Anxiety in Slow Motion

One Moment: Anxiety in Slow Motion

“And this will be/The one moment that matters.”

 — OK Go, “The One Moment”

One of the most disorienting aspects of anxious moments is the way our thoughts and physical sensations can race ahead of us.  In these instances, we typically can’t quite catch up to our minds and bodies long enough to make sense of what we’re experiencing, which only serves to add to our already heightened feelings of worry and distress.  Frustratingly, while everything is moving quickly on the inside, we often simultaneously find ourselves paralyzed on the outside.

A powerful strategy for overcoming anxiety consists of learning to play back these internal hyperspeed moments in slow motion.  We’ll look at how to do this, but first let’s examine why this is so effective.  For an illustration, we turn to a brilliant music video by the always inventive band, OK Go.    

In their video, “The One Moment,” OK Go takes 4.2 seconds of footage and extends it in slow motion across the length of their song, which lasts nearly 4 minutes.  When you first watch those 4.2 seconds in real-time, it’s almost impossible to make sense of what you’re looking at.  It’s a head-spinning, chaotic blur of colors and explosions.  But when you see the same moment slowed down, you begin to experience wide-eyed awe and wonder at every detail as it unfolds gracefully in time with the music.  

Take a minute, watch it right now.   Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

At the end of the video, the same 4.2 seconds plays again, in reverse.  When you see this “one moment” the second time around, suddenly it begins to make more sense.  You can now pick out and appreciate individual elements (like bursting water balloons, shattering glass, and exploding guitars) to an extent you couldn’t before.  

The same thing can happen for us after we’ve practiced putting our moments of anxiety into slow motion: we can begin to make better sense of all the fast moving pieces in ways that shift our entire experience and empower us to generate new responses.

Back to the question of “How?”  Just as we can only put a moment caught on video tape into slow motion after the fact, we can only put anxiety into slow motion retroactively.  In a calm, quiet moment, we can return to a recent experience of anxiety and review each detail of what happened, effectively slowing it down before our very eyes.  

I created an easy format to help you practice this, you’ll find it here.   

Once we’ve replayed the details of one anxious moment in slow motion, we begin to find a new ability to attend to all kinds of aspects of our experience that might have moved too quickly for us to observe before.  The next time an anxious moment comes to visit, we are better prepared to pick out individual elements — even as they play out in real-time speed.

This gives us a new competitive edge in the games anxiety likes to play, because now we can more quickly make sense of what we’re experiencing.  We gain a greater sense of control and mastery amid the chaos when we can say, “Aha, I know what is happening here!”  As we feel more sure of ourselves, anxiety loses its grip on us.  Disoriented and powerless feelings move to the background, replaced by a growing confidence that enables us to step forward into new possibilities for calming our thoughts and feelings.  

Your most recent anxious moment can be the “one moment” that matters.  Go ahead, play it back in slow motion.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.    

Featured image credit: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

Enjoy the Holidays

Paint the Elephant: Daring to Enjoy the Holidays

“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.”

— Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

A couple of months ago, I found myself painting an elephant.  It was one of those events with an instructor taking a sizable group of us through the intricacies of elephant portraiture stroke by stroke.  You can see the end result for yourself — this canvas will not be finding its way into any fine art galleries any time soon!

paint-the-elephant

But you know what?  I enjoyed the heck out of creating that ill-proportioned, awkward-looking behemoth.  I savored the feeling of the brush squishing in fresh paint and the whispering sound it made as it whooshed across the textured canvas.  I marveled at the colors I created on my paper plate pallet; the way such a tiny drop of white could shift the entire vibrancy of a hue.

Meanwhile, all around me, my table mates could be heard grunting and grumbling, with mounting frustration and discouragement.  Harsh self-judgments, embarrassment, comparison, and shame echoed all around.  I found myself feeling sorry for these disenchanted artists.  They were so busy holding themselves to lofty standards of elephant painting that they were missing out on all the joy I was relishing.  But I could well identify with their plight: how often have I found myself similarly criticizing my imperfect efforts when I could have been having fun with my shortcomings instead?

It was a moment that crystallized for me the importance of focusing on being present to the process over evaluating the outcome.  The difference between me and the grumblers wasn’t that I was a better painter or a more naturally cheerful person, it was simply that I had set a different focal point for my experience.  Being present to the process set me up for joy and wonder; focusing on the outcome set them up for frustration and disappointment.

The holidays are coming, and with them increased opportunities for grunting and grumbling.  Between social pressures and self-imposed expectations, we often hold unexamined, lofty goals that turn our attention toward evaluating outcomes.  Such an outcomes-over-process perspective sets us up for anxiously trying to avoid perceived failures and harshly criticizing ourselves when we fall short, both of which make it more difficult to relax and enjoy the (supposedly) “most wonderful time of the year.”

