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How Thinking Differently Can Help Free Us From Anxiety

“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 once had in a writing group.

Sidestepping Our Inner Critic

In the group’s meeting, 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.

The Power of Thinking Differently

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.

Let Freedom (From Anxiety) Ring!

Now, how do you achieve 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!

Featured Image: Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

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