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.


Woman in Field of Grass

The “Wild and Precious” Present

I’m currently participating in a writing group that meets on a monthly basis. Between each of our meetings, one of the facilitators sends out a topic on which all of us in the group are invited to reflect and write for our next session together. Today, as my post for this blog, I would like to share the inspiration for the group’s most recent topic — an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver — and what came to my mind related to anxiety as I thought about it.

Here in Indianapolis, Indiana, we have had snow and ice on the ground in the neighborhood where I live since the day after Christmas (as I write these words, it is January 8). Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t mind snow, at least initially. I don’t even mind ice — well, for a few days, anyway. After almost two weeks, though, as beautiful as I may find the snow and ice at first, I am past ready for the stuff to melt. Then, I’m okay if it starts all over again — really. I just want a break! Actually, to be absolutely honest, I want an opportunity to walk to the mailbox at the end of the work day without ice skating in my slick-soled dress shoes — to not have a break (of an arm or a leg, that is!). If I were on a reality TV show during any given winter, I would be the cast member (in)famous for wacky arms-waving, yelling-out-loud (and cursing under my breath!) incidents of nearly losing my footing every time I walked out the front door. Yeah, I’m that guy. I’m sure sometimes that my real-life neighbors get together, snickering behind the curtains of the window with the best vantage point, just to watch.

Given this winter context, the topic for the writing group — a couple of lines from a poem called “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (House of Light, 1990) — strikes me as especially ironic, and welcome. After so many days of snow and ice on the ground, I’m ready for a bit of summer — however I can get it! In the poem, the narrator contemplates creation, the company of a grasshopper that eats sugar out of her hand, and she enjoys herself — just being — in fields of grass on a summer day. The lines that the group facilitator asks us to reflect on for our writing this month come from the very end of the poem, when the narrator turns to the audience with a question. In my own head, I hear the question as the narrator’s response to an imagined reprimand for spending the day in what some people would surely interpret as an indolent, even self-indulgent fashion:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What comes up for me when I read these last lines of Oliver’s poem is what I heard the narrator just describe doing with her own “wild and precious” life during a summer day that she spends in fields of grass — attending to the moment, to her experience in the moment. I hear the narrator’s question, then, as a call to live in the present — a practice that, in my own experience, is so often a challenge when I am feeling anxious. Anxiety has a knack for pulling me out of the present moment, whatever may be happening, whether I’m judging the experience that I’m having as a positive or negative one, and setting my mind racing along the lines of “What if … ” and “Then what … ?” If I’m in the middle of an unpleasant experience, the anxiety does not help — I feel only more miserable, in fact. If I’m in the middle of a pleasant experience, the anxiety cheats me out of enjoying it. Either way, anxiety gets me worrying about things that may never happen, at the expense of being present to whatever is happening in the here-and-now, and being able to make conscious choices about how I want to think and feel about those things, and how I want to respond behaviorally. What is it that I plan to do with my one “wild and precious” life? My own answer to Oliver’s narrator is that I plan to be as present as I can manage to be. Like everyone else with a similar goal (I know that you’re out there!), I am always learning how to do so.

When I feel anxious, I’m aware that I have begun to focus my thinking on fears and doubts. I get caught up in my head this way, with side effects that I notice in my body: an upset stomach, palpitating heart, sweating, and restlessness. When I feel anxious, I am plagued by restlessness of my mind as well, in the form of poor concentration — on everything except what I’m feeling anxious about! What helps me when I’m feeling anxious is to bring myself back into the present moment; I am often able to do this by getting out of my head, centering and grounding myself in the sensory experiences of my body. I may take a few slow, deep breaths, concentrating on my experience of those breaths (the sensation of air filling my lungs, my abdomen expanding, and then the reverse) instead of the anxious thoughts that are spinning in my head. I may take a few sips of cold water, noticing the temperature of the water in my mouth, against my tongue, and down my throat as I swallow. At this point, I may then remind myself of what is going well in my life, a few reasons for feeling grateful, giving thanks, in the present. If I have more time, I may decide to take a walk (if there is not snow and ice on the ground!) or go to the gym, listen to music that comforts and soothes me, or meditate. I may use the idea of “Worry Time,” postponing my worry until a certain period later in the day; when that time comes, then, I usually find myself bored by my anxiety before my allotted “Worry Time” is over.

