The Gift of Anxiety

The Gift of Anxiety

One Christmas, when I was much younger — perhaps just into my teenage years — my grandparents gave me a very special gift.  While I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I still very clearly recall feeling terrifically excited one moment, terribly confused and disappointed the next.  When I pried open the large cardboard box, after tearing through the wrapping paper and enough Scotch tape to make a clear, adhesive straitjacket for one of my younger brothers, what did I find?  A heavy wool blanket for my bed!

Obviously, I did not regard this blanket as a very special a special gift initially.  The shift did not occur for years, really, until I was away at college, and living 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 cold winter nights in that apartment, I would have been freezing in my futon bed without that wonderful wool blanket to keep me warm!  I still think of that blanket, which became so worn over time that I finally had to give it up, let it go.  I remember how painful my experiences of that blanket were at first (what kind of Christmas gift is a wool blanket for a teenage boy?), but also how I learned to value it, even treasure it, in later years.

Those among us who struggle with experiences of anxiety know all too well how intensely painful these experiences 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 common 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 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 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 in my teenage years, 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, music player, or anything else that I really wanted; instead, I thought about how the blanket served me well in ways that I had not expected, but came to value very much.

What are some of the ways in which you can say that anxiety has been a gift to you?  What welcome differences in your experiences of anxiety, and of life more generally, might experimenting with a perspective like this one might make possible for you?

With my very best wishes to you for increased calm and confidence during this holiday season, and in 2014 … !

An earlier version of this post was published on 12/17/2012.

Featured image credit: kozzi / 123RF Stock Photo


Scott Burns KahlerAbout Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, CPC, ELI-MP

Scott is a psychotherapist, personal development coach, and the founder of Thought Tonic.  He dedicates his work to those who identify themselves as struggling with anxious thinking, and often their self-esteem, to help them experience their lives with greater calm and confidence.

Scott maintains a counseling practice in Indianapolis, Indiana, and does coaching in-person, over the telephone, and by Skype.

You can follow Scott and the Thought Tonic blog  via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Questions?  Contact Scott.


"It's Not Easy Being Green"

“It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”

I have seen a cartoon recently that gives me a chuckle, and prompts reflection, every time I think of it.  In the foreground, the cartoon features a male physician sitting at his desk, looking at an X-ray.  On the other side of the desk, we see the patient whose X-ray the physician has in hand.  Although the cartoon is in Spanish, and the physician addresses his patient as “señor Gustavo,” I can hardly imagine a reader in the U.S. who would not recognize the patient as one of Jim Henson’s most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog, who croons the song, “Bein’ Green,” with its well-known line, “It’s not easy bein’ green.”

In the X-ray that the physician is holding, we can see the bones of a human forearm inside the outline of the patient’s body, the wrist at neck level, and the hand occupying the head, thumb beneath the lower jaw and the rest — well, you know how a puppet works.  Loosely translated, the physician is saying to Kermit, who has been known as “la rana Gustavo” — Gustavo the Frog — in Spain, “Have a seat, Mr. Gustavo … what I have to tell you may come as a complete shock.”  There is another version of this cartoon making its way around Facebook, I’ve found, in which the physician’s words to Kermit are rendered, “What I’m about to tell you is gonna change your life forever.  Are you really sure you want to know it?”

When I think about this cartoon, I find myself reflecting on what Kermit hasn’t realized on his own, presumably, and is about to learn from his physician: in spite of any sense of autonomy and independence that Kermit has experienced and thought of himself as having in his life, he has been a puppet — not in nearly as much control of himself as he may have imagined.  For me, this idea parallels a realization that I often experience, contrastingly, whenever I have been feeling especially stymied or “stuck” — so, not free — in my life, either with a sense of being victimized, or angry at and blaming a situation, another person, or other people for my discontent or pain.  In these scenarios — and frequently only when things start to shift, unfortunately — I realize with a groan that I have been a puppet of sorts, subjecting myself to limited ways of thinking and talking about what I have identified as “the problem,” whatever that may be.  I have been a puppet to perspectives that have not been working for me, in other words, and I did not even notice.  Being held, so tightly and unconsciously, in the grip of these particular ways of thinking and talking has been the real issue for me all along!

