mobilizing your body in an upright pose is one sure-fire way to get noticed. Humans are extremely attuned to each other’s emotional states, so being openly fearful puts everyone else on edge, too. So the tendency is, when feeling fear in sight of other people, to “keep your head down” which leads to the shoulders-hunched submission pose. When a source of fear is not sought externally in the environment via the eyes-wide fear pathway, the source of fear is instead sought within and becomes looping, paranoid thoughts. I covered that spectrum in the following post: Fear, Paranoia and Psychosis.
There are alternative postures people adopt to mask their own fear, too, such as the exaggerated “big body language” adopted by swaggering chavs and tough guys to convince others that the experience of fear is totally absent from their repertoire. Make no mistake: these people are in fear, too, and at an internal level they are just as tense and conflicted as those who adopt the anxiety strategy.
It’s all social. These fear-suppression strategies are for the benefit of others. They are all part of the huge guessing game we undertake whereby we try to mask true internal state via different outward behaviours in order to try to establish an “optimal” public appearance. This exercise in PR is known colloquially as “ego”, and one of the greatest roadblocks in personal development arises when, through repetition of such duplicity, one begins to believe their own press.
Social fear-suppression strategies are also predicated on the assumption that there should be some level of social fear in any interaction, which must be compensated for. This is all part of the “ranking” game most humans are hopelessly embroiled in. There is an implicit assumption that one may be cast out of the tribe at any moment, or otherwise have their rank demoted, and this is reflected in an ongoing activation of the fear pathway to varying degrees depending upon the individual and the circumstance. Strategies for compensating for that fear might include buying the right pair of shoes, speaking in a certain accent, telling lies about your achievements, being anxious, or acting like a tough guy.
Yet, we probably all know at least one person, be it a friend or acquaintance, who is so settled on the contentedness pathway that fear and its attached compensations are rarely active. These people are “free to be themselves” and therefore enjoy a life unencumbered by fear and its myriad compensations. Most visibly, they appear “comfortable in their own skin”, a nice piece of folk wisdom reflecting relaxed muscles and fascia. The only difference between that person and you is that you are “doing fear” and they are “doing contentedness”. They’re just on the other pathway, and to be like them you have to join them on that pathway. There is no choice. You cannot “work with your fear” or “work through your fear” in some modern psychobabble sense. In fact, you can’t “work with” any unwanted emotion. You just have to turn off that pathway and turn on a better one.
The pathways are literal lines in the body, made of fascia (connective tissue) containing nerves. They extend from the crown of the head down to the toes. To see some of these lines, look up Thomas Myers’ myofascial meridians to see how these lines connect various muscle groups. However, you also need to envision these same lines connecting into the endocrine system to provide a matching hormonal response (e.g. adrenaline, opioids etc.) as well as muscle activation or relaxation for any given emotional state.
I haven’t mapped all the pathways, and don’t particularly intend to because it’s irrelevant: contentedness is really all you need for a happy life. However, I will give rough descriptions of the contentedness and fear pathways now, which I’m just throwing together on the fly as they are relevant to this article. (These are not detailed descriptions and will miss out a ton of stuff.)
The fear pathway connects the eyes, the adrenal glands, the abdominal muscles and the limbs. An activation of this pathway will result in the eyes becoming wide, limbs mobilized for action, posture becoming erect, a huge decrease in higher brain function and a huge increase in sensory sensitivity and impulsive actions. These are all physiological responses associated with the fight-or-flight response — the sympathetic nervous system.
