Restoration Therapy: Discerning the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Anxiety

Anxiety Changed My Life
Back in 2011 when I was doing some reading and research for my book The Anxious Christian, I came across a sentence in Rollo May’s book, The Meaning of Anxiety that really resonated with what I was thinking about in regards to anxiety. In that book he writes the following:

“The healthy individual moves ahead despite the conflict, actualizing his freedom, whereas the unhealthy person retrenches to a ‘shut-in condition’ sacrificing his freedom.”

That is…some people are able to approach anxiety in a healthy way and move towards freedom and growth, whereas, other people approach anxiety in unhealthy ways and move towards unhealthy behaviors where their freedom is actually limited. This thought resonated with my own experience with anxiety. When I was young, anxiety forced me to withdraw from social situations in fear of stuttering. Anxiety led me to believe that I was never “good enough”, and that perhaps I would always feel “alone”. Living with this type of anxiety was a horrible experience and led me to live a life less than I had imagined I would be living. Jesus says in the gospel of John 10:10, “10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” But I was not living an abundant life, and anxiety was the thief that had come in and was slowly destroying. I was living the “shut-in” condition that May writes about.

So around January or February of 1996 I prayed to God that he would change my life. I basically prayed that I would do whatever he wanted of me, and if he would just give me an opportunity to speak in front of others, I would take it. I had some type of notion at that time that speaking was my way through anxiety, and that by speaking I was literally taking back my life. And as often happens in prayer, the very thing I asked for, the source of my anxiety, appeared before me. I was given an opportunity to preach the Easter morning sunrise service at my small Christian college, which I wrote about in an earlier post in this series.

May also writes in The Meaning of Anxiety that “Anxiety is always to be understood as oriented towards freedom.”, which is a thought carried from Soren Kierkegaard when he writes in The Concept of Anxiety that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” I knew that I was not living a life of freedom, but that my anxiety was in a very unhealthy place.

Reframing Anxiety as an Opportunity to Grow
Often when I am giving a talk I will put up a slide image of a dashboard of a car. The dashboard contains all kinds of lights and dials usually, and it’s primarily responsible to let the driver of the car know how the car is running. Does the car need air in the tires? Does the car need oil? How many more miles can the car go before needing gas? When the owner of the car pays attentions the lights on the dashboard and follows the needed instructions, the car typically runs smoothly, and the driver of the car gets to their intended destination. But when a driver ignores the lights, it is more than possible that the driver will not get to their destination, and instead end up stranded on the side of the road at some point. The driver chooses to pay attention to or ignore the dashboard instruction to either their own benefit or peril.

I find this image and metaphor to be helpful when thinking about anxiety. Anxiety is a response to an underlying feeling that we experience, and our entire selves…physical, emotional, mental and spiritual…feel the reverberations of that anxiety (check out my first post in this series on this issue). In some ways it is simply information that our body is receiving. The information that our body receives tells our body, usually automatically without any thought, what to do. Should I run and flee? Or should I stay and fight? What anxiety typically told my body was to withdraw from other people, and shut down, and most definitely, do not put myself in a situation where I have to speak out loud to others. The anxiety also sent me messages that said I was “inadequate” and “not good enough” and that I might forever be “alone”.

So why am I not listening to the messages of my anxiety to give me instruction about what to do?

Much like the driver of the car in the above analogy, I can choose to either pay attention to, or ignore the messages of my anxiety. And depending on what I choose will either benefit me greatly, or lead to my destruction. It’s a matter of choosing between handling my anxiety in a healthy and positive way, or to handle it in an unhealthy and negative way. Over the last 21 years I have intentionally chosen to work on handling my anxiety in such a way that it led to growth, and as I have come through a lot of my own personal therapy and work with others, I have come to see anxiety as simply an opportunity for growth.

When I choose to pay attention to my anxiety and listen to it and work with it, I am choosing to see anxiety in a healthy way, and ultimately as an avenue that helps me make positive transformation in my life. But when I choose to ignore my anxiety and not listen to it and not work with it, I am choosing to see anxiety as something negative, or as something wrong with myself. And when I do this, I forfeit the opportunity to grow from it.

One of the most important messages I try and communicate to all my clients, and really anyone I come into contact with who talks about anxiety is simply this…Your anxiety is an opportunity for growth.

Helping Others Reframe Anxiety for Good
One of the first questions I ask clients who come into my office struggling with anxiety is, “Is it possible to see anxiety as a friend trying to help you out, rather than an enemy trying to crush you?” Most people are pleasantly surprised by this idea, as if anxiety is possibly something they can interact with differently. In what may be the best book title ever for a book on anxiety, Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene write the following in their book, Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety:

“Learning to love ambiguity can be a very powerful, if rather counterintuitive, act. By love here, we’re not talking about falling in love or being in love. We mean love as an act. You can learn to care for and cherish ambiguity. You can invite it into your house for a while, give it a glass of lemonade, talk with it, and listen to what it has to say to you.”