Take, as just one example, the reaction that I have had to the recent arrival of colder temperatures in the area where I live.  Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I have been working since mid-July to develop a new, healthy habit of running outside, and that I have been excited about my achievements, and enjoying the process.  When cold weather came sooner than I was expecting, I began to complain, feeling reluctant to hit the trail in my shorts and a t-shirt, and grumpy about the idea of moving my running inside — to a treadmill at the gym — or investing in warmer running gear.  I found myself oscillating between an emotional state of “Woe is me!” and feeling mad-at-the-weather, an experience that I let grind my routine to a sulky halt for a few days.  In my pouting, I was a puppet to my feelings of disappointment, fear, frustration, and loss.  When I finally acknowledged to myself that, over the past few months, I had actually learned to love running outside, didn’t want to run in the cold, and would really miss running outside when there was snow and ice on the ground, I decided that, as much sense as my sulking made under the circumstances, I wanted to have a different experience.  Approaching the situation from the perspective of asking myself, “What’s the opportunity here?” I identified at least a couple of options that were open to me: I could learn about and purchase warmer workout gear, and tackle the trail in the colder temperatures with this added insulation, and/or I could get a head start on moving my running indoors for the winter, knowing that there would likely be days at a stretch of snow and ice on the ground when I wouldn’t want to run outside, even with warmer clothes.  I ended up choosing to take my running indoors earlier than I had anticipated.  I’m already looking forward to warmer weather, but in the meantime, I’ll still be running, which is what I want to be doing.

How do you deal with finding yourself a puppet to perspectives that harm or hinder rather than help you, or even other people?  If you took to heart the idea that you can choose to think and talk about things in ways that work for you and others, that you don’t have to be a puppet to the less helpful ways, how would this change you — your life — forever?

Featured image credit: alptraum / 123RF Stock Photo


SBKcroppedAbout Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, CPC, ELI-MP

Scott is a psychotherapist, personal development coach, and the founder of Thought Tonic.  He dedicates his work to those who identify themselves as struggling with anxious thinking, and often their self-esteem, to help them experience their lives with greater calm and confidence.

When he’s not running, writing, or enjoying cartoons, Scott maintains a counseling practice in Indianapolis, Indiana, and does coaching in-person, over the telephone, and by Skype.

You can follow Scott and the Thought Tonic blog  via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Questions?  Contact Scott.


Are You "Shoulding" on Yourself?

Are You “Shoulding” on Yourself?

A week or so ago, I went running one morning after we had experienced stormy weather the evening before, and I encountered a couple of downed trees across the trail that I usually take.  While I could high step over the trunk of the first tree in order to get past, the second tree, which was larger, presented more of an obstacle: I had to duck under the trunk and sidle through an opening in the branches to continue along my way.  On my return trip – I had run up the trail a couple of miles, and then doubled-back – there was a work crew on the scene of the larger fallen tree, starting the process of sawing it into smaller pieces for removal from the trail.  One worker was standing in the opening that I had passed through previously; he was sawing off branches.  As I approached, another worker spotted me, and caught her colleague’s attention; the worker with the saw looked up, noticed me, turned off the saw, and stepped to the side to let me pass.  As I ducked under the trunk, once again, and slid past this worker with the saw, he made a declaration that I imagine — in hindsight — he might have been instructed to utter to anyone: “You’re proceeding at your own risk!”  Feeling a bit nervous, I’m guessing, in response to his warning (or disclaimer), I reacted by trying to be funny.  I replied, “I came this way.  I’ve got to go back this way!”  The other worker and I both laughed.

As I continued my run, I found myself reflecting on what I had said to the worker with the saw, and was struck by how inaccurate my statement had been.  Had I not been able to return the way that I had come up the trail, I was certain that I could have found an alternate, if less straightforward, route to take.  I would have had to backtrack my steps a bit, but there were, in fact, other places to get on and off the trail through neighborhoods that connected to streets I could follow back home.  The way would have been more winding, and I would have experienced it — at least initially — as frustratingly more inconvenient, but I would have ended up at my house all the same.  I might even have found something to appreciate and enjoy in the process!  I did not have to go back the way I came.

