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.


Image credit: frankljunior / 123RF Stock Photo

Let Freedom from Anxiety Ring!

“Anxiety is … the meaning we make of something.” — Marla W. Deibler

“From ev’ry mountainside / Let freedom ring!” — Samuel Francis Smith

In the 1996 movie, Independence Day, alien antagonists are intent on eradicating human beings and taking over the earth, and the human protagonists (“we”) are fighting the aliens for survival; in the contention, both sides use subterfuge — or what I will call oblique or indirect approaches, at the very least — in their attempts to achieve the outcomes that are important to them. The aliens hide their countdown to a coordinated first strike in our own satellite transmissions, and we send a Trojan Horse virus into the computer system of the mother ship that renders their destroyers vulnerable to our counterstrike. In a nod to the upcoming U.S. holiday from which this movie takes its name, I want to take the opportunity in today’s post to share a few ideas that I have been entertaining recently about one approach that may help some of us liberate ourselves from the tyranny of anxious thinking at times, freeing us to experience greater calm and confidence in our lives. While my ideas pick up on the pattern of action in the movie, Independence Day – oblique or indirect approaches that can be effective in meeting goals (think of mothers who blend vegetables with other foods their kids will eat!) — they have come to me as I have been reflecting on an experience that I had last month in a writing group.

In the group’s meeting last month, the facilitator presented two different prompts — scenarios to get us started in timed writing exercises during our time together. In the first, she asked us to choose a common saying or idiom, something such as “The early bird gets the worm!” or — to continue the ornithic theme — “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!” We were to tweak the saying, then, and use it, as well as five out of 10 random words that the facilitator gave us, in our subsequent writing. In the second prompt, we had the opportunity to choose for inspiration a stone, shell, or other object that our facilitator had gathered in a container from a recent trip to the beach; for this exercise, there were no other elements to keep in mind or that we had to use in the process of writing.

Since I tend to think of myself as someone who prefers less structure and a sense of freedom in what I do — a spontaneous, flexible, and “organic” quality, let’s say — I was struck by my considerably more satisfied experience of writing in response to the first, more complicated and specific prompt. I had a significant sense of familiar “writer’s block” in response to the second, more open one. As I reflected on this difference, and tried to make sense of it for myself, I had the thought that in focusing on a process (choosing a saying, tweaking it, using five out of 10 random words, etc.) that didn’t register in my brain as “writing” (i.e., the activity had a different meaning for me), I had been able to sidestep the tension, or anxiety, that I often experience in writing. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by “writer’s block,” my “internal editor” (a variation of my own inner critic in such instances!) has usually gotten involved in evaluating my writing sooner than is helpful in my creative process.

My next thought was that this “sidestepping” I had experienced might have useful applications in other contexts that tend to rouse feelings of tension or anxiety for me, such as when I’m headed into a large gathering of people — a party, or a networking event, for instance. Often, in such a situation, I will start to feel “blocked” by a sense of nervousness over the idea of “meeting people.” Given my experience of the first exercise in my writer’s group, in which the activity of writing was presented in terms that helped me bypass the sense of anxiety that I often experience in response to it, I found myself wondering about how I could think of “meeting people” in different terms as well. I came up with “saying ‘Hi!’ to three people,” “introducing myself to four people who are wearing red,” and “learning two new people’s names,” as just a few alternatives. I imagine that my experience of the kinds of social situations in which I frequently feel “blocked” by anxiety will feel different when I am thinking in different terms about what I’m doing, taking an oblique or indirect approach to “meeting people.” I am giving what I’m doing a different meaning than the one that has served so often as a prompt for a racing pulse, sweating palms, and spinning thoughts.

Now, how do you achieve a sense of freedom from anxious thinking? In what ways could Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), and President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman)  – some of the “good guys” in the movie, Independence Day — learn a thing or two from you about outwitting and prevailing over a nocuously crafty opponent threatening to take over the world?

Here’s to your calm and confidence! Go create some fireworks!

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 Scott Burns Kahler and this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed. Thank you for reading!

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.

Young Man Thinking

Don’t Believe Everything You Think!

If you have ever been in the market for a new car, you might have noticed how, once you started thinking about what kind of car you wanted – what make, what color – you began to see that car everywhere you went.  Because the car was on your mind, you were inclined to see it, more apt to see it than you would have been otherwise.

If you worry about rejection, you might well experience a similar phenomenon.  When we have rejection on our minds, we also tend to see it, or at least the potential for it, everywhere.  And why wouldn’t we?  After all, we are trying to protect ourselves from what rejection means for us – loneliness, perhaps, or “proof” that our negative core beliefs, the declarations of our inner critic, are true.  However, the threat of rejection – in the form of other people thinking negatively of us, for instance – is something that we often interpret, and even overinterpret, into situations and what other people say and do.  We indulge in what cognitive-behavioral therapy calls mind reading.

