When I encourage people to look for opportunities to practice their anxiety, I am often given a blank stare in return. It almost sounds crazy to ask someone to practice something that is already at times, making them feel like they are crazy. But perhaps a better way to say it is, that I am about the process of helping people look for opportunities to place themselves in the midst of their anxiety, which will then give them an opportunity to work through it. So it’s not anxiety you are practicing, but the practice comes when you find yourself anxious and you use tools to work through it. This practice I find is critical to one’s ability to get to a place in life where they can not only manage their anxiety, but be able to work through it to such a degree, that their anxiety feels transformed. Better yet, practicing through your anxiety I hope will make you feel like you can use anxiety to work for you, rather than anxiety working against you.
In the last post I talked about using the 4 steps in Restoration Therapy as a way to practice. But maybe it would help for me to share with you a story that I have shared before, but this time, let me share it in more detail as a way for you to really grasp what it means to practice working through anxiety.
If you have read through my previous posts on anxiety then you are well aware of my aversion to public speaking, especially before I really began to learn how to work through and manage my anxiety. I knew that I had to face my anxiety and take any opportunity to speak that came up, but I was lacking any formal skill set to guide me through this process of facing my anxiety. Most often for me in the past it meant just praying really hard that I didn’t fall apart on stage and embarrass myself beyond humiliation. And sometimes I managed to achieve that and other times I think I fell pretty short. I’m also aware of the fact that my own assessment of my experience is often given harsher criticism than the reality of what those listening to me speak experienced.
The Culmination of Practicing Through My Anxiety
In 2010 there was a culmination of events that took place that really helped me discover a healthier way to work through my anxiety, by having a means to practice it with skills, rather than just getting up in front of people and winging it. In a matter of a month (October 2010) I was introduced to The Hideaway Experience (which was the marriage intensive that Terry Hargrave helped develop the model of with the use of his Restoration Therapy and the 4 steps — at that time the language of Restoration Therapy was not yet being used in that context), I had a powerful experience in my personal therapy, and I went to speak at the young adult retreat at Bel Air Presbyterian Church (which I mentioned in my last post). The culmination of these events in a matter of weeks in the month of October in 2010, is a great example of when we are looking for opportunities to work through something, they will often appear before us. They may have always been there, but with a new sense of curiosity to look for them, they just become more present to us. I also hold the belief that one of the ways that God grows us is to help us work through the things that we struggle with and fear the most. So it’s not surprising to me in hindsight that God used anxiety (the very things I feared) as an opportunity to help me grow.
On October 6-10, 2010, when I was first exposed to the 4 steps at The Hideaway Experience marriage intensive I had no idea how they would transform my life, especially in such a quick manner. In fact, I was sitting what they call third chair, which essentially meant I was there as a curious observer to the process, seeing if it would be a good fit to come on staff as one of the two co-therapists. I participated a little in that intensive, but mostly I watched and I listened, and I learned about myself. I was able to identify that my major coping behavior was anxiety, but I never really knew what lie below the surface. I just thought I always felt anxious, not being able to distinguish at the time between a feeling and coping behavior that I now know is so critical. But as I sat through the four days I started to identify some strong underlying feelings connected to my anxiety. I discovered that I often felt not good enough, alone, abandoned, and inadequate, and that these feelings had been with me most of my life. In fact, I could clearly remember when I first became anxious and what feelings I was feeling then.
But I also learned that these feelings and my anxiety as a coping behavior (the Pain Cycle) wasn’t the end story. I learned that I also had a truth that I could connect to, and a corresponding action that followed (the Peace Cycle). In fact, I was able to think about the times that I was in my Peace Cycle, not just in my Pain Cycle. The reality was, I sometimes experienced anxiety and sometimes I did not, but how could I be more in control of my anxiety, rather than my anxiety control me. In fact, I thought a lot that weekend about the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:20-32. Paul writes:
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”[d]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
What I learned is that there is an old self at work (the Pain Cycle), and there is a new self at work (the Peace Cycle). So how could I learn to practice working through my anxiety enough that I was no longer being dominated by my old pain, but rather by my new peace?
Later that week, after I had come home from the marriage intensive I went to see my therapist. As usual he asked me what I wanted to work on, and as usual I wasn’t really sure. I talked to him about the weekend and the marriage work, but ultimately it kept coming back to my feelings of anxiety, driven by my inadequacy.
