Silencing The Voice of Anxiety

That alien voice in our heads that drives us to worry, fear, fret, and wring our hands usually exaggerates. And yet that voice has amazing influence over our peace of mind.

Want a quickie rebuttal to this alien’s fear mongering? Try this. Give that voice a name (not your own name b/c it’s not you badgering you). Poke your finger into the phone book at random and pick a name (hopefully you won’t pick a name of anyone you know).

Let’s say you pick the name Jack (as in you never know when the alien Jack in the box is going to pop up and terrorize you).

Next time Jack pounds you with “what if ___ happens?” talk back.

“Jack, what evidence do you have that this terrible thing will happen?”

“Jack, have you considered how slim the odds are that such and such will happen?”

“Jack, if such and such a thing happens, I’ll get through it with the help of family and friends, faith, and my own inner resources.”

“Jack, will you kindly shut up?”

“Jack, if you keep pestering me I’m going to throw you into the Nooksack River, so please shut up.”

I know this sounds corny, but it’s a proven strategy to capture all those random and unbidden thoughts in our head and counter them with truth, faith, information, and if necessary, muscle power. If you want more info, here’s a 3 page freebie called a Crash Course in Anxiety Reduction.

Crash Course in anxiety Reduction



Meet the Sages (and Get A Free Poster!)

In recent years there’s been a surge of interest in ancient philosophers. Three of my favorite books in this vein are Expect the Unexpected Or You Won’t Find it: A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus by Roger Van Oech, Breakfast With Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day by Robert Rowland Smith, and The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m going to add to this growing body of literature by introducing the ancient writers of Hebrew wisdom literature. These sages said many interesting and often astonishing things, especially given how long ago they wrote. For example, two millennia before Freud and modern psychotherapy the sages wrote, “Many are the purposes of a person’s heart; one with wisdom draws them out.” There are things that go on in a person’s psyche about which we are simply unaware. In 2011 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in Thinking Fast and Slow (read my summary here). Over one hundred years before that (1902 to be precise) William James said this about consciousness and perception, Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different, ” (Varieties of Religious Experience). These are all fancy ways of explaining what we mean when we say…
  • “Perception is reality”
  • “Appearances can be deceiving”
  • “My brain has a mind of it’s own”
  • “There are two sides to every story”
  • “Life is not always as it appears to be”
Woe to the person who doesn’t know that their consciousness can be altered an a variety of ways or that our minds can play weird tricks on us. Even neuro-scientists remind us that feelings of being right are not necessarily right. Click here to read an interview with Robert Burton, author of the fascinating book, On Being Certain. Which brings me to a free gift I have for you. The sages were preternaturally aware that things like emotions, health, hunger, sleep, and other factors trick us. I’ve collected (and drew faces for) thirty of their sage warnings that remind us that we can’t always trust our thoughts. You can download a free 8.5″ x 11″ color printout of this poster by clicking here. (Signed 13″x 19″ color posters are available for $30 (+$4.99 shipping in USA) on Amazon; small size posters are free to readers of this blog). The brilliance of these sage warnings is that being skeptical of our cherished beliefs will lead to open mindedness, mental flexibility, and a willingness to contemplate alternative ideas. This is often our focus when doing mediation or therapy–when emotions or other mood altering factors hi-jack our brains we don’t think rationally or clearly. I hope this handout (poster) will inspire careful self-reflection.

Get Creative with FLOW (2 of 7)


Don’t let the foreign name of the man who describes FLOW deter you. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the genius who came up with the following info-graphic that has been a source of inspiration to many for years. Here is a brief summary of FLOW.

anxiety.boredom FLOW

When the challenges in life exceed our skill level we get anxious. To get out of the anxiety zone we simply increase our skills.

When our skill level exceeds the challenges in life we get bored. To get out of the boredom zone we simply increase our challenges.

When our skill level and challenges meet we enter the creative zone where time vanishes, we forget to eat, and ideas and productivity flow effortlessly.

When I first started blogging I was overwhelmed by all the details behind the scenes (dashboard stuff). This lead to mild anxiety. To “cure” my anxiety I increased my skill level by learning about blogging. Anxiety gone!

Now that I’ve gotten the basics down I can (almost) blog in my sleep. But this leads to boredom. To “cure” my boredom I increased my challenges by tackling new challenges (drawing my own graphics, cartoons, etc). Boredom gone!

For a longer description of FLOW see previous blog posts by clicking here:



For a very long description of FLOW here is more info.


Next: Get Creative with Cool Apps

Get Tough: Distinguish Real from Perceived Danger (5 of 8)


The best time to evaluate danger is when we’re calm. Once the fear juice adrenaline starts flowing we don’t think clearly. So, if you’re not calm, get calm. Click here to see HOW TO RELAX.