Now, if your experiences of anxiety are anything like mine, they may feel a bit like losing your footing on the ice — out of control, scary, potentially embarrassing if someone is around to see, tending to induce anxiety about having another such experience in the future (which means, then, a sense of anxiety about anxiety … ack!). Clearly, being able to be present to the moment in the midst of such experiences can be a challenge. As corny as this may sound, I often say to myself, “Wow! I’m feeling really anxious right now! How do I want to handle this experience of anxiety in a way that is going to feel helpful to me?” I remind myself that what I’m going through is only temporary, and won’t kill me. Though I would much rather be experiencing myself as “idle and blessed” in fields of grass on a summer day than seized with a sense of anxiety, whatever the context, I do my best to practice the kind of radical attention to the “wild and precious” present moment of life that I find exemplified by the narrator in Oliver’s poem. I think of the present as “wild” because, even with all of my anxious “What if … ?” and “Then what … ?” thinking, I know that I can’t actually control the outcome of events with that thinking (though anxiety constantly tries to convince me otherwise!). I think of the present as “precious” because, when I’m able to make conscious decisions in the moment about how I’m thinking about things, feeling, and how I want to respond behaviorally, the benefits to increasing my sense of calm and confidence are invaluable.

Here’s to your own increasing sense of calm and confidence!

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.

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?

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

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz Trailer 2

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears … Oh, My!

In The Wizard of Oz (1939), as Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man make their way along the yellow-brick road through a forest that Dorothy describes as “dark and creepy,” the three of them provide us with an example of catastrophizing, the kind of anxious thinking in which we assume the worst as the result of an experience that we interpret negatively.  I have included the dialogue, as well as a link to an excerpt from the film posted on YouTube, below.

Dorothy:  I don’t like this forest.  It’s … it’s dark and creepy!
Scarecrow:  Of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.
Dorothy:  Do … do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?
Tin Man:  Hmmm … we might.
Scarecrow:  Animals that … that eat straw?
Tin Man:  Some, but mostly lions and tigers and bears.
Dorothy:  Lions!
Scarecrow:  And tigers?
Tin Man:  And bears.
Dorothy:  Lions, and tigers, and bears … oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!
All:  Lions, and tigers, and bears …
Dorothy:  Oh, my!

On YouTube: Dorothy Meets the Cowardly Lion (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

In this scene, Dorothy worries that she and her friends will encounter wild animals as they travel through the forest that she doesn’t like; Scarecrow frets that the wild animals might have an appetite for straw.  In their increasingly frenetic verbal repetition of “lions, and tigers, and bears” — as they skip faster and faster down the road — Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man demonstrate the obsessive, self-reinforcing quality of anxious thinking.  Dorothy’s own anxious thinking proves almost too much for words; her catastrophizing gets summed up in her gasp of an exclamation,”Oh, my!”

What happens, then, when the trio’s fears come true, and a roaring lion bounds into view?  Once the lion turns from bullying Scarecrow and Tin Man and begins to chase a yapping Toto, Dorothy gives him a swat on the nose.  Courage!  Now, when Dorothy was consumed with her catastrophizing, just a few moments before, did she pause to think how she might handle such a situation, or even that she could?  If she had considered how she wanted to handle an encounter with a wild animal, that she could handle it, should it occur, I will venture that she might well have worried less, and experienced more calm and confidence as she, Scarecrow, Tin Man — and Toto, too — made their way through the forest, and down the yellow-brick road.

For those of us with a sense of social anxiety, shyness, or performance fears, catastrophizing often looks like assuming that an experience that we interpret negatively will have dire, unmanageable consequences.  I may fear, for instance, that if I can’t remember someone’s name at a party, I will be mortified, and then stammer, blush, or otherwise demonstrate my embarrassment, and that the other person will judge me as not only forgetful, but odd, and not want to talk to me; this person whose name I forgot might even tell other people at the party, including the hosts, what an awful, awkward experience she had with me!  I’ll never get invited to another party again!  Even if we don’t go to quite this extreme in our fantasies of fear, we are engaging in catastrophic thinking whenever we assume the worst will happen, and forget to ask ourselves “So what if that happens?” or “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?”  A cognitive-behavioral response to catastrophic thinking encourages us not only to question the likelihood of whatever worst-case scenario we are imagining — our own encounter with “lions, and tigers, and bears” — but to challenge the end-of-the-world import that we attribute to that scenario, and to find ways to respond to our fears that we will not be able to manage the experience.

What have been your own experiences of catastrophic thinking?  How have you learned to challenge this thinking?

If you’re interested in following this blog via e-mail, please feel free to subscribe.  If you have topics or questions that you would like to see featured, let me know!  If you’re interested in counseling or coaching resources for increased calm and confidence, visit scottburnskahler.com.

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