Trying the Five-Second Rule for Anxiety

Recently I read Mel Robbins’ “The 5 Second Rule“, and there was a very interesting part in there about anxiety and panic attacks. Robbins has struggled with anxiety, panic, and a fear of flying for decades, but she claims in her book that the five-second rule helped her conquer her fear of flying and come off of medication.

I was intrigued, particularly when she mentioned a very key point. To our bodies, physiologically speaking, excitement and fear are the same things. I knew this from experience, having felt the excitement that quickly turned to fear because my brain associated those feelings instantly with panic, not happiness. You sweat, your heart races, you become hyper-aware – this state of the body can describe fear or excitement. Our body reacts in the same way. The only difference? Our brains. It’s what our brains are thinking that differentiates these feelings. If we have a context for the shaking and sweating as being psyched for something, our brains back off and we’re okay. But if our brains see something to be fearful of, or don’t have a context (as in a panic attack), the brain will escalate the feeling and send us into fight, freeze, or flight mode in order to protect us.

Since I struggle with anxiety, and particularly with confusing the feelings of excitement and fear in my body, I decided to try out the five-second rule to see how it might help. For one month, I used the 5-second rule to re-direct my thoughts and help my body recognize what it was feeling.

How It Works

The idea goes like this. When you’re about to give a speech, make a sale, call a date, or do anything that makes you nervous, tell yourself, “I’m excited.” Give your brain context about what it’s feeling that doesn’t risk escalating the feeling into panic.

I wanted to try this also with panic attacks, because those generally happen without any context at all. Using the related idea of anchor thoughts, I decided that on any given day, should I have a panic attack, I would help my brain contextualize the sudden rush of adrenaline by telling myself I was excited about something. One week it might be the crafting project, another it might be NaNoWriMo, another my next D&D session. But by doing that, I wanted to see if I could actually de-escalate my panic attacks and get through them more calmly than normal.


I am happy to report that the experiment worked. I was a bit skeptical, to be honest, because it’s something so basic and simple it seems like someone, somewhere, would have come up with it before.

But the idea works because it is so simple.

Unfortunately for the experiment, though fortunately for my health, I didn’t have any panic attacks this past month, so I didn’t get to try it out in that state.

I did get to try it out with my worrying. I have a bad habit of worrying all the time, so I used the five-second rule any time I caught myself ruminating on mistakes, thinking of what might go wrong in the future, or general anxiety over what was happening in the present.

When I caught myself, I thought “5-4-3-2-1” and pulled my thoughts away to something else. I had several anchor thoughts; my novel, my next D&D session, how awesome it would feel to be a published author or a book I was reading.

I also added visualization, which was a powerful element. Robbins had mentioned in one of her talks that the act of counting backward moves us from our irrational brain to our prefrontal cortex, a kind of half-circle around the head. It engages that area which literally interrupts our thoughts, short-circuiting the loop of anxiety.

I pictured the numbers as points around my head, and my thoughts literally moving from the back to the front as I counted down. It was so powerful it was honestly surprising.

Overall, I can say that the technique does work. I had just as many anxious and worrisome thoughts as I normally did, but I felt more in control of them, and they didn’t run away with me as often as before.

If you struggle with fear, anxiety, worry or depression, I suggest reading Robbins’ book and trying it out for yourself.



Setting Boundaries for People with Anxiety


A while back I wrote a review for the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. I love the book, and have seen it quoted in vast numbers of self-help books and articles.  Boundaries are important for everyone. Across the board, no exceptions. Everyone.

I would like to say “especially for people with anxiety”, but that’s not true. Especially for everyone.

I think most of the problems in our lives stem from boundary problems. Not being clear on them, even if you do have them, or letting them be repeatedly crossed, or not having them in the first place.

I fell into the third category. I didn’t really have any concept of boundaries as a real, vital thing until I read the book.

Imagine that most humans are supposed to have a third arm and not realizing it until you read a book. It was kind of that feeling. Then suddenly you see people with that third arm everywhere, and some still lacking the third arm completely, and some with one but sort of half-curled inside them…urk. I think that metaphor is running away from me.

Anyway, it was a revelation.