And then my therapist asked me a simple question. He said, “Were you ever made fun of as a kid?” My quick response to his question was “No, I don’t really remember ever being made fun of as a kid.” But as he probed into this question a little more I remember the times I sat in class trying to read after my mom died, only being able to stutter. And whether kids made fun of me about that to my face, or I just felt that fear in my head, ultimately I knew that I had been made fun of. He probed further into my story and asked me when I first felt that, and I told him that the day (it could have been that week) I went back to school, two weeks after my mom died from cancer (when I was 11), the teacher called on me to read out loud. And I have to tell you that I loved reading as a kid, and I loved reading out loud in class. But that day something changed, and even though I knew what the words said, and I could read them in my head, I couldn’t say them out loud. I sat there in silence trying to figure out what was wrong, and as I painfully tried to produce sound you probably would have heard a stuttering sound coming from my mouth. I don’t know if you know what I’m talking about, but it’s that sound that sounds something like, “Pfffffft…..ppppppppffffffff…….rrrrrrrrrr…..” You know what I mean. It’s painful to listen to because people feel for the person struggling, and it’s even more painful to be the person stuttering. But as I say in my book The Anxious Christian, that was the day that anxiety set foot into my life and began to take up a permanent residence. This is the story I told my therapist.
And then my therapist asked me to close my eyes and to go back into my 5th grade classroom on that first day of school after my mom had died. He asked me to remember what I might have been feeling then. He asked me to think about what my classmates might have been feeling. He asked me to put myself right into that situation by looking at the 10 year old version of myself sitting in that classroom. And then he said something I will never forget. He said, “What do you want to tell Rhett? What would you like him to know? Tell him.” And so in my head I looked at Rhett and I told him that he would be okay. I told him that he would make it. I probably said other things as well, but that’s what I remember most. And as I looked up at my therapist in tears he said, “What did you say to him?” And as I told him what I told the younger version of myself I balled my eyes out.
I remember feeling so free that day. I walked out of his office and called my wife and told her that my life was never going to be the same after that. If that wasn’t enough, my therapist had taught me another skill that session that I will share with you next.
If the marriage intensive and therapy were not enough that week, I was about to head out to Ojai, California to speak at a young adult retreat. I had been planning my talk for this retreat for a few months, but like always I was super anxious, and this was really one of the first big retreats I was given the opportunity to speak at besides the ones when I was a college pastor. So I felt a lot of pressure, but I also felt like God was doing an amazing work in my life. I was anxious all the way to California and all the way up until my first intro talk that Friday evening.
But about 30 minutes before I took the stage, and while the worship band was playing I decided to combine the insight I had learned about myself in therapy and at the marriage intensive with the tools I had been given through Restoration Therapy’s 4 steps, and the exercise my therapist gave me earlier in the week.
So as I felt the anxiety coming on strong I figured now was the time to put into practice that insight and I did the following. I paced around the empty men’s bathroom and outside along the building walking through my steps, but also purposefully intensifying my anxiety. My therapist in session taught me how to intensify my anxiety on purpose so I was real familiar with it, while teaching me to also calm it. He was literally teaching me about how to be in control of my anxiety. So I combined that exercise with the practice of the 4 steps. If you had been near me that night you would have seen me pacing, hearing me say out loud (and sometimes in my head): Step 1: I feel not good enough. I feel alone. I feel inadequate. Step 2: And when I feel not good enough and alone and inadequate, I tend to become anxious. And then I would make myself feel the anxiety in my stomach and my head and throughout my body. I tried to literally feel what happened to me when I became anxious. I even practiced stuttering anxiously. Then I took some really deep breaths to help me emotionally regulate and I continued. Step 3: The truth is that I know I am good enough. I know that I am not alone. I know that I am adequate. I know that God has always been with me. Step 4: Therefore, I am going to choose to be non-anxious and I am going to go up on stage and speak and have fun and enjoy it. I literally did this hundreds of times that weekend as I gave four different talks.
And that weekend I walked away knowing that I had given the best talks I had ever given. Now, whether or not the audience felt the same I can’t tell you. But I know from my perspective of someone who has always struggled with anxiety that led to stuttering, that was the most non-anxious I had ever been during a talk, and I knew that weekend that God was showing me that my anxiety didn’t have to control me, but that it could be a catalyst for my own growth.
What’s interesting as well is that during this same time is when I had been contacted by Moody Publishers about working on a book for them. At the time I didn’t know it would be all about anxiety, but it was all this insight and practice that was the catalyst to me even writing a book on this topic.
Now It Is Your Turn
I don’t know your story, or what God has in store for you and the struggles you may face. But I believe that God can and will use your anxiety as an opportunity to grow you, if you allow it. My encouragement to you in this process is to 1) work on gaining insight about your anxiety; 2) work on putting that insight into daily practice through the 4 Steps of RT and other tools; 3) look for opportunities to put that insight and daily practice tools into real life practice. If you take a moment to look around you for those opportunities, I promise you will start to see them more and more readily.
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 rhettsmith.com