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.
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.