I’ll speak from my experience as someone who’s pretty darn sure most of her anxiety issues stem from lack of boundaries.


I’m an excellent worker. I was raised with a strong work ethic, and I’m an obliging person. If you ask me to do something, I will do it for you. Whether I should or not, and no matter what I have on my plate at the moment. That’s the problem.

I work really well, but I take on too much. I was no good at saying no. I saw myself doing this, but I always assumed it was my fault in some way. I need to figure out how to handle all of this, I need to be more efficient, not wanting to help that coworker out is selfish, etc.

I remember one day when three separate coworkers, well, two coworkers and a boss, asked me to edit something for them. One was a document for procedures, one was a statement to put in the handbook, and one was a collection of essays from a class to be printed in a book.

I said yes to all three. I spent my free periods that day and next editing for other people projects that had nothing to do with me. Could I have done one of them? Sure. Should I have done all of them? No. None of them were my specific responsibility. I was not getting paid extra. I did them because those people asked.

Later on in my job, I would swing the opposite way where the building resentment had me saying “no” too often, another side effect of lack of boundaries.

This happened in all my jobs to some degree. When I worked retail, I regularly took on the extra shifts just because people asked me, or came in earlier when my boss asked. I even accepted a promotion I didn’t want because my boss wanted me to take it, leading to my first bout with stress-induced health problems.



I remember a specific instance when a neighbor asked me to watch her dog for a night and a day. She was going out of town and hadn’t called the sitter or doggie daycare. I hardly knew this person, but I said yes. I thought: I can’t be selfish. It’s only one night. Just do it. She needs help. 

Did I want to? A resounding no. I don’t like small dogs, and I lived in a one-room apartment. There would be no getting rid of any unwanted smells for a while. But I said yes because she asked, and the dog naturally peed on my bed. I didn’t mention it to her, just promised myself I would not accept again.


When I’ve dated, I’ve let the other person lead the way. I like my men decisive, but frequently the reason is less that than my own obliging nature. You want to watch a movie? Okay. You want to eat there? Okay. You want to kiss? O…kay.

This is one area where I could clearly see the problem, more than any other. Dating should be a shared agreement, in my opinion, of what to do and how to do it. So mostly, my lack of boundaries has resulted in a pure lack of dating, since I won’t do it for fear of falling into my old habits.


I’ve had some tough friendships. And the funny thing is, the other person would probably be surprised to hear that. I don’t speak up. I don’t feel I have the right, or, more often, I don’t want to rock the boat.

I’ve had work friends several times, and usually they were fine. A couple situations though always happened. I’d have a friend who would always come to me for a chat, me being such a good listener. They would interrupt my free time, or my work time, if possible, and talk about this and that. And I would let them. Are you free? Yeah, sure, what’s up? I just need to vent. Okay, what happened?

Never mind that I’m not in any mood to deal with another person’s problems. Never mind that I never feel I can come to you. Never mind that you blew into my room like a summer storm in my peaceful afternoon…

I needed boundaries.


Fortunately, or unfortunately, my family has often borne the brunt of my boundaries. I’m comfortable there enough to say no, most of the time. They see me as pretty judgmental and decisive, even stubborn, because all of my no’s I don’t say to other people I tend to say to them, and loudly. It’s an unhealthy balance.

In the book, boundaries are envisioned like fences. Not walls, to keep everything out and everything in, but fences, with gates. Gates to let out the good and the bad. Some people keep all the good in and let all the bad out, some vice versa. I was always vice versa. Keep the bad in, where it can’t hurt others, and let the good out, to give of myself. Except with family, where the gate then swung the other way.


I’ve never been good at meeting my own expectations. I can meet other’s fairly easily if I’m not in a rebellion phase.

But I could never stick with a self-regulated habit, for the most part. I’m getting better, as I grow to understand myself more. I’ve kept up my new habits well. I’ve written every day for the past few months because I like to make that checkbox go away. In fact, Habitica, the fun online to-do list website I use, is a helpful external accountability partner, but setting boundaries with myself is still hard.

Especially when it’s to stop doing something. Stop eating sugar. Oh boy, good luck, me. Stop letting people walk all over me. Yeah, okay. Right.

Well, this whole recovery journey is about setting good boundaries, so I know I’m not there yet.


Lack of self-control and boundaries has been a major cause for anxiety, I’m convinced. The stress from my job was a direct result of me not saying no when needed and not being clear about what was hurting me or causing me too much anxiety. Always saying yes led to resentment as well, which only added to the mix.

All of my relationships have an element of anxiety for me, because I always assume responsibility for how the other person feels, and don’t want to rock the boat by making my needs known.

And with myself, living against what I want for myself naturally creates internal tension, which has manifested physically. I don’t practice my faith the way I want, I don’t dress the way I want, I don’t speak the way I want…it all creates tension.

What’s Next?

I’m hoping by finding out the root of the issue I can start to build these boundaries I need and heal from the inside out. I don’t want to take medication forever. And I don’t believe I’ll have to. The authors of the book are psychologists, and they use boundaries in their work with patients. I’m hopeful that with therapy and with the knowledge of needed boundaries, I’ll be able to better my relationship with anxiety.

It’ll be tough, but it’ll be worth it.

#buildaladder with boundaries.




Drop Your Potential

In my near-constant reading on self-improvement and psychology, I’ve encountered the theory several times that the idea of potential can be potentially damaging.

It was a bit of a shock, really, because most self-help books tend to talk a lot about potential. How you’re not meeting it (Use All Of Your Brain!), how you can improve it (Take More Classes To Beef Up Your Resume!), and how much latent potential you have (You Can Do Anything!).

The problem is, potential is something “out there.” Something unfulfilled. And we’re likely to never feel that we’ve met our potential. Few people, even those gung-ho, driven, hustling work- and play-aholics who live intensely amazing lives probably wouldn’t say, “Yeah, I’m good. I’ve met my potential. I don’t have anywhere to go from here. There’s no more improvement for me.”

Potential is always a step ahead, like a fluttering, incorporeal dream we always imagine we see but can never quite reach.

Now consider this statement: You have so much potential.

That’s usually said in a well-meaning spirit. You can do great things. You have so much available to you. That sort of vein. But that well-meaning phrase is often an indictment. Especially if what the parent or teacher who said it meant was that the student or child or employee or whoever could have the fancy job and high rise apartment and six-figure salary, and so when the child or whoever doesn’t get that, there’s the unspoken idea (or spoken, as is often the case) that they’ve failed.

They haven’t met their potential, because they didn’t want it enough. Or they didn’t work hard enough. They were not enough.

It could also be self-motivated pressure. I have so much potential, I can do everything I want, including starting my own business and having a great family and volunteering in my community and socializing with my friends and….and… And it doesn’t work out that way. So then they feel like they’ve failed too.

Potential is, by definition, in the future. It means having the capacity for something in the future. Not now. It’s a paper dream that keeps running away and the pressure and anxiety it creates can be terrifying.

If you live with the idea of potential, you’re likely to live in a state of perpetual unfulfillment in your present, because only in the future have you somehow met your potential and gotten…what? Everything?

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer. – Jim Carrey

The solution is two-fold.

First, we need to practice contentment. In her book Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist talks about her transition from an overstrung, high-functioning, always on it career mom with a family to a less-than-perfect, much happier mom. She started saying no to things so she could say yes to the important things, like spending days on the floor with her kids playing instead of traveling for speaking engagements.

From the outside, her life looked amazing; speaker, writer, hustler, and mom who managed a house and was a hospitality queen. But she says that the reality was she was crashing down, and her life was moving so fast she couldn’t enjoy it.

That’s what it looks like when you chase your ultimate potential. Nothing is ever good enough right now, but if you work harder and faster, it could be. (IT’S A TRAP! Thanks, General Ackbar.)

So being present, in the moment, and content with where you’re at is key. You have to start there.

The second solution builds on the first, because, as I’ve experienced, when you move from fast to slow because of burnout, the temptation to become lazy is strong. You’ve worked so hard, once you get in the mindset to be a little easier on yourself, you start justifying doing nothing and turn complacent.

Contentment and complacency are not the same thing. Complacency means you’re sitting still, safe wherever you are, while still being unsatisfied. Fear or laziness keeps you stuck in your comfort zone.

Contentment means you are happy with what you have, and you’re enjoying yourself, but you’re also pursuing those things that interest you. You’re still up for a challenge, but it’s from a place of peace, not fear.

I believe that potential is a new fad, like positive thinking, like treating your self, like hygge, like minimalism. A feeling that is yearning for something good but missing the mark.

We’re not living in the future. There are a billion billion paths the future could take, so you don’t know where you might go. You might gain it all or lose it. Being overly concerned with your potential and where you are in relation to it distracts you from the present, from enjoying where you’re at with who you’re with.

I think we all need, even for just a moment, to drop our potential.


Overcoming Anxiety with a Binary Mindset: A Tip From an Imperfectionist

As you may or may not know, I suffer from anxiety/panic disorder. It’s gotten a lot better since I moved home from Korea, but it hasn’t gone away, and it was really difficult the first few weeks after it started.

In the early days of my recovery, I read the book How to Be an Imperfectionist, and though the book is full of good advice, there was one tip that really stood out in my mind as something useful for people dealing with anxiety*.

Stephen Guise, the author of HTBAI, dealt with pretty crippling anxiety in his time, so he knows where he’s coming from when he says that perfectionism is a major cause of anxiety. Socially anxious people are more concerned than anyone else about a social interaction; they want it to go perfectly, and may or may not imagine all the things that could go wrong. If they do end up at the party or talking with that person, and it doesn’t go perfectly (and it won’t, because we’re humans on earth), then the person walks away feeling like a failure.

Enter the Binary Mindset

Guise says that decreasing a fear of making mistakes begins with a shift in your perspective.

He starts by talking computer lingo, but don’t worry, it’s stuff we all know; 0 and 1. Computers speak it. He goes on to talk about digital vs analog information. Digital information is finite and defined, and analog is more of a spectrum. Guise says we need to adopt the binary or digital mindset in order to overcome fear of failure.

He gives a lot of good examples, but the basic idea boils down to this; in a digital or binary task, you either succeed or you don’t. There’s no gradient of success. You flip a switch. It’s either “on” or it’s “off.” The focus is on if you take the action, not how well you do.

Contrast that with the analog idea of a task like a speech; you won’t fail absolutely 100% but you probably won’t be completely flawless either. You fall somewhere on a spectrum.

The trick is to make as many tasks binary as possible, including ones we normally put on a spectrum (like speeches).

Reimagine your speech. Instead of aiming for 100% flawless delivery, which is pretty much impossible, instead decide that getting up on stage and giving the speech is a success; a 1. That’s it. You can make all kinds of mistakes and still consider it a success because you did it. You redefined success and put it in a binary position.

Let’s extrapolate. You want to go to a party. Before, in your analog state, you would want the party to be fun the whole time, you wouldn’t want any awkward time drifting between friends, and you would want to be witty and charming when you were talking. Anything other than that is some kind of failure, and your night (especially for an anxious person) is ruined. Or it doesn’t exist because you’re too psyched out to go.

Now, redefine that in binary. If you go to the party, it’s a 1 – success. If you don’t go, it’s a 0 – fail. No matter what happens at the party, if you go, you have succeeded. So let’s say you go, and it’s okay, and you leave early when you get tired, but you went. Success!

As I’ve talked about a lot with every book of Guise’s, the idea is to build up a mental stronghold of success. If you keep succeeding, you enter a positive feedback loop that will help your mental state. Likewise, if you keep failing (in your mind), you enter a negative feedback loop where you are more likely to fail the more you fail because you are used to and expect failure.

I’d rather get used to successes, even small ones.

Personal Experience

I tried this immediately after reading about it. I redefined anything I could as a 1/0 situation. When I went to the doctor for the first time after coming back to America and getting healthcare, I wasn’t sure what would happen. I might have my insurance rejected, or have to pay a lot more than I was expecting, or the doctor would find something wrong with me, or the medicine might be expensive…there was a large spectrum of things that could go wrong.

But instead of thinking of all of those things, I said that if I drove myself to the doctor, it was a success. Even if my insurance somehow had messed up and they didn’t take it. The only way to fail was to not go.