I love this idea they offer of reframing ambiguity, because I think the same type of thing can be done with anxiety. We can learn to invite it into our house, and into our lives. We can learn to sit with it and ask questions of it. Anxiety doesn’t have to be something completely threatening.

One way to explore this idea is to simply sit down and have a conversation with your anxiety. Sometimes I might play the part of anxiety for someone in my office and they ask me (i.e. anxiety) questions, or I might have them play anxiety and I ask them questions. Sometimes we might put some type of inanimate object out (i.e. like a pillow) and have them talk to the pillow as if it’s their anxiety. And when it comes to asking questions I might begin with something simple, like, “Why are you here? or “Why are you showing up right now?” Perhaps I might begin to go deeper and ask anxiety, “Is there something in my life right now that I need to pay attention to, or I need to grow from?”

Like the lights that go off on the dashboard of our cars telling us to pay attention to the what is going on inside the car, anxiety says to us, “Pay attention…pay attention…pay attention to me!!!” But the reality is that we live in a culture that has become quite good at burying any painful feelings, or numbing them out and escaping from them. And anxiety is a response to a painful feeling in our lives, and we often don’t want to deal with it. But deciding to not hide from it, and instead face it head on, is the difference between a life of growth, or one that lives in stagnation.

When Anxiety Is Unhealthy And It’s Time To Flee
Though I’m a huge component of anxiety being an opportunity for growth, sometimes anxiety is in your life because it’s telling you that something is dangerous and you need to pay attention. In fact, you may need to fight or flee. I go back to my earlier premise that anxiety is still vital information that we have to pay attention to, and when we do we can grow from it. But sometimes the anxiety we experience lets us know that a certain situation, or certain person, or environment is unsafe and you need to leave. It’s one thing to experience some type of existential anxiety and process that with me in my office as we work on issues of love and trust, and personhood and relationships. But it’s another thing for example, if you are in a relationship where there is physical abuse. The anxiety is there to tell you to get safe, not work your way through it in order to grow. Or perhaps you find yourself in an environment that feels emotionally unsafe and you are constantly anxious? You need to pay attention to that, because maybe your anxiety is saying it’s time to get out of that environment, rather than let’s stop and invite the anxiety in and have it stick around and ask it questions.

The Important of Anxiety Discernment
Ultimately, I think learning the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety is a matter of discernment. And the only way to become wise at discernment is to have a lot of practice in specific situations. When one chooses to continually ignore anxiety, you will forfeit the opportunity to become more familiar with anxiety and gain essential practice with it. But when you choose to pay attention to it, befriend it, get to know it, you experience it in a more intimate way that leads to a deep personal knowledge of not only how it works in your life, but perhaps how it works in others. This intimate knowledge only deepens your level of discernment, which will then help you really know how to navigate anxiety.

In 2010, when I was 35 years old I had a particularly powerful experience in my personal therapy. My therapist was helping me make a lot of breakthroughs and I was already speaking quite a bit and facing my anxiety head on. But in one session he walked me through an exercise that he wanted me to experiment with the very next time I was about to go on stage and speak. Essentially what he taught me to do was to accentuate my anxiety. He wanted me to get in touch with it and to really feel it, and to actually heighten it to such a degree that I felt almost a panic attack coming on. And then he wanted me to practice de-escalating that feeling and bringing myself down to a normal level of emotional regulation. It almost sounds crazy when I describe it, but what he was teaching me to do was to really have intimate knowledge of my own anxiety and how it worked. He wanted me to see that I could be responsible for making it escalate as well as for calming it down.

I remember the first time I practiced this, pacing around in the men’s bathroom before I went out and spoke at a young adult retreat. It was a powerful moment. In a later post I will talk about the four steps in Restoration Therapy and how I use them to help me with this exercise. But to give you a preview, the way that I do this is to use the Pain Cycle and the Peace Cycle. For example, I tell myself I feel “inadequate”. And then I tell myself that “I am going to become anxious…I am anxious”. Then I pause and take a deep breath and tell myself the Truth, that “I am good enough”, therefore, “I am going to choose to be non-anxious, remain calm, and go out and speak with confidence”. I practice this before every talk and it has been amazing as it has gotten me in touch with my anxiety in such a profound way, that I know when my anxiety is healthy and is helping me grow, or when it is unhealthy and it’s leading me to destruction.

I believe that once you begin to see anxiety as not an enemy, but a friend, you will learn to gain discernment that will help you navigate it in such a way that you will know when it is telling you that it’s unhealthy or healthy.

Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Plano, TX. He specializes in helping people struggling with anxiety find new opportunities for growth, as well as spending a majority of his week with couples as they navigate relational issues. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and What It Means to Be a Man: God’s Design for Us in a World Full of Extremes. Rhett lives in McKinney, TX with his wife Heather and their two children. You can discover more about Rhett’s work through his writing and podcast at www.rhettsmith.com

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