The Gift of Anxiety

The Gift of Anxiety

One year, when I was just a teenager, my grandparents gave me a very special Christmas gift. While I can’t remember exactly how old I was at the time, I clearly recall the sense of confusion mixed with disappointment that I felt when I opened the mysteriously large (and therefore exciting) cardboard box, tore past the tissue with escalating anticipation, and saw what was waiting for me inside — a heavy wool blanket for my bed!

What made this blanket such a special gift is not how I felt about it initially — obviously. What made it so special is how I learned to appreciate it in the years that followed — when I moved away to college, for example, and first lived on my own. During my junior and senior years of college, I lived in an off-campus apartment that had a single source of heat — a very small electric wall-unit in one of the corners of the living room. On winter nights, I would have been freezing in my futon bed without that wonderful wool blanket to keep me toasty warm! I still think of that blanket, which became so worn from my use over time that I finally let it go. I remember how painful my experiences of that blanket were at first (due to my feelings of confusion and disappointment over getting it as a Christmas gift), and how I learned to value it, even treasure it, as my years with it progressed.

Those among us who struggle with experiences of anxiety know all too well how intensely painful these can be, and how easily the pain can begin to blanket over our sense of anything positive in our lives. As if the emotional anguish of anxiety weren’t enough, it often comes with physical pain — in the form of muscle tension, upset stomachs, and headaches, just to name a few examples. The emotional and physical distress combine to take a toll on our confidence, then, convincing us that something must be wrong with us, and that withdrawing or giving up are the only options that make sense for us, or are even the only options that are possible. With such feelings of limitation and compromised self-esteem, we frequently experience increased emotional pain — a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, even what we could call depression. No wonder those of us who struggle with experiences of anxiety tend to see anxiety as a curse, a way in which we’re broken, a wound that doesn’t heal. Who wouldn’t feel this way, given what we go through?

As valid as this view is — and I want to make clear that it is completely valid, given our profoundly and repeatedly painful experiences of anxiety — it seems to me to have the very unfortunate effect of perpetuating the very affliction from which we seek relief. Seeing anxiety as a curse or a wound sets up a relationship between us and anxiety that is dominated by our sense of antipathy, resentment, and fear. In this kind of relationship, we tend to polarize with our anxiety, identifying it as our enemy and taking up a defensive position against it; as we do so, we often generate an even higher degree of tension for ourselves, and not the increased sense of calm and confidence that we desire. Personally, I wonder how our experiences might be different if we were able to see our anxiety in another light, not as a curse or a wound, but as a blessing or a source of healing, as odd as those ideas may sound. What if, in keeping with the holiday season, we were able to see our anxiety as a gift? What kind of relationship with anxiety would be possible for us if we were able to adopt this perspective? What might the benefits be?

For me, the key to seeing anxiety differently — as a gift, for instance — lies in exploring those ways in which I can say that I am thankful for my experiences of it. Sure, on the one hand, the very idea of being thankful for anxiety sounds absurd — even offensive, perhaps — given all the pain that we associate with feeling anxious; however, the frame of mind in which such an idea is absurd or offensive is the same frame of mind that is dominated by anxious, fearful, tense, and defensive thinking. I am not intimating that we consider experiences of anxiety pleasant — I have already mentioned the myriad ways in which they are profoundly painful, in fact; what I am suggesting is that these very unpleasant, painful experiences call our attention to certain habits of thinking, associated feelings, and ways of responding in behavior that are not helpful to us — that limit, constrain, even debilitate us.

Anxiety, then, provides a doorway to healing, a prompt to us to examine our thoughts about ourselves, others, and our experiences, and to evaluate how well these thoughts are working for us. If we don’t like the way that our thoughts are working for us, if we determine that they are exacerbating our anguish (like seeing anxiety as a curse or as a wound!) — rather than helping us to feel more calm and confident — we can decide to exchange them for thoughts that support us in having the different experiences that we want. The curse, the wound of anxiety, becomes a source of healing, a gift for growth.