The contentedness pathway does practically the opposite. The eyes become soft and slightly closed and the mouth smiles gently, using the muscles around the eyes. This is an activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Heart rate drops and a “warmth” is felt in the chest, which is the vagus nerve turning on. (You must make a note of this now because vagus nerve activation is how you enjoy life). Posture is still tall, but the muscles are relaxed — so it is a gentle rise upward, rather than the bolt-upright fear pose. Higher brain function is turned on, and the scene opens up into a soft, fairytale-like panorama. This is a kind of “rose-tinted spectacles” state. Body language, rather than being assertive as it is with fear, becomes open and inviting. This state feels “vulnerable” for this reason, which is probably why so many people do not allow themselves to feel it very often, particularly around other people (and hence why they miss out on much of the enjoyment to be experienced in life). Someone with the contentedness pathway active will appear to have a “glow” and others will be drawn to them strongly on a deep unconscious level. I remember when I first took MDMA, which hugely activates this pathway, that people were just coming up and hugging me. Those “comfortable in their own skin” tend to get given things without really trying because people want to have some of that contentedness rub off on them.
When you look at relative levels of success, life enjoyment and satisfaction in an individual, you will find that they correlate positively with the level of activation of the contentedness pathway and negatively with the fear pathway. This is also why many spiritual systems teach that each action stems from one essential choice: fear or love.
One remarkable thing about the pathways, and which makes them so usable as a behavioural change model, is that you can activate them simply by thinking about them. You already do this unconsciously: your thoughts themselves can be seen as sequential, causal activations of different pathways in rapid succession.
An example of a conscious activation of a pathway is to stand up, clench your jaw very lightly, and simply focus on the crown of your head while breathing normally. Soon you should feel your head begin to rise up, other muscles begin to move upward, and your posture becoming completely straight by itself. As long as you maintain focus on the crown of your head, your posture will continue to improve as though on some strange “auto-correct” program. Physiologically, focusing on the crown of the head appears to send electrical impulses (which I call “current”) down your spine, which mobilizes your muscles into an upright pose. This may well utilize the superficial back line from Thomas Myers’ myofascial meridians:
The “stand upright” pathway I just described is used by many emotional states, and is also the reason why old folk remedies for achieving good posture are so effective, such as, “Imagine a string attached to the top of your head which is always pulling you up”. After I wrote my Basic Concentration Meditation guide, I received many excited comments and emails from people who had found their posture magically becoming upright “by itself” when focusing on something in the vicinity of their head.
The more you use each pathway, the more inclined it is to be used in future. If you are an anxious person, you have been practising sending current through the pathways associated with anxiety for a long time. Nerves very much follow the rule of “use it or lose it”. If you use one pathway a lot in a given situation, that pathway becomes very accessible in that situation (and, indeed, in other situations!) while other, perhaps preferential pathways become harder and harder to turn on. In a sense, those other pathways “fall off the map”. However, those nerves are still there and are able to be turned back on, and method #5, Smile Meditation Reimprinting, in the Methods list later in this post, will show you directly how to retrain the contentedness pathway and learn to turn it back on at will.
Once you have bought into the idea that your “personality” can be modelled largely as just a collection of nerve pathways which turn on or off in different ratios in different situations, it becomes quite straightforward to begin retraining what turns on and when, in order to customize your experience of practically any situation of your choosing. This ability is known as metaprogramming. The more entrenched you are in your personal story, however — the idea that “I am like this”, or “This is who I am” — the more resistance there will be to such reconfiguration. This is why in practically any system of spiritual or personal development, the ego must always be first for the chopping block.
If you can get over yourself, however, the pathways are indeed quite easy to use, and all my best “anxiety wipe” techniques which use manipulation of these pathways will be shared at the end of this guide. Firstly however, I would like to talk briefly about my general approach towards deep-level change of emotional responses such as anxiety.
When it comes to changing emotional responses such as anxiety at a deep level, I tend to work almost exclusively with the body. An example of this is using the pathways discussed earlier to create a direct change in physiology while circumventing other (perhaps contradictory) thought processes.
The opposite of the body approach might be called “mind work”. Mind work tends to make the mind “prime”, and treats it as a kind of central computer with thoughts and beliefs as “programs” which run and send their outputs to the body in the form of responses. The body is relegated to a kind of “output device” and the hope is that, if you can just get everything straight in your head, the body will eventually do what you want it to do.
Examples of solo mind work might be journalling (self-tracking), reading lots of psych theory, forums and self-help books, and having a ruddy good think about things to try and figure it all out.
