A Nerd’s Guide to Anxiety

Anxious Lego1

This is an article from NF Rebel Family Correspondent and Mental Health Professional, Dan.

We all know the feeling…increased heart rate, feeling overwhelmed, can’t think clearly, palms sweaty, knees weak, mom’s spaghetti…sorry, I lost my train of thought.

Anyway, that feeling is called anxiety and we all feel it sometimes. It could be about our medical test results, public speaking or whether the Pokémon GO servers will load today.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion that’s part of everyday life. We evolved anxiety to help us avoid danger or perform at our best. A predator near by, or running out of food? The warning bell of anxiety turns on, and changes our physiology to encourage us to act.  Sounds pretty cool, right? And for most of us, anxiety kicks on and off in our day-to-day in the modern world without too much trouble.

But for many others, the feelings of anxiety can be much more extreme. It’s like they have it maxed out on their character sheet, and instead of being helpful, it’s an intense and persistent feeling that makes some aspects of day-to-day life an ongoing battle.

This is surprisingly common, but like a lot of mental health issues, we don’t talk about it much because of a stigma which comes from a lack of education and understanding. So let’s change that today!

We briefly covered anxiety in ‘A Nerd’s Introduction to Mental Health’, but today we’re digging a little deeper. The signs, the types, how we can manage it, and maybe even if we can turn it from our enemy to our secret weapon. 

Signs of Anxiety

lego anxiety

The signs of anxiety aren’t always that obvious to everyone. Largely because we all experience some anxiety, plus symptoms can develop gradually, so it can be difficult to know how much is “too much.”

One of the most common aspects of anxiety conditions is to think about things a helluva’ lot more than you would normally. We’ve all been there, right? Lying in bed, unable to sleep at a ridiculous hour, replaying social conversations in our head from years ago, over analyzing what we said, how others reacted to it, thinking how stupid we were.

We may know what we’re thinking about is irrational and unhelpful, but it’s still hard to stop these overwhelming and sometimes intense thoughts. This thinking tends to be repetitive and often negative in nature, causing our feelings of anxiety to get worse.

This is just one example of a generalized anxiety, and while we all experience different levels or types of anxiety, the common signs and symptoms can include:


  •     increased heart rate/racing heart
  •     shortness of breath
  •     nausea, even to the point of vomiting
  •     muscle tension and pain (e.g. sore back or jaw)
  •     feeling detached from your physical self or surroundings
  •     having trouble sleeping
  •     sweating, shaking
  •     dizzy, lightheaded or faint
  •     difficulty concentrating


  •     overwhelmed
  •     fear (particularly when having to face certain objects, situations or events)
  •     worry
  •     dread (that something bad is going to happen)
  •     constantly tense, nervous or on edge
  •     finding it hard to stop worrying
  •     unwanted or intrusive thoughts
  •     uncontrollable or overwhelming panic


  •     withdrawing from, avoiding, or enduring with fear objects or situations which cause anxiety
  •     urges to perform certain rituals in a bid to relieve anxiety 
  •     difficulty making decisions
  •     being startled easily

One key step in turning our anxiety in our favor is recognizing our own signs and then managing these. Knowing the ‘If this then ____’ of ourselves can be a great tool to have. Personally, I know if I start getting the strong urge to pull out my beard hairs (a disorder known as Trichotillomania), then my anxiety level is getting quite high and I need to quickly implement some control strategies (more on those later).

Do you do start feeling sick at the thought of a social event? Do you start fearing the worst has happened to your partner if they’re ten minutes late? What about having to arrange your desk in a very particular way? Just by identifying these behaviors and catching yourself in the act, you can set yourself on a completely different path.

The Sneaky, Formless AnxiEty


Like Mystique or Gumby, anxiety can take many forms, and these forms have varying impacts.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)GAD is the broadest type of anxiety and is essentially worrying ‘too much’ about everyday things, or a general, ambiguous sense of worry that’s hard to describe or pinpoint the cause of. But the real question is, how much is “too much”?

Generally (get it?), if you’re having persistent anxious thoughts and feelings on most days of the week, for more than six months, and if these thoughts are interfering with your daily life and well-being, this would be classified as GAD.

