Turning anxiety into excitement. Part two.

I recently wrote an article recently about how we can turn anxiety into excitement.

In summary:

  • Physiologically, anxiety and excitement physiologically are quite similar (sped-up heartbeat, shallow breathing, sweating), but they are also quite different (the former often features uneasiness in the stomach, while the latter has raised eyebrows and open eyes).
  • Telling ourselves to “keep calm and carry on” when we are anxious is damaging to our spirits as it denies our experienced reality.
  • We can transform anxiety into excitement using the mental trick of telling ourselves that we are excited and not anxious.

If you tell yourself that you are actually excited, you wind up (feeling) less anxious.

I received a great number of positive responses to the e-mail.

However, the “trick” of turning anxiety into excitement is not easily mastered.

It’s easily understood, but it’s not so easy to do.

Accordingly, I offer this follow-up “how-to-guide.”

Practice with the small

Pema Chodron advocates homework with regard to becoming less annoyed, and we can adapt it for our use here. She suggests that before we try to be all right with large irritations we ought to practice being all right with small annoyances. For example, it takes someone with some mastery over annoyance management to be all right with “I’m going to miss my flight,” while a novice could better deal with “I didn’t get the seat I wanted on the plane.” Accordingly, Chodron suggests that we build up our annoyance tolerance with small irks – a mosquito buzzing around my head – as a way to be better equipped to deal with large issues – the doctor says my toes need to be amputated.

Similarly, I would recommend that we first learn to metamorphose small anxieties into small excitements. Then, after we have practiced converting small anxieties into small excitements, we can use the same formula to switch big anxieties into big excitements.

For example: Doing the laundry.

We pick up the large container of soap and notice that it is much lighter than we thought it would be. It feels almost empty. The anxiety might be “I’m not going to have enough detergent to finish the laundry.” We pause to notice that we are anxious. Then, we find something, anything, about which we might – albeit it unrelated and possibly crazy sounding – be able to get excited. We think, “Yea! I get to do the laundry.” Then, we notice our actual reaction to doing do.

Just reading this, it might sound idiotic. (I know. I’ve done this exercise a lot with people.) So, I am going to ask you to try it to see what actually happens. You might be surprised at how ridiculously well it works. (What do you have you to lose by trying this? You were anxious beforehand. Worst-case scenario, my little trick doesn’t work and you keep your original anxiety.)

Then, after enough practice with turning small anxieties into small excitements, we might be able to tackle bigger anxieties like: “The washing machine flooded the basement.”

Let me break down the steps.

Step one:

Figure out what is making anxious.

Step two:

Ascertain if you are all right with this anxiety and whether you are willing to try something different. (No point in changing that which you don’t want to change.)

Step three:

Figure out any possible “excitement” that you might substitute for the “anxiety.”

 

Let’s practice:

You get to the airport and the line for security is longer than you expected it would be.

Step one:

Figure out what is making you anxious.

___ The line at security is longer than you expected. (See above)

Step two:

Are you all right with this anxiety?

Choose (yes) or (no)
___ If yes, skip to next week’s lesson.
___ If no, continue to step three.

Step three:

Figure out any possible “excitement” that you might substitute for the “anxiety.”

I could imagine that I might possibly be excited that ___________________.

N.B. substituted excitements often feel:

  • artificial
  • asinine
  • awkward
  • pointless
  • all of the above

Nonetheless, please figure out at least one possible thing about which you can be excited when you get to the airport and the line for security is longer than you expected it would be.

Telling yourself, “I’m excited that I get to take off my shoes and feel the ground beneath my feet” might feel ridiculous to say or even to think. I get that. But, again, getting anxious about the wait wasn’t exactly getting you anywhere, was it?

Step four:

Notice.

Notice what happens to you when you substitute even a ridiculous excitement for an anxiety. (Magic, right?)

Step five:

Be kind to yourself.

This exercise takes some practice to do well.

Two stories

I want to tell you two stories. One is about when I didn’t do this, and one is about when I did.

When I didn’t

A few months ago, I left Jane with the kids and some out of town guests so that I could perform a wedding. It was a gorgeous later summer day, warm, but not hot. I got into Jane’s car to drive about an hour to Mt. Hood Organic Farms, the site of the ceremony. (I took “her’” car so I could leave her “my” minivan – she wanted to take the group to Multnomah Falls.) As it so happens, when adjusting the mirrors and seat to fit me, I noticed that Jane had filled her gas tank. I make a mental note to thank her later for that courtesy.

The wedding was wonderful – it was both holy and humorous. I said my goodbyes and stopped at a farm stand to buy some freshly-picked Honeycrisp apples. As I pulled out onto the small two-lane highway, I noticed that the car’s gas indicator was still at full.

My gut went straight to panic mode. I had already driven 70+ miles. Apparently, the indicator mechanism on Jane’s car was stuck at full! (While I’m all in favor of accentuating the positive, I do not need my gas gauge to misrepresent to do so.) I had no idea how much gas was really in the car!

I texted Jane to ask when she had filled up, but, as previously mentioned, she was touring with friends and – rightly so – didn’t respond.

My electronics told me that the nearest gas station was 23 miles away. Mainly downhill, fortunately. But, still, I was scared. Instinctively, I turned off the radio and A/C. “All power to the engines,” an imaginary Scotty in my mind had directed.

I knew rationally that I had no reason to panic. I knew full well that I had a phone with a good amount of charge and that the entire route had cellular service. I knew that I was not in any physical danger. I knew full well that if I were late for meeting Jane, the kids, and our friends for dinner, it wouldn’t make much difference.

But, still, anxiety overcame me.

I called my buddy Andreas – he has a PhD in quantum physics. We talked about how rationally I knew I oughtn’t be panicked, but how I was nonetheless. He used the Internet to look up the approximate miles per gallon of my 2009 Subaru Outback and we calculated the approximate amount of gasoline needed for 23 miles.

He asked, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

I knew no good answer to this.

But, I was stuck in a fear-based, scarcity mindset.

I got to the station. But, Murphy struck! It was closed!

With the needle still showing full, and Andreas still on the phone, I pulled back onto the road. Three more miles to go.

I pulled in.

The car took less than $10 of gas.

Apparently, the needle on Jane’s car, when full, registers way past the “F.”

I wonder, now, what would have happened if at any point in the above story I had changed my anxiety into excitement: “This is going to be a fun adventure! Let’s see how it goes!”

When I did

I was standing at the Portland, Oregon, airport, early – as I like to be at airports early – for a trip to Los Angeles to attend a party of a celebrity for whom I had performed a life-cycle event. My mind was sorting through my suitcase, and I was hoping that I had remembered my toothbrush. I was pretty certain I did. And, then, wham! It hit me.

The red carpet! There will probably be a red carpet and I don’t know the protocol for walking down a red carpet. Am I supposed to introduce myself to reporters as the rabbi who had officiated the ceremony? Would they recognize me? Would I say something stupid? Would I just look like an idiot walking in without being a “somebody”?

But, this time, I knew what to do. I told myself that I was excited about seeing how it would turn out.

And, it was that easy. (I did fine, by the way.)

Homework

Try this. Try turning a small anxiety into a small excitement.

I’m pretty certain that the universe will deal you a small anxiety in the next 48 hours. You just need to remember to dive in and see how it goes.

This week’s #Wisdom_Biscuit: Dive in. Practice making a (small) excitement from a (small) anxiety.

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