Examples of group mind work might be working with a therapist or counsellor, talking things through with family or friends, meeting with a support group, or discussing issues on an online forum.
I do not discredit any of these things. They all have their place, and mind work, when done correctly, is an essential part of determining general themes in behaviour and therefore possible changes in long-term strategy (“approach to life”). However, my suspicion is that the mind gets too much focus in personal development work, and tends to have some major pitfalls and limitations. I will briefly outline these now.
A major pitfall of mind work is that one of the mind’s major (yet hidden) functions appears to be as a justification tool — a “story writer” which attempts to explain the body’s actions and responses in retrospect, and to predict them going forward to form a kind of consistent personal narrative. Via this story-writing, a sense of “You” is created and maintained. One of the mind’s main functions appears to be to rationalize away one’s shortcomings. The mind also resists challenges to this personal narrative, since any doubts cast on elements of its story would require a re-evaluation (and possible rewrite) of the entire story so far. It just doesn’t want to do this. This story-writing, the sense of self that results, and the defence mechanisms the mind uses to protect that sense of self are, together, one of the many definitions of “ego”.
A corollary of the mind’s story-writing habit is that, when self-analysing something such as anxiety, humans tend to become obsessed with the why behind behaviour. They look for things like “root causes”. This makes sense, since they are trying to fill in gaps in a linear narrative (a self-concocted one, albeit). In my experience, having been through these processes myself, and worked with many other people over on the old forum and via my Skype coaching, and having just talked to a hell of a lot of people about their problems in my everyday life, is that those “reasons” you “discover” as to why you get anxious in X situation are almost certainly total fabrications. It would take the omniscience of a god to know the real reasons behind behaviour and, in lieu of such information, the mind just makes something up then treats it like fact, and slots in into the personal story to fill in the gap.
Those are some of the pitfalls of mind work. Now, to discuss the biggest limitation of using just mind work for something like anxiety.
Let’s say you luck out and get the exact reasons why you become anxious in X situation. Now let’s say you figure out the perfect strategy going forward of how you should “be” instead in that situation.
How does any of this knowledge change your actual physical body’s responses during those situations?
How is any of that knowledge going to suddenly get you to start regularly turning on the contentedness pathway, via deliberate training, in situations which severely bother you, in order to reimprint those responses permanently?
In my view, you cannot work “with” anxiety emotions. Instead, you have to do something completely different, and that is what the methods at the end of this guide will show you, without ambiguity, how to do. The reasons — the “stories” behind the old pathways — are, in practice, irrelevant. Just do the new pathway.
And that is my main gripe with “just mind work”.
My main gripe with “just body work” is that, without analysis of life strategy and circumstance — e.g. living in some horrible town, or working some unfulfilling job, or being surrounded by negative people — those life situations will continue to repeat, meaning retraining the body’s pathways to the positive ones will necessarily become ongoing and cyclical. However, there is always going to be some element of that need for body recovery, retraining, and reconnecting with gratitude and contentedness however good your situation, and this constant retraining of the body towards such states is the main premise behind a regular meditation practice anyway.
Put it like this. I read a million sources on anxiety and tried a dozen drugs. At the end of the day, the 5 simple methods at the end of this post killed my anxiety within a matter of days. That’s why I endorse a body-first approach to anxiety, and generally look unfavourably on “just” mind work, and some of the bizarre theories that get made up about anxiety.
The next crucial part of my approach you need to understand is that emotions and the literal shape of your body — which I will call “form” going forward — have a 1:1 relationship. They are not just two sides of the same coin — they are literally the same thing. You will never meet someone standing tall with a soft, content, beaming smile, saying, “I feel so depressed right now.” Nor will you ever find someone standing tall, radiating love and kindness, saying, “I feel anxious.” These things just don’t happen. Someone might stand tall and proud and say “I am depressed” but they will be visibly dead behind the eyes. Emotion and form are the same thing. Even the most accomplished actor and liar will have “tells”. Most of us however are just walking transmitters of our internal state.