Panic disorderPanic attacks are periods of intense fear or extreme anxiety which happen suddenly or when there is no sign of danger. This could happen while going about your everyday work, and suddenly feeling like you’re losing control and going to die. Physical symptoms such as sweating, feeling short of breath, pounding heart, dry mouth, or feeling as though you’re about to collapse, are common in panic attacks.

Social phobiaAn intense fear of being criticised or embarrassed, even in everyday situations, such as meeting people, eating in public, work situations, or making small talk.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)The need to check things repeatedly, perform certain routines (or ‘rituals’) over and over again, or having certain repetitive thoughts.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)Develops after someone is exposed to a traumatic event (like assault, war, or car accident) which can lead to disturbing thoughts or dreams related (however seemingly tangentially) to the event.

Specific phobiasFeeling anxious about a particular object or situation, like going near an animal, going to a social event, and going to great lengths to avoid it. Common phobias include animals, heights, the dentist (my #1 phobia), and blood.

High Five AnxietyA classic nerd anthem by one of my favourite bands.

These are just fancy names for issues that are pretty common. If any of these things sound familiar, you’re not weird, and you’re certainly not alone. We’re all playing characters with the “anxiety” trait, yours just might need a little extra hand holding.



With all the silly, clinical terms combined with our confused past, it’s clear something of a stigma beast has developed around anxiety (and well, the whole field of mental health). This lurking beast continues to thrive on exacerbated media reports, discrimination, and lack of knowledge… Like those fitness myths that just won’t go away. But in this case, this misinformation can delay or impede getting treatment and recovery for something that is often very very treatable!

We all know (and may even fit) the stereotype: Socially anxious and awkward, introverted, quiet and avoiding small talk at all costs. Although it seems us nerds have a higher propensity for this anxiety, I searched high and low for a research and evidence demonstrating this… (Google Scholar, Psychology Journals, Longitudinal Mental Health Studies, Personality Disorder Test Results AND Encarta 95 Student Edition) but I came up empty.

Anxiety issues affect so many people (around 1 in 5), from all walks of life, whether you’re the reclusive WOW player, a pro athlete, or an amazing A-List Celebrity (please let us know if you’re reading, Emma, or Emma).

Anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways. As nerds we think of shyness or social anxiety, but anxiety can trigger the opposite, too. I’m sure we’ve all heard “I talk when I’m nervous.”

That may not be satisfying, but there are some risk factors that may make you more susceptible to developing an anxiety condition. These include:

  • Traumatic life events – Either as a child or adult
  • Stress – Be it due to your health, work, study, finances, or anything else
  • Other mental health issues – People with other mental health disorders, such as depression, often also have an anxiety disorder
  • Genetics –  Anxiety disorders can run in families
  • Drugs or alcohol – Abuse or withdrawal can worsen anxiety issues
  • Being female – Sorry ladies, but you’re about twice as likely to have an anxiety issue compared to the fellas

This does not mean every overworked female with a family history of mental health issues is going to have an anxiety disorder, it’s just more likely.

I’m often amazed by some I meet who don’t have anxiety issues, they tick all the risk factor boxes, yet remain totally in control of their emotions and behaviors. These are the people who’ve learned how to effectively manage their anxiety, like they’ve picked up the master controller and figured out the Konami code to what’s going on inside their head.

“So Dan, how can I figure out my head’s Konami Code?”

It may not be as simple as “↑↑↓↓←→←→ B A Start” (or just blowing in it), but I’m glad you asked.

identify, battle, level up

NES Bowser

So, thinking perhaps you, or someone you know, is having some issues with anxiety? Don’t panic (I know, easy enough to say), because anxiety disorders are highly treatable.

After you’ve recognized your anxiety signs as we talked about above, there are many tools out there for managing your own anxiety. This is not an all inclusive list, but here’s a few ideas to get us started:

Diet and exercise: Surprise, surprise. It’s very well known that eating well can make a difference in your energy levels, and exercise is a natural anxiety buster. It can be difficult to get started if you’re feeling overwhelmed, but starting small and working towards realistic goals is a step in the right direction. One of the first Nerd Fitness posts I ever read, ‘Getting Back On Track When Life Sucks’, is a huge help for anyone looking to battle their anxiety with exercise.