In my work as a therapist and a coach, I frequently hear people talk about feeling stymied when the path that they expected to take doesn’t pan out; because they have in their heads that they have to take a certain route to get where they want to go, they feel stumped and discouraged when plans don’t go as they “should,” when they encounter obstacles that they just can’t seem to get past.  They end up feeling stuck.  I have had the experience myself – when writing, as just one kind of example.  How many times have I worked myself into a state of frustrated paralysis because I’m struggling with the introduction or initial paragraph of whatever I’m writing, whether it is an article, a blog post, or a short story, until I stop to think, “Who says that I need to write the introduction (or the initial paragraph) first?”  Once I remember what my goal really is – to write a blog post, let’s say — and not to write a blog post in a particular order (the order in which I write the post is ultimately inconsequential), I am able to get myself unstuck, and moving again in the direction that I want to go.  In these kinds of situations, the block that I experience is a product of my own thinking about how I “should” do whatever it is that I want to do, how I’m telling myself that things are “supposed” to happen.  I fall into the trap of thinking that there is a certain way, even just one way, to meet the goal that I have for myself.

What are the ways in which you find yourself stuck by this kind of “shoulding” on yourself?  What helps you get yourself unstuck, and moving forward again?

Image credit: pinkarmy25 / 123RF Stock Photo


SBKcroppedAbout Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, CPC, ELI-MP

Scott is a psychotherapist, personal development coach, and the founder of Thought Tonic.  He dedicates his work to those who identify themselves as struggling with anxious thinking, and often their self-esteem, to help them experience their lives with greater calm and confidence.

When he’s not running, writing, or thinking about his experiences of running and writing, Scott maintains a counseling practice in Indianapolis, Indiana, and does coaching in-person, over the telephone, and by Skype.

You can follow Scott and the Thought Tonic blog  via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Questions?  Contact Scott.


Image credit: bondsza / 123RF Stock Photo

Moving Forward by Breaking Down

As some of you know, I have started a new, healthy habit in the weeks since mid-July — running. In my last post, I mentioned that I had a goal of running five miles each day for four days a week by the end of October.  Today, I’m excited to announce that I met this goal last week — yes, during the final full week of September, a full month ahead of schedule!

As I celebrated last week, I found myself reflecting once again on the thoughts that had supported me in achieving what I had set out, and wanted, to accomplish.  I determined that one particular idea had been instrumental in the process.  I decided to call this idea, “Moving Forward by Breaking Down” — not in the sense of breaking down psychologically, but in the sense of breaking down my goal.  I was reminded of the joke that asks, “How do you eat an elephant?”  If you haven’t heard the answer before, it is, “One bite at a time!”

You see, as I was adding an extra mile to my route over the course of the previous weeks, I engaged in a certain kind of self-talk whenever I was feeling the strain of the increased distance.  I noticed saying to myself, “Get as far as that bend up ahead!” and then, “That big tree, with the branch hanging over the trail, is not much farther!” and so on — until I reached the five-mile mark, and could begin my cool-down.  I was breaking down the extra mile into shorter sections that I could define by visual targets, and finish one at a time.  I celebrated each “milestone” that I met with an internal attaboy, then, and used my success in reaching that point to propel me forward, toward the next.

The result was being able to get through that fifth mile even on days that I was really feeling the extra distance and time on the trail, and I’m betting that I can put this principle to use in other circumstances, too.  I think of the writing that I like to do, for example – on posts for this very blog – and how overwhelmed I can start to feel when I’m focusing on the whole of my goal, and have lost track of the goal’s constituent parts.  I’m now remembering what Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995), recalls her father saying to her older brother, who, at ten-years-old, was paralyzed by the prospect of writing a report on birds: “‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird (19).’”  Whether we’re talking about bird reports or blog posts, miles or elephants, breaking down our goals into smaller, more manageable-feeling pieces can be one way to help ourselves move forward, and to achieve what we want to accomplish.