When I think about this idea — the gift of anxiety — I think back to the wool blanket that my grandparents gave me for Christmas when I was just a teenager, and how, eventually, I grew to feel so thankful for it. At first, of course, I felt only confused, disappointed, and frustrated — even a bit hurt and upset, to be honest. I hadn’t asked for the blanket. I didn’t want the blanket. I even hated the way the blanket felt. Who would ever be glad to have such a thing? The very notion seemed preposterous to me. Now, as I reflect on my experience, I know that I couldn’t have reacted any other way, given how I was thinking about the blanket at the time. In the years that followed, as I learned to see ways in which the blanket was helpful to me, I began to think differently about the blanket itself, and my relationship to it changed, eased, became much less dominated by tension and aggravation. Finally, I stopped thinking about the blanket as the heavy, scratchy burden on my bed that I had received instead of a new bike or basketball for Christmas; instead, I thought about how the blanket served me well in ways that I had not expected, but came to value very much — in the course of time.

Happy Holidays!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

Worry Time

Stop … Worry Time!

I never wore parachute pants, but I remember them being popular in the late 1980s where I was living. When I think of them, I think of the now famous versions donned by MC Hammer. In 1990, MC Hammer released his album, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, and “U Can’t Touch This” became a super hit single and the hip hop artist’s signature song. Lyrics from the song — “You can’t touch this!” and “Stop … Hammer time!” — became pop culture catchphrases. MC Hammer’s fame wasn’t just about parachute pants and dance moves!

If you have ever gone to therapy for a sense of anxiety, or have done any research on your own for ideas about how to reduce anxiety, you have likely heard or run across the idea of scheduling “Worry Time.” In its simplest form, “Worry Time” is a specific amount of time (say, 30 minutes) at a certain time each day (10:00pm, for example) that we set aside for allowing ourselves to focus on our worry, and nothing else; we can think about this time as an appointment with Worry. When we start to feel anxious at other times during the day, we acknowledge the feeling, validate the experience for ourselves, but we postpone our worry until our next designated “Worry Time.”

“Worry Time” is a paradoxical prescription of the very problem that constitutes our complaint; as such, it sounds like a ridiculously counter-intuitive response to many of us. Right now, in fact, you might be saying to yourself, “What? Schedule time to worry? I want to STOP my worrying!” Trying to stop our anxious thoughts “cold turkey” in any given moment is a response often referred to as “thought stopping.” To get a sense of how attempts at “thought stopping” often actually backfire on us, I’m wondering if you might be willing to try a little experiment …

If you are willing, take a few moments to watch the music video of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” below. Once you are finished with the video, spend a few more moments thinking about all that you saw and heard – everything from the aspects of setting and choreography that caught your attention to the lyrics and details of dancers’ wardrobes (ah, yes, parachute pants … I wonder whatever happened to those!). Now, once you have thought about the video for a few minutes, I want you to stop thinking about it. Don’t think about the music video at all for the next five minutes!

How did you do?

If you are like most of us, you struggled with stopping your thoughts “cold turkey,” and found that trying to stop your thoughts just kept you focused on them. Whether our thoughts are about “U Can’t Touch This!” or our worries, we tend to be more able to postpone our focus on them for the time being than to stop them completely. Essentially, when we have scheduled “Worry Time” for ourselves, and find ourselves worrying at other times during the day, we are able to say to ourselves, “Stop … (wait until) Worry Time!” We avoid the trap of “thought stopping.”

When the time that we have scheduled for “Worry Time” arrives, then – 10:00pm, in my example from the featured image for this post – we follow-through, and allow ourselves the opportunity to focus on our worry. Whatever else we may be doing, we say to ourselves, “Stop … (now it is) Worry Time!” Think of MC Hammer’s line, “Stop … Hammer time!” The frequent result of engaging in “Worry Time” is finding that a focus on worry for the whole time we have allotted — 30 minutes, for instance — is more difficult than we expected. We can actually find ourselves getting bored with our worry! We might even start thinking about what we would rather be doing with our “Worry Time” and eventually, intentionally choosing to do these other things! What we learn in the process is that anxiety has less control over us than we had been telling ourselves. With practice, over time, we discover that we are more frequently able to say to anxiety, in the words of MC Hammer, “You can’t touch this!”

Here’s to your increasing calm and confidence!

For more ideas about anxious thinking, and responses that help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence in our lives, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter. If you would like further information about the idea of “Worry Time” in particular, feel free to contact me, Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT. Thank you for reading!

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