Challenge your thinking: Ask yourself how realistic your anxiety-causing thoughts really are, by weighing up the evidence for and against. Some find taking notes and journaling their feelings to be helpful.

Practice self love: Accepting your flaws and finding yourself can go a long way in building your mental health. Check out the Deadpool Guide to Self Love by Amy to explore this further.

Time-out: Try to make sure you do at least one productive thing you enjoy each day. Be it walking, playing music, cooking, yoga, or meditation. Just do that one thing. Don’t stress so much about everything else going on or multitasking while you’re doing it. Make that time about you and the thing you’re doing.

Avoid avoidance: And certainly don’t Avoid Avoiding Avoidance — I can’t make this any clearer. By always dodging situations that make you anxious, you never get a chance to see that they might not be that bad. Instead, work up that 20 seconds of courage and let yourself experience these feared situations, just a little bit at a time. You’ll find they’re not as bad as you thought, and you can slowly build up a tolerance to what is making you anxious.

Go easy on alcohol and drugs: I’m not here to kill anyone’s buzz, and we’re all free to make our own decisions, but if you’re using alcohol and drugs to cope, you could actually be making your symptoms (not to mention physical health) worse in the long run.

Talk it out: Talking to a friend or family member is a great for expressing how you feel, and also to get an outsider’s perspective on what’s going on. If you’re having trouble finding someone understanding, seek out a counselor or mental health professional. You would seek out a squat coach when you need to make some tweaks to your form patterns, so why wouldn’t you seek out a mental coach when you need to make a tweak to your mental patterns?

Meditation: Learn to be more aware of what’s going on your mind, and give yourself a power up on this quest.

Use Technology: Check out some of the best phone apps for dealing with anxiety through promoting relaxation, mindfulness, and self guided Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Mastering your own mind and figuring out what works for you is an ongoing quest, but those committed to the mission can recognise the signs, implement strategies that they know work for them, and ultimately start controlling some of their anxiety. An amazing ability to have in high pressure situations.

“There’s more to me than lack of sleep and anxiety”

Lego Upgrade

Again: One in five. One in five of your friends, relatives, colleagues is currently having issues with their mental health, primarily anxiety, and it’s been shown that nearly one in two of us will have a mental health issue at some point in our life.

This isn’t just something that impacts a select few, this affects everybody. Everybody is dealing with anxiety to some degree, but some will be having a tougher time than others.

I need to state this again. ANXIETY ISSUES ARE BOTH COMMON AND HIGHLY TREATABLE, often promptly and without medication, but only about one-third of those having issues seek help. Only one in three! That’s pretty shocking. Anxiety can be self-managed, but only to a certain extent in some cases. 

If you find you’ve been taking care of yourself as best you can (and using some of these strategies) but your anxiety symptoms are still winning the battle, please go see a doctor or mental health professional. With the appropriate treatment and support, the vast majority of people can learn to deal with their symptoms and start pwning life again. It’s no different than going to see our physiotherapist for a sprained ankle or a personal trainer to help work on our squatting technique.

If you still aren’t convinced to see a doctor, do it for yourself: what could start as a small anxiety issue can quickly evolve (unlike my 27 Zubats) into something else, and left untreated, this can be devastating.

If you are dealing with anxiety, know that you’re a bad-ass taking on battles in ‘insane mode’ while other plebs are still fumbling around with the controls. You got this.

I urge you all to talk openly about your experiences with mental health issues, this has been proven to assist in slaying the lurking stigma beast we spoke of earlier, feel free to even start sharing now:

How do you deal with your anxiety?

When do you know it’s getting ‘too much’ for you?

What do you wish more people understood about your anxiety?

Rebels, take care of yourselves, and each other.

