Three Steps to Releasing from Anxiety

Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”  So it is true with me and probably with you as well.  When we follow our anxiety-ridden thoughts to their destination, inevitably we arrive at dark and fearsome places.

Anxiety is always about what MIGHT go wrong.  It hijacks our thought processes and takes us into fretful realms.  We may rise up in revolt, but the flight path seems predetermined and out of our control.

If this process is all too familiar, it’s because we have boarded that plane many times.  We think of an upcoming event or a task, and we play out the scenarios in our minds.  Then, as it often does, that inner terrorist rises from his seat and, before we can stop it,  we are captive passengers on Air Anxiety.

If you’re like me, you have worked hard to avoid anxiety’s emotional hijacking.  And we have tried a variety of methods to do so: affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, changing the thought channel.  Some of us have felt temporary relief from anxiety through the use of alcohol, prescribed and unprescribed drugs, gaming, Internet, and Facebook. Though we resist the tendency, we end up—time and again—passengers on an anxious journey.

Finally, after decades of struggling with anxiety, I have found a solution to this emotional hijacking in Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT).  And more specifically, in a very accessible book called Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong that applies the core tenets of ACT to anxiety.

“The principle reasons we get anxious is to protect ourselves from anticipated pain,” according to Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of the book.

Pain is an inevitable part of life.  Because we have an aversion to pain, we all become anxious at the thought of it.  And ACT acknowledges that all of us—even Zen masters—have anxious thoughts during a typical day.

This is because our brains developed in a very threatening environment.  We were not only predator but also prey.  What was bad was bad AND what could be bad was also bad.  So actual danger and the possibility of danger became one and the same thought.

ACT, however, provides a powerful psychological tool to cope with anxiety.   One of the keys to releasing from anxiety, Wilson and Dufrene say, is not engaging it.  When we spot a bear in the distance, it’s best to back away and create distance.  Same with our anxious thoughts.  When we feel ourselves being pulled into the thought, we need to disengage.

How do we do that?  By first understanding that all thinking is divided into two categories: the ruminating mind and the experiencing mind.  Rumination is what happens when the mind wanders.  Its domain is the past and the future.  The experiencing mind is about connection to the present moment.   If this sounds like mindfulness, then you are right.

Once we have this awareness, we can apply the concepts Wilson and Troy present that are based on ACT principles. They recommend that when a thought begins to generate anxiety, we apply this three-step process to release from its grip:

  1. Identify the thought. When we name the anxious thought, we alert ourselves to it and avoid stepping into its snare.

 

  1. Step back from it. The more we fight the thought, the more we get swept away in it. This includes trying to change the anxious thought to a positive thought.  Brain research has proved that the thought will recoil with even more power if we try to push it away from our consciousness. Instead, we release (defuse) from the thought rather than fuse with it.

 

  1. Make contact with the present moment. Change your attention from the future or past to the here and now.  Instead of sitting on the coach allowing your mind to toggle back and forth between the past and future, find something that you value to engage your mind in the present. This keeps you from endlessly reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. “Anxiety is always out of place in the present moment,” according to Wilson and Dufrene.

The key, then, to freedom from anxiety is to remain in the experiencing mind.  Anxiety cannot co-exist with the present moment because anxiety is always what could happen, not what is happening.

When we apply these three simple steps at the onset of an anxious thinking, we can find a freedom from anxiety that is simply more effective than other methods.  With practice, we can come to know a freedom from anxiety that is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.

“If you can learn to remain connected to what’s going on in your life right now, accepting both the sweet and the sad, holding lightly the stories about what’s possible while turning your actions toward things that matter to you” then you have succeeded, as Wilson and Dufrene say, in avoiding the snare of anxiety.

May you all experience the joy of an anxiety-free life.

A Message to Men

I have often felt broken inside.  At best I felt fragmented.  I have sought alcohol and drugs to make me feel whole.   Recovery allowed me to reclaim my life, but I still felt partial as a man.

As I cast my mind across the expanse of my life, I see that I have always struggled to forge close connections with other men.  This includes my father, my friends, my colleagues, and my bosses—all the males in my life.

Like some of you, I was raised by my mother because my father was often absent. In that absence, I was deprived of the masculine role model I needed to nurture me, shape me, and define me as a man.

In this feminized world, I often felt much more comfortable trusting and sharing my thoughts and feelings with women. Though women can teach me valuable things, they cannot initiate me into manhood. For that, I need the company of other men, as men’s leader Wayne M. Levine points out in his article “The Importance of Trusting Men in Your Circle.”

I have often demanded too much masculine support from my female partners, a common issue that Levine says often leads to the breakdown of those relationships.

Men need men to be men.

As men we are aware of the efficacy of the ancient initiation ceremonies that for millennia have powered the rite of passage for boys to become men.  Tragically, however, they are absent in our culture except in the often sadistic initiation practices of gangs and fraternities.

There is an answer.  It’s the ManKind Project.