What might happen if we could apply the same principle that leads to joyful elephant painting to our holiday endeavors?  As you anticipate upcoming holiday plans, which ones are most likely to bring out anxious thoughts or self-critical feelings?  What are the outcomes on which you might tend to focus, distracting yourself from opportunities for finding joy?  Now take a moment to shift your focus to aspects surrounding the process of those activities that you are most likely to enjoy.  Imagine what it might be like to hold those life-giving elements of your experience in the forefront of your attention.  How might your experience shift as your focus shifts?

As Elizabeth Gilbert aptly stated, enjoying anything in life is often a courageous act that sets us apart.  When the expected stress of the season arises within and around us, “paint the elephant” can serve as a motto that redirects our thoughts and restores our sense of calm.

“Paint the elephant.”

Bring your attention to being present to the process instead of worrying about outcomes.

“Paint the elephant.”

Relish whatever goodness you can cling to in your experiences, even when they fall short of your hopes or expectations.

“Paint the elephant.”

Allow yourself to make mistakes, to get it wrong, and yet … to have a grand time anyway.

Featured image credit: RhondaK / Unsplash

Pacing Change

Sailing Into the Wind: Pacing Change

As a young child, I once darted away from my parents and gleefully jumped into the deep end of a pool.  I had done this many times before with my water wings on to keep me afloat, but this time was different: I jumped in bare armed with no inflated support to buoy me.  Fortunately, my folly was spotted quickly, and I was fished out of the water before I could quite comprehend what had happened.  In time, with support and swimming lessons, navigating the deep end on my own became second nature.

As adults, few of us would jump into the deep end of a pool if we hadn’t learned to swim, and yet we conceptualize change as requiring that we “take the plunge,” ready or not.  We often view change as an all or nothing prospect, requiring grand gestures that lead to dramatic results.  Once we are fed up with the way things have been, we can can trick ourselves into believing that the only way forward is to dive immediately headlong into everything different.

When we approach change this way, we unintentionally set ourselves up for frustration and self-doubt.  If we try to take on too much change too quickly, we may end up thrashing about haphazardly while gasping for air, like a child in the deep end of a pool.  Once we’ve experienced that kind of unpleasantness, it becomes a lot more appealing to sit by the side of the pool than to get back in it.  We start to tell ourselves that change is too scary, or that we don’t have what it takes, or that it’s not really going to be that great after all.

That’s why it can be helpful to think about making change a little bit at a time, like dipping toes into the shallow end.  Once we get a feel for the water, we are more comfortable wading in a little deeper, and a little deeper, and a little deeper.  Perhaps we can even find a trusted teacher or friend to model strokes for us.  If we take our time, not only are the changes we are making more enjoyable, but we might even take off swimming before we are fully aware that we’ve learned the motions.

You have probably heard that change is difficult and that we have a human tendency to resist anything new; yet, some schools of thought embrace change as a natural process and view people as inherently wired for transformation.  Solution-focused therapists, for instance, believe that change is “inevitable” and “always happening” (Gehart, p. 337).  Similarly, collaborative therapists observe that “we are never at a standstill; our meanings, our bodies, and so on are always in motion” (Anderson & Gehart, p. 11).  In other words, perhaps change is already in us, and all around us — not something “out there” that we have to “make happen.”  In fact, an underlying thread throughout postmodern methods of counseling is the notion that we are likely already living into the changes we wish to make to a greater degree than we realize.

A favorite metaphor of mine for change is sailing into the wind.  When sailboats are heading in the direction that the wind is blowing, they can move quickly and easily toward a destination.  But often a sailboat needs to move against the wind.  It seems impossible, doesn’t it?  Yet experienced sailors tackle this feat regularly.  How?  The practice is called “tacking upwind,” and you can watch a quick illustration of it here.

When a captain tacks the sailboat upwind, she moves the ship forward in a gradual zigzag pattern — back and forth, back and forth, a little bit closer to her endpoint with each turn.  Click here for a diagram.  If the captain were to attempt to sail directly upwind, she wouldn’t move an inch; she would be stuck.  Sailors have a name for this experience: “caught in irons.”

Whatever the change you are wanting in your life, it may help you to make your way forward one zig or zag at a time.  Be patient with yourself and with those around you.  Take a moment to notice and celebrate even the smallest steps you make; recognizing one experience of success, however small, lays the foundation for your next move.  If you have already found yourself floundering in the deep end, or “caught in irons,” that’s okay, too.  Step back, calmly take stock of your surroundings, and look for a gentle entry point to try again.  If you don’t see a way forward immediately, allow yourself to rest and come back to your goal in a few days.