– Dan-xiety (Sorry, I had to get in a dad-joke somewhere)

If you, or someone you know, would like further support with mental health, here are some excellent links and services that will get you started in the right direction:

North America – Suicide Prevention LifelineList of Mental Health hotlines

Canada – Mental Health Helpline, List of Mental Health services

Great Britain & Ireland – Samaritans, List of services via Mental Health Foundation

Australia – National helplines and websites, Lifeline

New Zealand – Lifeline, Mental Health helplines

India – SNEHA

Worldwide – Worldwide mental health hotlinesWorldwide suicide hotlines,Befrienders Worldwide


Image sources: Stressed Lego, Shy BatmanGroup of Lego Heads

Get The Rebel Starter Kit

Enter your email and we’ll send it right over.

  • The 15 mistakes you don’t want to make.
  • The most effective diet and why it works.
  • Complete your first workout today, no gym required.
  • These are the tools you need to start your quest.

    36 thoughts on “A Nerd’s Guide to Anxiety

    1. This is timely for me. I would prefer to go the non-medical route to deal with my anxiety -and trichotillomania- because medication withdrawals aren’t something I want to go through again. I think I may have found my “why” in this particular post, and I KNOW that when I am on top of my nutrition, exercise, and meditation I am happy and almost calm. That feeling of disconnection from both my physical self and the things around me is one of the first things I noticed went away when I was taking better care of myself. THANK YOU!!!

    2. +1 for diet and exercise. For several years I’ve worked at a job that I found stressful, dealing with people who were perfectly nice and knowledgeable but who I just found to be annoying. I wanted to be left alone all the time, and grew angry when people didn’t. But earlier this year I started implementing some fitness and nutrition advice from Nerd Fitness Academy (for other reasons). My mood and mental focus improved a lot in the first couple of months, and have remained steady since then. People are actually finding me to be helpful and friendly now.

      I suspect it was my old high carbohydrate, high caffeine diet that was encouraging me to be bearish. But whatever it is that’s changed, I’m not going back!

    3. One of my signs that I have severe anxiety is when I have to urinate very often. And are constantly thirsty. There is actually a chemical in your brain that cause it to happen.

    4. I have very minor but fairly consistent anxiety. Meditation has been huge for me. Simply admitting things are bothering me has helped. Sometimes I find I want my feelings validated. Other times, I just need to say out loud I feel annoyed. As strange as that is, I feel guilty when I feel annoyed with people and it creates anxiety. Assessing the feeling or even being aware that’s what that feeling is has been so helpful. Even Ruth just minor anxiety, getting it mire under control had helped digestion, sleep, and even reaction to stress.

      I have family members with severe anxiety, and want to do what I can, if is possible to chore now so it doesn’t keep getting bigger. I don’t even know that anxiety escalates if left untreated. But now that I’ve found ways to cope, if I don’t manage it, I definitely notice the difference.

      Great article. Thank you!

    5. I’m another one with anxiety! I started having panic attacks and feeling social anxiety after my daughter was born. I take meds for both anxiety and depression, I’ve been to counseling a few times and it has been helpful. I have had cognitive behavior therapy, which has taught me how to challenge my thinking. It’s super helpful!

      When I have a panic attack (which thankfully doesn’t happen often), I find that hardcore distraction works wonders. I need something that takes up my ENTIRE BRAIN, like a playing a hard video game or learning a new crochet stitch. Vigorous exercise, the kind that forces me to breathe hard, is also helpful.

    6. I don’t read every NF article top to bottom, though I glean something helpful from every one. This I read top to bottom. I love the straightforward, sensible language and realistic explanations, advice and goals. Now to put that into practice and quell, amongst other situations, the anxiety attack I go through every Thanksgiving when I realize I forgot to buy an ingredient. Thank you for this article.

    7. I have been dealing with a lot of anxiety, especially recently. Part of it is caused by my Thyroid issues and medication. Unfortunately, I do not have a lot of time to dedicate to counseling at this point and I am not sure I need it at this time (although thanks to my job I do have some sessions free). I have discovered guided meditation stations on Spotify that have really helped and my sister and I have started having a meditation night where we create a soothing atmosphere and turn on one of the meditation tracks

    8. “but only about one-third of those having issues seek help. Only one in three! That’s pretty shocking.”