So, when I say I deal almost exclusively with the body, I am talking about ongoing training of the body into shapes and forms which utilize the pathways we want to experience. Contentedness for example is a relaxed upright, open posture, with the vagus nerve turned on (warmth in the chest). There are neurophysiological events going on such as the release of serotonin and endogenous opioids to support the mental state consistent with the shape of the body, and these events are also part of the physical form of the body as glands are pumping, molecules are being released, and nerves are signalling. The form of the body is the emotion.
So, the quickest way out of anxiety and into contentedness is to let the muscles relax which are currently impeding the contentedness pathway, such as the tightness in the shoulders and neck. Simultaneously, smile genuinely with the eyes, which turns on the vagus nerve. Heart rate lowers, opioids and serotonin begin to fill the central nervous system, and one’s perceptions of reality change completely in a matter of seconds from a “scan for threats” mode to an open, friendly, rose-tinted contentedness mode.
When first starting out, do you think your body is going to want to do this? Hell no! It has been practising curling into a ball on command for many years and we are creatures of habit.
And in steps the mind, with its myriad reasons and stories, written on the fly, as to why you cannot allow your form to change. It is entrenched in its “withdraw” script and will come up with any reason as to why it is not safe to demonstrate a contented form in that environment.
Conversely, the mind will also have a list of reasons which will allow it to spontaneously switch pathways to more enjoyable ones (and therefore your physical form to become bolder and more open), such as sudden adoration from the crowd, or being shown signs of blatant attraction from a sexual prospect. The list of conditions which allow or outright ban the switching of pathways (and thus physical form) will all be consistent with your personal narrative, and will be slightly different for everybody.
Luckily, with practice, this “conditions list” can be completely ignored in the moment and these form-changes can be enacted quicker and with less interference. Even better, much of this practice can be done at home to make such changes infinitely easier when the time comes to do it out there in “real life”. When you reach the point whereby the new form (e.g. the contentedness pathway) is dominant and default, you can say you have successfully reimprinted that emotional response.
In terms of actual practice, when I say I work exclusively with the body, I mean it. I ignore the mind completely and continue diligently relaxing muscles, continuing to smile, and letting the form change complete. Everything the mind has to say at this point is just going to get in the way, and must be totally ignored. Once the form change has completed, the mind — like magic — will now say things like, “She looks nice!” or, “This is cool!”, or “That looks interesting, let’s go and take a look!”
The mind is such a slave to the body’s form that to work with the mind at the moment of practice is, in my view, completely ass-backwards. No amount of “talk therapy”, or reading self-help guides, or whatever else it is you do, is going to get you to change your form when the moment comes. You simply have to do it. Luckily, a lot of these changes in form can be practised at home, making them far easier to segue into when the moment comes out there in real life.
[Edit, 13th August 2015: Reader Happy_Hilary kindly outlined the methods of Alba Emoting, a technique actors used to induce emotional states by directly altering their form. This is a good example of usage of the various pathways. Click here to read his comment.]
These methods will progress in ascending order of:
- Short-termness (“quick fixes”)
- Similarity to your current mode (fear-based pathways), progressing to more joyful pathways
So the final method will be based on long-term practice to have you reimprint joyful responses (contentedness and desire) which are far different from your current mode (fear, withdrawal, loss).
When you are out and about, in social situations, perhaps talking to someone, and you begin to feel anxious, immediately begin thinking about your legs, from the knee to where they connect to your pelvis. Keep your awareness here.
This area is part of a pathway of resilience or defiance. In folk wisdom, this is called “standing firm”. It means you do not move from your position when you sense it is under attack (and much of anxiety is about feeling under attack). The reason you feel under attack is often irrational and irrelevant. Remember, as described earlier in the Pathways section, these pathways connect into your mind and your endocrine system. If you put one part of the pathway in your awareness, the whole pathway turns on. Standing firm in your legs, stands you firm in your mind and emotions.
If it helps, you can imagine feeling electrical current flowing between your knee and and your pelvis.
This is a ridiculously easy and effective method which, for me, ended all anxiety immediately and in the future.