Wherever you are at right now in the process of change, congratulate yourself for being brave enough to start the journey.  You have already begun to make a change, just by deciding where you would like to go.  Keep at it, no matter which way the wind may blow — the change you are seeking is already unfolding.

Featured image credit: aragami12345 / 123RF Stock Photo

Through A Glass Darkly

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.  — P. J. O’Rourke

I was in my freshman or sophomore year of college — it is all just a blur, now — when I got my first pair of eyeglasses.  I had been sitting in a large, lecture-style class when I noticed that I could not make out the words that the professor was writing on the chalkboard in the front of the room.  My peers were not having the same difficulty.  I tried sitting in a number of seats, hoping that a change in lighting or in my distance from the front of the room would help, but nothing made much of a difference.  The course was one in music history and appreciation, and for a couple of weeks, I was playing my own game of musical chairs!  When it was clear that moving around the room, developing a French-Stewart squint, wasn’t helping me decipher the writing on the chalkboard, off I went to see an optometrist.

Because I knew that both of my parents had gotten glasses as children, I was not surprised by the idea that it might finally be “my time”; truthfully, however, I had been hoping that I had escaped any genetic predisposition to need corrective eyewear, and had even managed to pride myself on getting through my childhood and teenage-years without the slightest indication of trouble with my vision (as if I had anything to do with it!).  As much as getting glasses was a blow to my pride, though, wearing them was a greater blow to my vanity; I did not see myself as one of those people so easily able to pull off the look that we would later call “geeky chic.”  Worst of all, perhaps, was that I had not yet matured out of exceptionally oily adolescent skin, and I was always navigating the world, then, through lenses that were covered with smudges.

Given my own experience with eyeglasses, I have often found the image of eyeglasses helpful in explaining the idea that, as human beings, each of us views our world through a specific set of lenses.  These lenses are comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have developed over time out of our individual experiences, and in the context of constructing meanings of those experiences in our conversations and relationships with other people.  I think of everyone as wearing a pair of invisible eyeglasses — glasses of perception — all of the time.  Some of the lenses in these invisible glasses (such as the lenses that I had in college, covered with smudges) limit our vision, restrict what we’re able to see, and so reduce the range of ways in which we’re able to show up in our lives; other lenses (think of those that are clean and clear) augment or otherwise expand our vision.  These latter lenses help us to see more of what is possible, and support our focus on whatever we decide matters most to us in our lives — by opening up options of conscious emotional and behavioral response to situations that we encounter.  Please understand that I am not proposing the notion that we can have direct, unmediated (godlike?) access to the “reality” of things (which could be one interpretation of having glasses of perception with crystal clear lenses), or even that we judge the “dirty” set of lenses as “bad” and the “clean” set as “good.”  I am suggesting that the clear or unsmudged set of lenses (having thoughts and beliefs that help us rather than hold us back) offers us increased opportunities to perceive a wider range of possibilities for feeling and responding in any given circumstance, and so the freedom to pick which feelings and behavior we think will work best, or how we want to show up as we move in the direction that we want to go.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are seated in a crowded cafe and think that you may see a friend at a table across the room.  You are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with smudged lenses (or perhaps regular sunglasses with smudged lenses, if you do not wear prescription eyewear).  You can’t see very clearly with dirty lenses, and feel less certain, less confident, as a result.  You mutter under your breath, a bit perplexed and disgruntled, “Now, is that Susie over there?”  You respond tentatively, even anxiously — finally deciding that because you can’t really tell if that woman is Susie or not, you are not going to approach her, call out, or wave (the cafe is pretty casual!).

If, on the other hand, you are wearing a pair of glasses with clean lenses, you will likely feel less anxious in this same situation, saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s my friend, Susie, across the room there!”  You will move with greater confidence, deciding to get up from your own table to pay her a visit, perhaps, or to call out to her — waving, and smiling widely — “‘Hey, Susie!  Over here!'”

Now, most of us, I would imagine, prefer the vision of clear, confident energy in the second of these two responses.  We can call this energy “anabolic” since we so often experience variations of it as “building us up.”  We may be so used to looking through dirty lenses in our invisible glasses, however, that we do not even realize how much these lenses — the often unconscious thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world in general — dim our view, and so our experience of life, with the effects of a very different energy.  We can call this latter energy catabolic” since it is often constrains us, drains us, and “breaks us down.”  In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider talks about examples of what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as falling into four main categories of “energy blocks”: limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and “gremlins” (with “gremlin” being one way to reference what we also often call our inner critic).