Once calm fill out this chart.


An exploding sun would certainly have a negative outcome, but how likely is it? Hearing a critical comment is certainly probable. But is it really that bad? This chart helps us be objective as we evaluate risk, danger, and perceived threat.


next: Get Tough with 14 Mental Images


Three Paintings, Three Stories, Three Soothing Moments

The treatment of choice for anxiety and depression is called cognitive therapy, which as the title suggests, means thinking about what we think about. But there’s another way to influence our moods besides thinking. It’s called art. Painters, graphic designers, and art therapists have known this for years. Here are three of my favorite paintings I turn to when grappling with unwelcome emotions.


I’ve known about this painting for years but saw it in person at the National Gallery of Art last December (2013). It depicts the millennium, a time of universal peace and prosperity. It was painted by a peace-loving Quaker pastor named Edward Hicks in 1826. Stare at this brilliance for a while and see if it doesn’t assuage grief and inspire hope.


I partially credit my love of art to this painting. One of the few works of real literature I enjoyed as a kid (when not reading comic books or MAD magazine) was the Anthology of Children’s Literature illustrated by one of America’s greatest artists,  N. C. Wyeth. This painting illustrates Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Snow White. When I stare at those scary animal faces I am (still!) comforted that Snow White is safe. I guess fairy tales are supposed to have this effect!


I first fell in love with Henri Rousseau in an art history class in 1981. This particular piece, “Sleeping Gypsy” reminds me one can be in a state of repose even when possible danger lurks close by. We were expecting our first born at the end of the term and I was somewhat panicky about missing the test if Vicki went into labor.

I asked the prof, “May I postpone my final exam until after our baby is born?”

He said, “Is it your first?”

I said,”Yes.”

He said, “I will excuse you from having to take the final exam; you first time expecting fathers aren’t good at taking tests.”

I was speechless with gratitude.

What are the works of art you turn to for fun, relief, and emotional nourishment?

When Loved Ones Draw Near Don’t Panic

what she heard

In a previous blog post I talked about the pursuer who panics when their partner pulls away. Today I talk about the distancer who panics when their partner draws close.

If you’re a distancer you may think your partner is clingy, desperate, or excessively needy when in fact the problem might not be them. It could be–brace yourself–you. People who fear intimacy will interpret their partner’s bids for closeness as a threat, an imposition, and an irritation.

We all bring expectations into marriage. Your partner’s expectation to connect with you is normal. They married you in good faith hoping you’d be there for them. But if your expectation is to be left alone, well, how do I say this nicely? We’ve got trouble.

If you cut off a person’s oxygen supply they’re going to gasp for breath. If you cut off your partner’s love supply they’re going to gasp for emotional connection. They’re not being needy, you’re being stingy.

Clues of emotional stinginess (also known as a “dismissive attachment style” or “fear of intimacy”):

“If I meet my partner’s needs I’ll be obligated to fill their bottomless bucket the rest of my life.”
“If I keep my partner starved for love I will have control.”
“My partner’s need for closeness isn’t as important as my need for space.”
“If I lower my walls I’ll be hurt.”
“I simply don’t want anybody needing me.”
“I can live without connection, why can’t others?”
“The mark of responsibility is to have no needs. My partner has needs and is therefore irresponsible.”
“My anxiety peaks whenever my partner says, ‘Let’s talk.'”
“I keep my partner at arm’s length because that’s who I am.”
“If I don’t keep my emotional distance I’ll get hurt.”

If it’s hard for a married couple to blend their differening needs for closeness and space, intimacy and individuality, freedom and connection, “I” and “we” we suggest the following.

1. Don’t blame a pursuer for wanting to be close. That’s why they got married.
2. Assume responsibility for being a distancer. If you’re uncomfortable with getting close, admit it.
3. Review how connected you felt to your primary care givers growing up. If you were abandoned, disappointed, or hurt as a kid no wonder getting close is now hard.
4. Get in touch with your unacknowledged need for relationships.
5. If you have no need for relationship, your partner has some very difficult decisions to make.
6. Overcome fear of vulnerability by making small steps toward honesty and transparency.
7. Remind yourself you’ve got more than two options, dependence or independence. There’s a third option: interdependence.
8. Identify the things you’ve substituted for closeness: amassing wealth, hobbies, workaholism, addictions, anger, perfectionism.
9. Find someone you trust with whom you can slowly take the lid off stuffed emotions.
10. Reconsider your decision of depriving others of your close friendship.

Comments are welcome.