As explained earlier, form is emotional state. If a certain muscle on the fear pathway is tensed, that tension is fear. I have noticed that the psoas muscles seem to be particularly tense on the fear pathway. In anxiety, the shoulders also tend to hunch and the neck becomes very tense. There is also all sorts of stuff going on in the midsection, too.
Since emotion is form, relaxing those muscles will change emotional state. In the contentedness pathway, these muscles are not tensed. The problem is, most people cannot relax most muscles at will and their sudden tension is part of an involuntary response. Learning to relax specific muscles at will is therefore an essential part of metaprogramming. Here is how to begin learning to relax any muscle at will.
Part 1: “Falling” All Muscles While Lying Down
This is to be practised at home until a good level of control is achieved, then practised out “in the field” — a LOT. This needs to become a relaxation response you can enact at will, regardless of situation.
- Lie down on the ground and begin breathing regularly, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- On one of the out-breaths, breathe slowly out through the mouth while imagining you are falling. The idea is to try to get every muscle in your body to relax simultaneously, like you have just been thrown out of an aeroplane. Many of my readers have reported something similar happening during meditation anyway, and have described it as a “paralysing wave”. You are aiming to have a paralysing wave pass through every muscle in your body during the out-breath. If you get involuntary shaking, tremors or muscle contraction during this process, breathe through it and generally ignore it. Try to have it relax on the next pass.
You want to repeat this process a few times per practice session, noticing which muscles didn’t relax on the first pass and then trying to include them in the next “fall”. Your aim is to practise this to the point whereby you can have the paralysing wave pass through every muscle at will.
This practice feels very euphoric. You may feel light-headed and in a fantastic mood afterwards. If you have your eyes closed, you might find your visual field “lights up” (becomes brighter). This is a miniature version of the kind of “high” skydivers get after a jump.
You might find that you spontaneously enter REM (rapid eye movement) while “falling”. Make a mental note of this, as we will be using REM in another method later.
Practise “falling” daily till you can command all your muscles to relax at will.
Part 2: “Falling” All Muscles While Standing Up
Once you have mastered the above, your job now is to learn to “fall” all muscles while standing up (and not falling over).
Start off by standing up and “falling” all muscles simultaneously like you did in the first exercise. The muscles required for standing will tend to stay engaged automatically in order that you don’t fall over. If you are worried about this however, maybe you should try this on a soft carpet or gym mat to begin with.
(Side note: I have really good posture, with an almost perfectly aligned centre of gravity from head to feet, so I can actually relax all my muscles simultaneously and not fall over. In fact, in this state, you can tap me and I will lightly sway around this central axis. Unless you have trained your posture like I have, you will likely find many muscles need to stay engaged to keep you upright. I believe the necessity of this extra engagement is part of the extra “emotional loading” people feel in their lives, since form is emotion, as explained earlier — but that’s a subject for a different post. In short, the better and more natural your posture, the fewer muscles you will have engaged while standing and walking anyway, and the less “heavy” you will feel emotionally.)
Now, you want to practise falling all muscles while standing up because you can literally use this “hack” to wipe any tension-based emotional state — like anxiety — in real time, whenever you want. So, let’s say you walk into some situation which immediately makes you feel tense. You can just “fall” all your muscles and the anxiety state will be wiped. If it comes back later, just wipe it again. You can repeat this indefinitely. Due to the euphoria of the “falling”, this also introduces a really good mood.
Part 3: “Falling” Specific Muscles
Part 2, above, is going to handle most things related to anxiety. Learning to “fall” specific muscles however is important for taking metaprogramming to the next level. With anxiety, for example, you might find that there are just a few specific muscles which really tighten up, and you might want to learn just to “fall” those muscles.
I encourage you to develop mastery over every single muscle in your entire body because this skill is essential in learning other parts of metaprogramming such as posture correction, and advanced manipulation of your own emotional state (since emotions are largely enacted via muscle tension patterns, as all muscles are part of some pathway or other).