      I hate to be the one playing devil’s advocate, but based on my experience with mental health care, that number shouldn’t be surprising in the US. Most mental health providers don’t accept insurance, and getting insurance to cover it in any event is a pain (long wait times, you have to call what seems to be an entirely separate company, they’ll fight every claim, no information prior to going about whether the doctor/therapist is approved under your plan). If you don’t have insurance, unless you can find (and are willing to be treated by) a student organization at a psychology school, you’re paying multiple hundreds of dollars for care, which for a lot of people is just plain unaffordable.

      I have, most likely, generalized anxiety disorder, but I can’t get treatment because it would be thousands of dollars that I do not have to spend. So I have meditation apps, and try to breathe regularly, and make sure I’m consistently exercising to keep the anxiety at bay, but it doesn’t always work.

    9. I deal with social anxiety everyday. I believe a big part that plays into it was having a speech impediment when I was younger, and being bullied because of how i spoke. I would avoid speaking with people so I would not have to deal with them making fun of me. Seemed like the best idea when I was young, but also made me very lonely and afraid to experience new things. [After years of speech therapy, in my adult life most people think I just have a British accent. But the underlying damage is already done.]

      Now I do actively try to fight against the anxiety(kinda just telling myself its not real, just in my head sometimes). Sometimes I win the struggle and sometimes I fail. I been a lot more active in being open about it especially in the camp nerd fitness Facebook group. Sometimes I just looking for words of encouragement, other times I looking for someone to actively lend me a hand. But what I have learned is being quiet about does not help much at all in getting me pass certain situations.

    10. Somehow you guys at NF always know when to post what articles.. first the post about dating, and now this one! Thanks!

    11. This is a terrific article on anxiety. I have been in treatment for 2 years. I speak very openly about it – I’ve found most people very supportive. I was raised in an alcoholic home with strict guidelines about everything, and was taught that anxiety is normal, and necessary to keep you on your toes and doing your best and not embarrassing the family. So I questioned everything I did, managing to find fault in everything and worrying about doing it better the next time. I managed a stressful job for 37 years, but didn’t think happiness could be a default setting, and finally had the breakdown that got me the help I needed. I was diagnosed with OCD and generalized anxiety, and although I could often see the irrationality of my thinking, I couldn’t control it, so I am on medication. No stigma there, either. My psych says I have a chemical imbalance, and will be on medication for the rest of my life. I didn’t get help for years because I thought it would be a sign of weakness and laziness to not handle it myself. Even before the breakdown, I could see the signs of a serious depression, and kept telling friends and family that I would get it under control. Not this time – but I’m glad. My life is completely different since getting treatment – happy is now my default setting, and I’m better able to deal with situations that cause reasonable anxiety. Don’t let it get that bad – seek help. Wish I had earlier, but it’s all good now!

    12. Things start piling up outside of my work, and I try to tackle them one at a time, and I do get a sense of satisfaction when I get something accomplished. But then it seems there is something else and something else and something else BESIDES what was originally on the ‘to do’ pile – and then I get FROZEN, and things REALLY back up.
      Thank You very much for the article. The 20 sec start, just get unfrozen and move to each task and accomplishment, and keep moving……

    13. I used to have panic attacks at night, out of nowhere, while in bed, suddenly feeling like I was trapped and couldn’t breathe… It took me many years to learn to control them (not avoid them) and if they ever start, I learned that turning the lights on, sitting up, or walking around the house talking to myself, singing or anything else helps. Recently, due to health problems that haven’t allowed me to work out properly, and now having to make a really big decision about it, I’ve been feeling terrible for a few months and anxiety was creeping back in, affecting many aspects of my life. I started talking to friends, which helped a bit, but I have started seeing a therapist now. No drugs though, only talking and helping me understand my own mind. So far, so good. Talking is good and sometimes talking to a professional gives you a more impartial opinion!! It’s still early days, but I’m now back in the gym and feeling better, so I encourage you to talk about it!

    14. “knees weak, mom’s spaghetti” awesome start of the blog,the video just flashed through my eyes.It’s all upon your point of view and controlling your feelings and facing the situation and try to relax.

    15. I’ve suffered with depression/anxiety/irrational anger (i.e. brain chemistry problems) for many, many years and then 20 years ago found a way to help myself without medication through engaging in scanning activities. I started writing a blog about my explorations five years ago. What I’ve been doing really works–I no longer have depression and control anxiety effectively most of the time (still working on anger but making progress). Read my musings at: http://brainchemistrychronicles.blogspot.com/.