When have you broken down a goal into smaller steps to help yourself accomplish what you wanted to achieve?  What other thoughts supported you along the way?

Please note that no elephants were actually eaten, or otherwise harmed, in the writing of this post!

Image credit: bondsza / 123RF Stock Photo


Scott Burns KahlerAbout Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, CPC, ELI-MP

Scott is a psychotherapist, personal development coach, and the founder of Thought Tonic.  He dedicates his work to those who identify themselves as struggling with anxious thinking, and often their self-esteem, to help them experience their lives with greater calm and confidence.

When he’s not running, writing, tracking elephants, or bird-watching, Scott maintains a counseling practice in Indianapolis, Indiana, and does coaching in-person, over the telephone, and by Skype.

You can follow Scott and the Thought Tonic blog  via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Questions?  Contact Scott.


Source: Jastrow, J. (1899). The mind's eye. Popular Science Monthly, 54, 299-312.

What Do You Choose To See?

What do you see when you look at the featured image for today’s post?  A duck?  A rabbit?  Both?  If you see the image as one of these options — a duck, let’s say — are the other ways in which you could see the image — as a rabbit, or as both a duck and rabbit — somehow “not true”?  If multiple ways of seeing the imagine are possible, which one of them do you prefer?  Which one works better for you, in a manner of speaking?

While these kinds of questions may seem a bit silly when we’re talking about an image (“Do I see a duck, a rabbit, or both … what does it matter?”), the thought that I want to offer in posing them is that such considerations actually have significant implications in the context of our day-to-day lives.  In my own experience, what I choose to see in myself and the world around me, including other people — what they say, and what they do — has a profound influence on the ways in which I’m able to respond and interact; seeing multiple possibilities for meaning gives me a wider range of possible responses, more flexible interactions.

Imagine, for instance, that I am standing at the counter in a coffee shop placing my order and paying for my purchase.  The cashier doesn’t smile, greet me, inquire how my day is going, or thank me for my business.  I could, in this situation, see the cashier as “rude” and feel slighted, or succumb to my anxious thinking in the form of self-doubt, and worry that I have done something wrong.  With these interpretations as context, I might snap at the cashier for being “rude,” or keep my mouth shut and leave the coffee shop disgruntled, either way muttering under my breath as I stride out the door, vowing never to order from that person again.  I might feel embarrassed, thinking that I did something to offend the cashier, and accuse myself yet again of being a “loser” in social situations as I shuffle back to my car, berating myself.

Alternatively, I could see the cashier as not having been as courteous to me as I would have liked.  Perhaps the cashier is feeling unusually stressed, or distracted by her own worries.  If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I just don’t know what is going on for her.  Even if I did know the cashier’s story, I wouldn’t know — without asking, anyway — how the cashier would explain her own sense of her behavior in this moment.  If I could allow myself to see the cashier’s behavior as something less offensive to me than “rude,” I might wish her well — regardless of my discontent — and decide to address the issue of unsatisfyingly perfunctory service if I experience it again.

From my own perspective, one of these ways of seeing this experience at the coffee shop works better for me than the others.  If I give myself the opportunity to choose the option of softening my gaze — not looking so harshly, or even looking kindly, on the cashier and myself — I will leave the coffee shop in a better mood, feeling good about myself and how I have responded, with a sense of calm and confidence, happier all around — with my whole world!  While I will be aware of my disappointment in the cashier’s behavior, in the service that I received from her, I will not be consumed by the gap between this experience and the expectations that I had for the interaction, or by a negative way of seeing the cashier, her behavior, or myself that foments feelings of anger, indignation, resentment, or anxiety.

There is always more than one way to look at things.  In any given situation, we can choose to see in the way that works best for us, given the kind of experience that we want to have, how we want to live our lives, the type of person that we want to be, and more.

In your life, who or what are you seeing in ways that don’t work for you?  What would a different way of seeing be? If you saw differently, what would the benefits be?  What would support you in making this shift in perception?  Why are you waiting?

For more ideas about anxious thinking, and how we can respond in ways that help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence in our lives, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Thought Tonic via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed.  Thank you for reading!

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