For those of you into stretching or yoga, I also want you to notice that a muscle is far easier to stretch back to its standard, correct length once it has been consciously relaxed in this way. You can learn to relax it, keep it relaxed, then stretch it fully using other muscles or a yoga pose.
In this method, you simply enter REM and wait for anxiety to subside.
Rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep, REMS) is a unique phase of mammalian sleep characterized by random movement of the eyes, low muscle tone throughout the body, and the propensity of the sleeper to dream vividly.
(The emphasis on “low muscle tone throughout the body” is mine. Noticing a pattern yet?)
In this method, you do not actually go to sleep (duh). You can however enter REM at will, while conscious, and we can use this to do all sorts of tricks, as REM is a hack for entering the right brain.
You will hopefully have noticed that you enter REM during the falling exercise in method #2, “Fall” Muscles, above. Also, if you pay attention while yawning, you will also notice you enter REM during the in-breath of the yawn.
What I want you to do is to learn to enter REM at will, while conscious. There is no special trick for this — just assume you can, then do it.
[Edit, 13th August 2015: Some readers had difficulty getting REM. To get REM at will, roll your eyes back in their sockets and “open your ears” like you do when you yawn, so you can lightly hear the sound of air rushing in them.]
Now, here is a strange method for wiping anxiety using REM. When you enter a situation in which your anxiety arises, you can simply enter REM and just wait. After some time, which depends upon things like the strangeness of the situation, how anxious you are, and so forth, you can come out of REM and the anxiety will be gone. In fact, I usually have this little “feeling” which tells me the anxiety has been dealt with, and that I can stop doing REM.
I don’t know why this works, so I will now make up some bullshit theory.
Let’s say the whole situation is a 100MB data file. The right brain is a high-speed fibre broadband connection which downloads the whole lot quickly, but doesn’t inspect any of the file: it just says “yes” to it all.
The left brain on the other hand is like a 28.8Kb modem which has to “parse” the entire file, saying “yes” or “no” to each bit (the bits it does or doesn’t like). Does this sound familiar? “I don’t like the look of him. The music’s too loud. These drinks are too expensive. Is my body language right?”
We can posit many reasons why the left brain is dominant in humans, but the one that is most palatable for the most people is that we are trained early into verbal language and thus thinking in words (left hemisphere) and that the education system is almost entirely an exercise in left-brain training. According to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, the reason some people use the right brain for some tasks and the left brain for others is that, during their development, when first being faced with a task, one of the brains simply got there first. Anxious people tend to be throwing a lot of left-brain attention at analysing a situation in words where a right-brain “bigger picture” view would be better. You can perceive this left-brain attention as “racing thoughts”.
REM is a direct access to the right hemisphere. You literally cannot think in words while in REM (try it).
REM in public also makes you look insane, so feel free to excuse yourself to the toilet while the program completes. I don’t offer what’s pretty; I offer what works.
An REM program of 1 minute or longer is not uncommon, though I have mine down sometimes to 20 seconds. Remember to breathe regularly while in REM. If you feel “current” passing through your body (especially while breathing in), and a tendency to want to yawn, allow those things to happen as they wish.
If you drift into verbal thought (thinking in words) during this process, you are not in REM. Go back into REM till the cycle completes. I generally feel like a “mode switch” has occurred once the cycle has completed. It’s almost as if the right brain has said, “Ah, okay. Situation understood. Proceed.”
I can use REM and “falling muscles” (method #2) together to quickly wipe an anxiety state in real time — i.e. in less than 1 second, or in a single “drop” — while in public, even while talking to someone.
I can also use REM at any time to break up anxious thoughts. Let’s say I’m at home, worrying about something that I know is already being taken care of (and that is therefore completely pointless to be anxious about). I will enter REM while breathing regularly (letting my body breathe “how it wants”). I will notice that while breathing in REM, the “breath wave” seems to pass through smoothly and “break up” the muscle tension patterns in the body that are both the cause and effect of anxiety (i.e. the 1:1 relationship between body form and emotion discussed earlier). The muscle tone lowers, and the anxiety disappears with it.