    16. You’re absolutely right. Mental health in the US is a mess. It takes courage, and the ability to put together a coherent plan and keep track of things (not always easy with a mental illness!) to get counseling, especially for people without jobs or insurance.

      I get free counseling sessions through my job’s employee assistance plan. I am treated by students, who have doctors reviewing their work, so two clinicians are looking at my treatment. The only bad counseling experience I’ve ever had was by a non-student.

      For those just starting out: If you have a primary care doctor, start there. Tell them your concerns, both about your mental health and about navigating the system. For those without a primary care doctor, call a crisis line. They’re in the business of “I need help and I don’t know what to do.”

    17. This is great! I’ve been feeling a little more anxious as of late but this article re-affirmed that I’m not the only going through this. Also, the “level up” strategy to “challenge your thinking” is of particular pertinence. I will absolutely be implementing this strategy from now on. Thanks for the article Dan!

    18. THANK YOU for saying anxiety can be genetic. My dad has GAD, his mom was never diagnosed with anything but was so anxious she didn’t leave her apartment for a few decades, and I’ve got social phobia – which several therapists have insisted cannot be genetic and must have come from a traumatic experience in my childhood. I didn’t have one! I’ve felt this way as long as I can remember! Thank you for validating that.

    19. Dan, is there any research that explains why women have a higher likelihood of having an anxiety disorder? I’d wonder if it isn’t in part (or even largely) societal i.e. the way society generally tends to view and treat women. If I’m right, there would be a correlation between the discrepancy between men and women, and how egalitarian the society is.

    20. I am naturally a very anxious and stressed person. I actually turned off all of my notifications from social media because I always have a slight anxiety when I get notifications. This has helped me feel more relaxed and focused on what’s important and what I need to do for the day.

    21. Hey Christina, thanks for the question.

      Recent research (June 2016: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/brb3.497/full) points to a multitude of reasons, some of which being societal factors.

      I would certainly agree that due to the way society views and treats women is a huge part of the reason for higher prevalence. For example, work relates stress impacts all of us, but obviously woman’s workplace stress is more likely than a man’s to include harassment and discrimination, such added issues could contribute to mental health issues.

      In addition to this, society expects much more from women than men. Some men have been brought up to expect that women are primarily responsible for performing more domestic tasks. This type of pressure from people that a woman has emotional connection, along with expectations such as getting married, having children, etc, have huge impacts on stress and anxiety levels.

      When you look at these societal expectations and add these on top of day-to-day stresses, hormonal imbalances (the endocrine gland, where hormones are produced, is affected by a variety of events in a woman’s life such as pregnancy, menopause, lactation, thyroid dysfunction, birth control pills) and more stressful friendships with the same sex, it’s little wonder why women are more prone to anxiety and other mental health issues.

      Hope this answers your question, thanks for getting in touch.

    22. I have had anxiety for a lot of years, mainly due to having serious family issues. I found that by having a clean and healthy diet helps a lot, have plenty of exercise. It doesnt seem like it helps but it does help in the long run.

    23. I suffer from social phobia and it is so difficult to explain to people. They see an usually confident, successful person on the outside. However, inside me I am constantly terrified that I am being laughed at by people or judged by them. Cognitively, I know that self dialogue is unrealistic and not helpful but constantly challenging it wears me out. I know that is why I retreat to many solitary activities for personal enjoyment because to do too much in a social setting is just too taxing and never enjoyable.

    24. Thanks for sharing. As someone who suffers with similar issues, I feel some companionship towards your struggles.

    25. I have suffered with situational anxiety for several years and nearly had a complete breakdown. Tried medication but it didn’t address the problem and just put me in a living purgatory. The final solution for me was in addition to finally finding a good psychologist was changing jobs and separating from my wife. It took me about 6 months from the point where I finally realised those things HAD to change before I managed to do it, but I’ll never listen to anyone again who says to just suck it up and deal with a situation. Life’s too short and you CAN move on to better things. These days I feel better than ever and actually have the drive and motivation to start working on my fitness goals and exercise everyday.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *