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.



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!




a poem: my personal gravity well

(written just after I decided to leave Korea)

I sit in bed and type.
Typing is different than writing.
And I don’t write much.
Mostly planning.
Making words pretty.
Like that will make them more
Make my lists fancy.
And they will get done.
Make my dreams sparkle.
And they will come true.
I add a sticker
There, just there.
It means I am trying to
Put my mark on it.
Make it, bend it into
But reality bends us.
Or do we bend it when we move?
When we dream, do the stars tremble
In their courses?

Dreaming must be dangerous then
To move galaxies and bend solar systems
Into our own making.
We move, we bend time and space,
And the universe heaves
But it moves. Every breath a great
Wind birthed.
Every flutter of fingers
A small gravity ripple.
Making waves in our own personal
What manner of magic is that?

What manner of creature am I
To sit in bed and type,
When soon I am planning
To quit my job.
Leave this country.
And go home.
Because my body is breaking.
And I don’t know how to fix it.
How to fix my cage.
The bird inside is fine,
Thanks very much.
It’s just this shabby old
Ill-treated cage rusting and falling apart.
Squawking in the night.
Hinges snapping.
The caged bird sings.
Raging against the cage that breaks.
Wishing others could see inside the cage.
But they only see
The breaks.


a poem: small blue half-oval

Small blue half-oval
Here I am now
On medication
For the first time
I feel like I’ve crossed a line
between the normals
And the ones who need
To live in this world
How sad
That we can’t just live
But need to trick our brains
Into thinking we CAN live
When we CAN’T
Live just ourselves
Too sad to think of
Where did the world go wrong
When it invented medication
Or the maladies before
Chicken or egg
The small blue pill
But only half at night
It sits on my bedside table
A small blue robin’s egg
A small blue judgment
Sitting next to me
So I can sleep
And not dream of knives
And guilt and shame
Then the small white ovals
Each morning
To keep my heart from
Thinking I am always
When really I’m just