Sometimes, as happens in the story in Schneider’s book, we may find it helpful to examine our lenses with the support of another person who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction we want to go.  With this idea as inspiration, I will be addressing in the weeks that follow each of these four obstacles to our experience of anabolic energy as topics for this blog.  I will offer further definitions and examples, explain how I see these obstacles relating to the kinds of anxious thinking identified in cognitive-behavioral therapy (as another way of thinking and talking about them), and explore ideas for how we can respond when we notice ourselves feeling out-of-focus or have the sense that the vision we want for ourselves is blurred — not on account of myopia or astigmatism — but because of smudges of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs on the lenses of our perception.  I hope that you will feel free to join me by reading along, and by offering your own thoughts as comments on the blog posts, if you are so inclined.


Updated: 01/14/2019

Featured image credit: anaken2012 / 123RF Stock Photo

What Do You Choose to See?

What Do You Choose to See?

The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see. — Barry Neil Kaufman

duck-rabbit_illusionWhat do you see when you look at the image to the right?  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 image 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 (You may be asking yourself, “Do I see a duck, a rabbit, or both … what does it matter?”), I contend that the considerations they represent have significant implications in our day-to-day lives.  To quote Barry Neil Kaufman, “The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.”  In my own experience, I’ve noticed over and over again that 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 in any given experience gives me a wider range of possible responses; I’m often able to choose one of the more helpful options, then.

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.  In this situation, I could see the cashier as “rude” or “disrespectful,” 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 “disrespectful,” I might be able to wish her well — regardless of my discontent — and decide to address the issue of unsatisfying service the next time that I experience it, 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 responded, with a sense of calm and confidence — happier all around!  Although 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 aren’t working?  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?


Updated: 01/13/2019

Featured Image: Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Embedded Image: File:Duck-Rabbit illusion.jpg (Wikimedia Commons)

"It's Not Easy Bein' 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 wouldn’t 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?”  To see the cartoon, click here.

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 had last fall to the arrival of colder temperatures in the area where I live.  I had been working since mid-July to develop a new, healthy habit of running outside, and I had been excited about my achievements, 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 would not want to run outside, even with warmer clothes.  I ended up choosing to take my running indoors earlier than I had anticipated.  I was already looking forward to warmer weather, but in the meantime, I was still running, which is what I really wanted to be doing.

How do you deal with finding yourself a puppet to perspectives that harm or hinder you, 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

Beauty in the Cracks

Seeing Beauty in the Cracks

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in  — Leonard Cohen

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.  — Confucius

I took a two-hour class at a local art center one evening in which we made clay pinch pots — bowls or vases, basically, that we created out of a ball of clay. The process consisted of pushing one’s thumb into the center of the ball of clay to start the opening, and then pinching and turning the ball of clay between the thumb and fingers to form and thin the walls of the pot, and finally to shape the rim. As I worked, I found myself feeling anxious from time to time about what I deemed to be imperfections in my pot — cracks that had started to form in the clay, a lop side, an errant undulation in the rim. I was not the only one in the room to have this kind of response. Others were nervous, too, about their own creations. The instructor was very kind and reassuring to us all, offering pointers for addressing issues that may have really been serious — structurally speaking, I’m guessing — but also proffering compliments on some of the other characteristics that seemed to worry us the most.

As I left the class that night, reflecting on making my pinch pot, and on the anxiety that I had experienced in the process, I found my thoughts turning over an image and its accompanying text that I had seen on Facebook and Twitter a while ago, and that had recently resurfaced in my feeds. If you recognize the word, “kintsukuroi,” you may well know it, as I do, from the very image and text that I’m talking about; for an example, click here. The image is one of a gray pottery bowl — veined with gold to dramatic effect — offered to illustrate the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, or kintsugi, in which broken pottery is mended with a lacquer resin to which powdered gold has been added. The text that accompanies this image describes the art as embracing a perspective that “the piece [of pottery] is more beautiful for having been broken.”  As I had fretted in my pottery class over aspects of my pinch pot that I perceived to be imperfect, parts that I was judging as “not good enough,” I was struggling to remember the idea behind kintsukuroi — that we can choose to see beauty in the very cracks and errant undulations that we so often want to “correct,” cover up, distract attention from, or otherwise disavow.

I wonder how different our lives would be if we saw beauty, rather than imperfection and brokenness, in more of the “cracks” around us — in those aspects of ourselves, others, and our experiences to which we tend to respond with judgment and worry, fear, and sometimes animosity. Wouldn’t we feel more calm, compassionate, content, or even confident? If we imagine so, and these feelings interest us, what new ways of thinking and behaving would support the kind of perspective behind this shift? If we already experience “a kintsukuroi perspective” at times in our lives, what do we identify as contributing to it?

Featured image credit: iven401 / 123RF Stock Photo