Have you ever met someone who just doesn’t give a fuck? Annoying, isn’t it.
There is a space just behind your eyeballs, then up a bit. If you stay in there, you won’t give a fuck about anything.
If you start giving a fuck, then notice how you are no longer in that headspace, and are now probably talking to yourself in words. Go back into that headspace if you don’t want to give a fuck again.
Excited emails and comments followed when I first mentioned this headspace, mentioning how entire body posture also spontaneously improved into the upright position. If you go back and look at the picture of the superficial back line, you will find that this headspace is indeed on this line, at the front of the head, shaded solid blue in the top-right diagram — hence the reason for sudden postural improvement when entering this headspace. I believe this effect is also the origin of the folk phrase, “hard-headed”.
This is the one you actually want to be following in the long term.
Activation of the vagus nerve is synonymous with enjoyment of a situation. It is also a cornerstone of the contentedness pathway. A genuine smile using the orbicularis oculi (eye) muscles, rather than a forced grin which only uses the mouth muscles, opens up the chest and turns on the vague nerve. (Interesting links: What Science Has to Say About Genuine vs. Fake Smiles | 3 Easy Ways To Spot Genuine & Fake Smiles) Smile warmly and genuinely now and try and find that warm, steady buzz in the chest. It amplifies when you breathe in and gives a nice “Ahhhhh!” vocalization when you breathe out. The folk saying for this is “heart-warming”. If your vagus nerve is not turned on, you’re in some other pathway, and it’s probably not one of the good ones.
To really, truly abandon anxiety, you must diligently train the contentedness pathway, and by definition this includes ongoing vagus nerve activation. You will be practising this method every day at home. Most importantly, you will then be going out and practising it in every situation that causes you anxiety, until you have completely reimprinted your default state to contentedness.
(Please note that this is the same method featured in my Simple Reimprinting guide, with some slight tweaks for the subject of anxiety.)
1. Lie down and use whatever meditation or relaxation technique you know will relax you. Progressively relax each part of your body, working your way up — e.g. left leg, right leg, torso, arms, head etc. You are aiming to “lose” the limb, then repeat on every other body area till you’re “disembodied”. The best way I found to get this working is to think about inputs going into the leg but it not responding. So, when you get the urge to fidget for example, just imagine that that input is trying to go into the body part that wants to fidget but it is not responding. This lets me “lose” a body part quite quickly. Spend about 10 minutes, or however long it takes to get the whole body reasonably numb. Don’t get too caught up on this point; the more numb the better, but just do your best.
2. Visualize a situation that ordinarily causes you anxiety (or bothers you in some other way — this method is universal), and for which you would like to reimprint your emotional response. At this point, the old emotional patterns will be firing, but the body will not be responding very much as you have largely removed it from the feedback loop (I personally believe this is also how ketamine therapy works). Just ignore completely any of the old emotional responses; you cannot work with them, and they should be totally disregarded. Instead, get the warmest, softest, most genuine smile you can on your face. Try and feel warmth in your heart (this is the vagus nerve). Imagine that what you are looking at is really quite beautiful. Continue to visualize the situation that ordinarily bothers you, while keeping this warm smile and the warmth in your heart, and breathe slowly and regularly several times (breathing “locks in” the new state, and is akin to the magnetic head on a hard disk drive writing data to the drive). Repetition is key and you should practise this daily, for several minutes per situation, and also practise on a variety of situations in your mind as this broadly reimprints the new habit. The more variety in situations you visualize, the broader and more far-reaching the new imprint will be. Just doing this exercise alone at home will begin to change your responses going forward, “out there” in the real world.
3. However, here is where the magick really happens. Next time you are in that situation in real life, purposefully trigger this contented state you have been practising. So, begin smiling the genuine smile which uses the eye muscles as well as the mouth. Let your face become soft and completely content. Get the warmth in your chest. Allow yourself to breathe slowly and naturally. Let warm energy flow through your body, all the way into your limbs, with every breath. You will be surprised how quickly you settle into this new state.