In our context of social anxiety, shyness, and performance fears, we can talk about mind reading as another kind of anxious thinking (two weeks ago, we looked at personalization as our first example).  When we engage in mind reading, we make anxious assumptions not only about what other people are thinking, but that they are thinking negatively of us.

Let us say, for instance, that I am aware that I begin to sweat and blush when I feel nervous.  I may assume not only that others notice my physical responses, but that they view me as strange or weird as a result.  In making these assumptions, I am engaging in mind reading on two counts.  First, I am assuming that others can tell as clearly as I can that I am feeling nervous, which may not be true; then, I am assuming that others are judging me negatively, which may not be accurate, either.  In both cases, I am very likely overestimating the probability that my fears represent what others really have on their minds.  From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, probability overestimation is yet another kind of anxious thinking, one that often goes hand-in-hand with mind reading.  For many of us, the idea that we overestimate the likelihood of what we fear is both a relief and difficult to believe.  Don’t forget – we are trying to avoid the pain of what rejection means to us.  Why wouldn’t we overestimate the danger?  We think that doing so will keep us safer.

The trouble is that in being so vigilant against the threat of rejection, and seeing it everywhere, we actually set ourselves up for more frequent chances of having the very kinds of experiences that we want to avoid.  For example, if we speak too softly or avoid eye contact in social situations on account of our fears, others may “reject” us not because they are actually thinking negatively of us, but because they interpret us as not interested in them.

The good news is … we do not have to believe everything that we think!  Our perception of rejection, or its potential, is open to challenge.  We can approach our thoughts like a purchase we have made; if one doesn’t work for us, we can take it back!

To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing, what have been your own experiences of mind reading?  How do you keep yourself from believing the negative things that you imagine others are thinking about you?

I will be continuing to write about kinds of anxious thinking in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in following this blog, you can do so via e-mail; please feel free to subscribe!

For more information and resources, visit scottburnskahler.com.

Disgusted?

Anxious Thinking — Personalization

One of the premises of a cognitive-behavioral response to problems with social anxiety, shyness, or performance fears is that certain ways of thinking fuel the experiences that are our complaint; we can call this phenomenon “anxious thinking.”  There are several patterns or types of anxious thinking defined in the literature on cognitive-behavioral therapy, and many of these patterns overlap.  In this post, I am going to focus on one and touch on a couple of others.  The kind of anxious thinking that I will concentrate on today is often called personalization.

When we engage in personalization, we take an experience personally – that is to say, as caused by or about us – and we fail to consider all the other factors that may be at play, or other ways of interpreting the situation.  If I am sitting in a coffee shop, for example, I might look up and see a woman at another table looking in my direction and wrinkling her nose.  I assume that the woman is looking at me and wrinkling her nose in disgust at some aspect of my appearance or behavior, perhaps the fact that I’m typing on my laptop in a coffee shop, or that I forgot to comb my hair before leaving the house.  In this instance, not only have I taken the situation personally in seeing myself as the object of the woman’s attention and as the cause of her facial expression, but I am indulging in mind reading as well – assuming that I know the woman’s thoughts — yet another kind of anxious thinking.  In reality, this woman may be looking at me and admiring my tousled hair, or noticing my laptop, which is a brand she has considered buying, while her nose starts to tickle.  She may not be thinking about me at all, even if she is looking at me!

Cognitive-behavioral therapy encourages us to challenge our anxious thinking, to consider meanings or interpretations other than the ones that fuel our experiences of anxiety.  In the case of personalization, we may remind ourselves – perhaps with a mixture of relief and disappointment – that “It’s not all about me!”  After all, what makes me think that this woman cares about what I am doing or how I look?  Even if the woman is looking at me, and is critical of my appearance or behavior (which is not the same as being critical of me as a person, I might add), I could ask myself, “So what?  Why do I care?”  I wonder if we care at times because we want a sense of validation that we matter somehow to someone, or because the criticism that we imagine echoes our own conscience, self-doubts, or inner critic.  Perhaps I am feeling a bit guilty about sitting at a table for two at the coffee shop to type on my laptop for an hour, or I tend to be critical of my hair, thinking it too thin or wispy or curly, or I am beating myself up for being a ditz yet again, this time walking out of the house before I looked in the mirror.  We can talk about negative core beliefs of the “I’m not good enough!” or “Something is wrong with me!” variety (and there are others) as a third kind of anxious thinking involved in this scenario.

To the extent that you are comfortable sharing, what have been your own experiences of personalization?  What are the helpful ways you have found to respond?

I will be writing more about other types of anxious thinking in the coming weeks.  If you’re interested, you can follow this blog via e-mail!

For more information and resources, visit scottburnskahler.com.

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