The ManKind Project (MKP) is a men’s global nonprofit that hosts personal development events, challenging and transformational trainings, and sponsors local men’s groups.  It is not a religious organization or a cult but an international collection of men committed to becoming more self-aware, and in the process becoming more emotionally mature and more skilled in relationships at home, at work, and at play.

I recently attended their New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA), which is as close as men today can get to those ancient initiation ceremonies into manhood.

I don’t want to give away details about what happens on a NWTA weekend because entering the experience without preconceptions or mental rehearsal is part of the program.

What I can tell you is that the weekend brought to life for each of us the hero’s journey that American Mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized.  Campbell was credited by George Lucas as the inspiration behind Star Wars.

Simply put, the hero’s journey is about departure, initiation, and return. In honoring this journey, the MKP staff empowered us to depart the work-a-day world, to awaken the warrior within, to enter the arena of our fears, and to battle our self-defeating beliefs.

It was absolutely awe-inspiring to be present to the sights and sounds of these 9-5 men breaking through their barriers to cross the threshold from ordinary to extraordinary.

In the trust and safety this circle of warriors, I felt for the first time that I could shed the costumes I have worn for the world and could step off the stage into my authentic self.  Within this circle, I could finally claim my title as a man.

Men need men to be men.

So welcome, brothers, to the company of MKP men where trust allows us to re-forge our broken selves and to emerge from the fire whole.  This is the place of trust where we become the men that our family, friends, and colleagues depend on us to be.  Welcome, men, to the sacred and magical space of MKP.

20 Ways to Move from Loneliness to Friendship

rjhandley.com

I’m not good with people.  I’m too shy.  I’ve got nothing to offer.  I’m not a people person. Sound familiar?

Regardless of our age, we have probably suffered a few of these thoughts. But take comfort. You are not alone in this thinking.

A whopping 72 percent of Americans admit to loneliness, according to a survey done by the Harris Poll in 2016.

Personally, I was shocked to read that statistic. Then again, since leaving the super social world of public school teaching, I have felt the pangs of loneliness. The truth is that so often in jobs that require us to be around many people, we confuse quantity with quality of relationships. Whether we are younger or older, many of these relationships quickly fall away after we leave our current job. Often this is because we don’t socialize with our colleagues outside the bonds of work.

Our story is not unusual, as relationship experts tell us: “After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with,” says Marla Paul in her book The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore.

We must push and prod ourselves, regardless of our age, to seek out others. This is especially true when our children have left, and we feel the emptiness of our home. Start this process of seeking out others with compassionate self-honesty.

Right now, journal your thoughts about what relationship baggage you are carrying.  Everybody has some.  When we become aware of these things, we become more connected to ourselves.  And self-connection is necessary for connection to others.

After you have done this, inventory your passions.  Margaret Manning, writing for the Huffington Post, says to “chase your passions, not people.”  Operate from a position of strength, not weakness.  Know what fires your passions and then get involved with others whose passions you share, she says.  This way we meet people on an “equal footing.”

This next step requires courage and may be the reason why our lives are filled with acquaintances but not friends.   We have to move from being around others to “inviting others in” as Manning says.  We need to initiate, inviting people to join us for dinner or to attend an event or to participate in a project.  If we play it safe and wait for others to act, we will be waiting a long time.

“Become a joiner,” says speaker and workshop presenter Dr. Kathy Jordan. Many people say that they “don’t join groups.”  Her recommendation: “Accept your discomfort, and do it anyway.”

The good news! According to Diane Cole, of The Wall Street Journal, there are “a surge of people” who are “not only eager to make friends and develop relationships, they’re actively pursuing these social interactions.”

Places to meet people regardless of your age:

  1. Take a class at your neighborhood rec center.
  2. Form a book club—even if it’s only you and another person.
  3. Join a church or take a meditation or yoga class
  4. Join a support group: tackle your fear and get the help that you need to overcome an addiction.
  5. Travel.
  6. Check out Meetup.com. You may be surprised to find that there are others who share your passion who are already meeting together.
  7. Volunteer at a shelter.
  8. Join a non-profit.
  9. Invite people over for dinner. If you’re not a great cook, make it a potluck.
  10. Neighbors: Invite one of them to do something and move from acquaintance to friendship.
  11. Join an online forum: this may lead to meeting other people.
  12. Head to the dog park.
  13. Attend conferences, especially those that involve an overnight commitment.
  14. Join a hobby group.
  15. Facebook: make a play date.
  16. ManKind Project: work on self-improvement with men who are seeking the same.
  17. Join a gym: workout and join a class there.
  18. Work on your landscaping in the front yard. Passersby are always curious.
  19. Tours: go on a group tour.
  20. Take walks on public trails. Start a conversation with a fellow walker.

Your efforts to “put yourself out there” will pay big dividends. Remember, that you need to be seen to be known.  So make the commitment to engage with others, and you will find the vital freshness that new friends can bring to your life.

I welcome any of your ideas or suggestions about how to move from loneliness to friendship.