When Loved Ones Pull Away Don’t Panic

feeling smothered cartoon

Some people panic when a loved one pulls away. Fear of abandonment, loss, and loneliness prompts them to do desperate things. They pursue, they give gifts, they nag, and they pressure. In some cases they lecture, they stalk, or they sulk. And some even consider harming themselves or the loved one who distances themselves.

Since none of these are helpful or effective, we suggest the following.

1. Make your one time request for closeness without threat, desperation, panic, or excessive clinginess. Few people find needy dependence attractive and most find it smothering.
2. If that request is ignored, accept it. Don’t pester, repeat yourself, nag, or threaten. You can’t force a person to voluntarily get close to you. It’s both logically and psychologically impossible.
3. Brace yourself to live with the emotional, sexual, romantic void. Hopefully it won’t last. Learn how to sooth yourself in healthy ways. Calm yourself. Get a hobby. Enlarge your identity to include more than “spouse.” Become a better parent, adult son/daughter, friend, civic minded citizen, musician, or athlete. If your partner died you’d figure out a way to survive. Practice those skills now.
4. Identify the things in you that trigger their withdrawal and eliminate them immediately. It’s likely the withdrawer has told you about these things for weeks, months, or years so asking them to repeat them to you now only convinces them that you’ve not been listening. Ransack your memory and recall what it is they’ve asked you to stop doing and stop doing it.
5. Be alert for opportunities to meet their, not your, needs. It was your need-meeting character that drew them to you in the first place. Focus on improving their life, not yours. Love means being kind and generous even when there’s no guarantee you’ll receive anything in return.
6. While you’re waiting for your spouse to reengage, be patient without anger, gritting your teeth, murmuring, pouting, or walking around depressed. Playing the wounded martyr may coerce some partners to return out of guilt or shame but that isn’t love. It’s manipulation.
7. If your loved one is pursuing a third party don’t let jealousy rule your life. Learn to grieve in healthy ways, get counseling to handle the betrayal, and be responsible to maintain your job, health, friendships, faith, and other family connections.
8. As agonizing as a withdrawing partner is, others have survived it and you can, too.


1. React to anxiety by seeking greater togetherness in their relationship.
2. Place a high value on talking things out and expressing feelings, and believe that others should do the same.
3. Feel rejected and take it personally when their partner wants more time and space alone or away from the relationship.
4. Pursue harder when a partner seeks distance, and get panicky when their efforts fail.
5. Overlook their blind spots as “too dependent” or “too demanding” or “too nagging” in their relationship.
6. Criticize their partner as someone who can’t handle feelings or tolerate closeness.
7. Approach their partner with a sense of urgency or emotional intensity when anxious.


1. Seek emotional distance via physical space when stress is high.
2. Consider themselves to be self-reliant and private persons—more do-it-yourselfers than help-seekers.
3. Have difficulty showing their needy, vulnerable, and dependent sides.
4. Are accused of being “unavailable,” “withholding,” and “emotionally shut down” from their spouse.
5. Manage anxiety in their marriage by intensifying work-related projects or withdrawing into hobbies, kids, friends, jobs, technology or sports.
6. Give up easily on their partner (“It’s not worth trying to discuss things”) and have a low tolerance for conflict.
7. Open up most freely when they aren’t being pushed, pursued, or criticized by their partner.

“Never miss the opportunity to make someone happy—even if you have to leave him alone to do it.”

People pull away when they:

1. feel smothered
2. want privacy
3. are exhausted from propping up another’s feelings
4. realize how out of balance the relationship has been, giving endlessly and receiving little in return.

One final suggestion: explore the roots of your dependence. Past betrayals? Anxiety? Fear of abandonment? Primary care givers who weren’t there for you as a child? Fearful or preoccupied attachment styles from childhood? This is hard work but if you can’t stop the distancer from distancing you can at least stop your counter productive pursuing.

If you can’t change your partner, change yourself.

If you enjoyed this post please comment, repost, forward, or link to your social media. Thanks!

Exposing the Alien That Invades Marriages: Anxiety

invasion COVER

Being happily married is a challenge. Being tormented by anxiety is a bigger challenge. Being in a marriage tormented by anxiety is a gargantuan challenge. But being in a marriage tormented by anxiety without your knowledge is the biggest challenge of all. It’s like an invisible invader has infiltrated your relationship wrecking havoc and nobody knows how it got there, who is responsible, or how to get rid of it.

That’s what Invasion of the Marriage Snatcher is all about. Here are practical tools for couples to identify and combat this alien invader. I’ve collected 101 of the best interventions couples have used to quit seeing each other as the enemy and attack the real enemy instead–anxiety. Instead of fighting your partner you can fight a real alien!