I went. It went well. Yes, there was some back and forth over insurance (isn’t there always), but I was able to talk to my doctor and got good results. But the point is that even if I hadn’t gotten good results, it would have been a success.

I did the same thing with pretty much every social encounter as well; something that’s tough on an introvert with anxiety. If I did the thing, it was a 1, no matter how it went. D&D session wasn’t quite what I’d hoped? I went, so it was a success! Got super tired after talking with a friend? I did it, so it was a success!

This sort of mindset has been hugely helpful so far. I mean, it’s changed how I view everything. Of course it hasn’t taken the anxiety away, and it doesn’t mean I float through life like a butterfly, but it does mean I realize that situations are up to me to control. I define success on my terms, and if I can define it so I will succeed, so much the better.

The binary mindset. It’s the bee’s knees, y’all.



*Disclaimer: if you do have depression, anxiety, or have suffered trauma or abuse, this sort of advice will only do so much. I always encourage you to see a doctor or psychiatrist first. They are trained professionals. The advice I give on this blog is more general. 🙂

Three Month Check-In: Accomplishments

I left Korea exactly three months ago on December 22. I realized it this morning and thought it was the perfect moment to do a check-in. So hang on, folks, we’re going into the depths of my mind…


Comparing my anxiety now to three months ago, it’s almost unbelievable how much better I am. Now, I don’t believe in getting rid of emotions, and that’s certainly not my aim with anxiety, but physically, emotionally, and mentally I am much healthier. I’m sleeping better, my energy is better, and slowly I’ve been able to do more and more of the things that were lost to me when this all started. When I first got home, the idea of going out was terrifying; I was so afraid it would trigger a panic attack that I stayed at home for weeks. For most of January, I stayed inside, only going to my chiropractor and (I think) like two other places. January was the real recovery month, as I focused on my sleep and actual physical health.

February I started going out more, playing D&D and seeing a few friends, but it was still pretty low-key. I was still worried about having an attack, and still enjoying my downtime at home.

March was when everything started to pick up. I started driving again (a huge fear for me which turned out to be no problem), went shopping, went out to dinner with friends, went to a drop-in D&D session with strangers, and started therapy.

All of this to say that my anxiety has definitely decreased. I still feel anxious (or afraid, as my therapist tells me) about new things, but I’m excited to lean into it and stretch myself, whereas before that fear would have kept me home.


So what have I actually done in three months? When I first realized it was already Spring I felt a moment of panic because it seemed like I hadn’t done anything at all. I still don’t have a job, I still haven’t finished a book, and I’m still not healed. Yeah, I expected miracles to happen when I got home. But today, this three-month anniversary, I thought about all that I have accomplished, and I felt proud. Going from what I was (wrecked, quivering ball of insomnia and panic) to what I am now (excited, healthy, curious) is amazing.

I have;

  • been to the doctor twice and gotten on less medication
  • been to therapy three times and learned where my issues might be coming from, which is the first step to healing
  • been to D&D countless times (seriously, I’m not going to go back and count the weekends) and have a solid group of friends
  • been out with friends for dinner (that’s huge when you have agoraphobia)
  • written a lot (short stories, this blog, other story ideas)
  • learned a lot about writing
  • read 44 books (damn)
  • started driving again
  • made two paper masks
  • furnished my office
  • DMed a duet D&D session with a friend
  • exercised every day (holy…)
  • meditated every day
  • discovered what foods I’m slightly allergic to (that’s a whole story, sheesh)
  • been on an overnight trip with a friend

…and I’m sleeping regularly.

This is huge for me, guys. I realized that I have in fact made vast steps forward on the way to recovery, and my expectation that I would bounce back fully and 100% within this time was totally unrealistic.

I’m thrilled how well it’s gone, honestly. I know exactly how tough it was for me those last few weeks in Korea, and I can barely believe how good I feel now.

I still have a long way to go; my whole life will be learning to live with myself, anxiety and all, but I’m okay with that now. I’m ready and waiting to take those next steps.

To anyone suffering from anxiety or depression, I hope my journey will help you in some way. Let’s #buildaladder together!