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.


The Blessings of Gratitude

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

Next week, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving.  On Thursday, November 28, we will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives.  We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, will also be aware of feeling anxious.  Our sense of anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that we so often experience as part of the rest of the holiday season.  Lucky for us, Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote – in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember.  Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like.  We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful.  If we are giving a talk and notice that some members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation.  If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went.  We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically.  For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences.  Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal each day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members.  Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence – one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you will find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks when you’re feeling angst, not only in the coming week — or next Thursday, on Thanksgiving — but all year long.  What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude?  What are ways in which you already do?

An earlier version of this post was published on 11/19/2012 as Thanks, Not Angst.

Featured image credit: petarpaunchev / 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.

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.


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.

Gratitude

Thanks, Not Angst

This week, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving. On Thursday, November 22, we will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives. We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, this coming Thursday, will also be aware of feeling anxious. Our anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that are so often part of the rest of the holiday season. Lucky us, that Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote – in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember. Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will likely reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like. We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful. If we are giving a talk and notice that some of the members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation. If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went. We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically. For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences. Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal every day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members. Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence – one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you’ll find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks, not angst – not only this Thursday, as you celebrate Thanksgiving, but all year long. What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude? What are ways in which you already do?

Please feel free to subscribe to this blog via e-mail, if you are interested; you will receive every new post delivered straight to your inbox.

For additional information about counseling and coaching resources for calm and confidence, visit scottburnskahler.com.

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