This step above is where the real lock-in occurs. This is where the practice sessions match up with the real-life version and everything gets “written to your hard disk” as your new emotional response for that situation. Stay in that situation, letting the state continue to permeate, for as long as you can.
This first pass will alleviate something like 50% of the anxiety of that situation for the next time. The next time you come across this situation or a similar one, you will perform the exact same process. After that second pass, that situation will probably never bother you again. If there is some residual anxiety, simply keep repeating the process. After all, the end result is that you will be “doing” contentedness — the exact process I have just described — for every situation, anyway. So, in reality, you will constantly be doing this process. You will constantly be doing contentedness. The difference is, after about the third pass, you won’t even have to think about it any more. It will become your default response, and you can now say you have reimprinted that response.
Now, during that first pass, there may be an element of your having to “force” the new smile state at first, and this discomfort may last a few minutes. However, you absolutely must push through and enforce the new state, intentionally generating that warmth in your heart, relaxing and smiling, for the reimprint to complete. The more times through the situation, the less effort is required, and the new state will become default.
This method is so simple, yet so effective. Repetition and practice are key. The more you do it, the better you get, and the faster you can reimprint your responses going forward. This is also literally practising being happy. The problem with the chronically anxious is that they are literally practising being anxious. Pills aren’t going to make you practise being happy — you actually have to practise being happy, and this is how to do it.
You can also experiment with changing the type of smile to get a different emotional “mode”. For example, for reimprinting socializing, you may want to practise cultivating a more engaged smile. To do this, I get the warmth in my chest and face but also add some bright-eyedness to it, as though what I’m looking at really interests me.
For most things concerning changing emotional responses, the method I have just described to you is really all you need. It should be practised every day, and most Buddhist meditation systems can, on at least some level, be viewed as a variant of the above.
I’ve given you quick fixes, and I’ve given you a long-term practice to cultivate. Ultimately, changing anxiety to contentment and happiness is not about pills, personal narratives, or “working with anxiety”. It is about doing something completely different — period. It is about actively practising contentment and happiness, in situations where ordinarily you would be activating some other unenjoyable pathway out of sheer habit. Break the cycle, and turn on the good pathways.
If you can abandon all your stories, then practise good form — both at home and then while out — you can say goodbye to anxiety surprisingly quickly.
This entire guide has simply been about switching from the anxiety pathways to the contentedness ones so you can do something far better and more enjoyable with your time. In my experience, for that goal, the techniques here are literally all you need.
This guide has not been about anything else. I haven’t covered life-planning, the “why”s of anxiety, or finding preferable people and situations where anxiety is less of a burden anyway. Fear and anxiety are supposed to be early warning systems to help you make decisions about whether you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This guide has been about resetting hyper-anxious people to some sort of baseline whereby such distinctions can be made from a less reactionary place.
I also haven’t covered improving your social skills, increasing your confidence, learning to find a sexual partner, increasing your cold-call sales ratios, or any other corollary reason for why you wanted to reduce your anxiety in the first place. What you choose to do with your lowered anxiety baseline is now completely up to you, and there are plenty of guides out there to help you achieve those goals. I am probably not the guy to ask about most of that, anyway.
I’m self-employed, and have to take time away from paid client work to write these guides.
When deciding whether to donate, I recommend you try the techs for a few weeks first and keep a journal of the results. That will give you an idea of which ones work best for you.
Treat this guide as a “try before you buy” e-book. If, after a couple of weeks, you decide, “Hey, this stuff is really working! This could really change my life!”, come back to this page and send some thanks via a donation.
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Alba Emoting. A method for direct manipulation of the pathways discussed in this guide. It is taught to actors in order that they can induce specific emotional states at will. That link contains a YouTube video – Alba Emoting for Actors.
Alba Emoting & Joy-Laughter Reimprinting. My article describing how to recondition the body towards joy-laughter. The joy-laughter pathway combined with contentedness is the perfect state for socializing. This Basic Anxiety guide did not cover social states, so this article is its perfect partner.