Four Tips to Slow Down the Constant Traffic in Your Head

overly active brain


Compulsive worriers, obsessive thinkers, and anxious fretters share a common trait–the brain they are trying to reign in goes with them everywhere.  It’s one thing to walk away from a tempting doughnut; we can’t walk away from an over active mind.

If the traffic noise and congestion of thoughts, worries, and “what ifs?” are distressing, if you find it hard to let go of ruminating, mental hand wringing, or replaying the same tapes over and over, and if you need help slowing down the constant traffic in your head, here are four tips that may help.

1.  Access the amount of traffic in your head. Many worriers already know how much they worry and if this is true for you, go to step two. But if you’re unsure of how much time and energy is wasted in rumination pay attention to the following. Where does your mind wander when you’re waiting at a red light, and how often does it wander to the same place? How long does it take you to fall asleep and do you stay asleep or does the traffic in your head wake you up at two AM? Are your inner dialogues so well rehearsed you can quote them from memory? Do you find it hard to concentrate on tasks or are you distracted by regrets, anger, or replaying scenarios and imaginary conversations? Are your inner monologues positive and cheerful or negative, self critical, depressing, or anxious? If you were to keep a worry journal, what patterns, common triggers, and regular times and locations of your worry would you notice?

2. Practice a rumination free moment. Set the timer on your phone and sit silently for one minute during which time you discipline your mind to relax. Deny intrusive thoughts entry into your head. If 60 seconds is too long, shoot for 30. Since it’s impossible to turn our brain off completely, it’s okay during that time to repeat soothing words. Christians find the Jesus prayer helpful in this regard. Non Christians find other mantras a good antidote to obsessive thinking. This forced silence decreases the amount of adrenaline in your brain and with constant practice you will soon wean yourself from adrenaline addiction. Many compulsive worriers would never bungee-jump or watch a horror flick, but they don’t need to. They keep their brains on high adrenaline with constant rumination. Increase that 60 seconds to two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes or longer. As your skill increases at some point you’ll be able to schedule a daily 30 minute worry break where you allow yourself to worry like mad for 30 minutes and then enjoy the next 23.5 hours worry free. Then reduce that 30 minutes to 25, 20, and so forth.

3. Identify and combat the fearful thoughts that lead to compulsive worry. Here are some popular culprits:

  • If I worry I will avert disaster.
  • If I worry then upsetting things won’t be as upsetting when they occur.
  • If I don’t worry bad things will happen.
  • I was born to worry and cannot change.
  • If something bad happens I will not cope.
  • If I don’t worry I’m being irresponsible.
  • Worrying demonstrates how nice, how caring, and how responsible I am.
  • If I ask the “Why did this happen?” question long enough I will eventually get an answer.

These are, not to put too fine a point on it, lies. While they may feel true they are not. Replace them with true statements and the compulsion to worry decreases. There’s truth in the old saying, “The truth shall set you free.”

4. Get out of your head and do something physical. Instead of indulging the habit of brooding change your location. Get out of the chair, out of the room, out of the house. Get your heart pumping. Tackle a project. Clean something. Organize something. Call someone. Distract your brain with physical tasks that require your full attention.

Since our brains are problem solving machines we’re wired to think. But there can be too much of a good thing. I hope these tips that others have found helpful help you.

If you think this blog will be helpful to others, please forward, like, and/or share. Thank you!

Marital Mind Reading



Sensing what others might be thinking or feeling is a good social skill. But believing we know for sure what another person thinks, feels, wants, or needs is dangerous.

Four examples of mind reading.

1) If your spouse is silent and you say, “You’re mad at me!” that’s mind reading.

2) If your spouse is late getting home and you say, “You’re cheating on me!” that’s mind reading.

3) If your partner forgets to buy milk and you say, “You did that on purpose!” that’s mind reading.

4) If your partner cleans the kitchen and you say, “You don’t think I’m capable of doing this myself!” that’s mind reading.

Two factors that fuel this bad habit.

1) anxiety.

2) depression.

Two ways to look at this phenomenon:

1) negative mind reading leads to anxiety and depression. Who wouldn’t be depressed if we thought our spouse had such negative feelings, motives, or thoughts?

2) anxiety and depression lead to negative mind reading. Looking at our partner’s through a negative lens colors everything negatively.

Two things make this habit highly vexing.

1) the tendency for the mind reader to conjure up negative motives, negative thoughts, or negative intent in their spouse.

2) the tendency for the mind reader to believe they are absolutely, 100% correct.

Two reasons counselors find breaking clients of this habit very difficult.

1) Nobody likes to be told their beliefs might be wrong. The mind reading client then reads the mind of the therapist, “He’s minimizing my fears,” “He just doesn’t get it.” “He’s a jerk.” “He doesn’t know my spouse as well as I do. I KNOW I’m right!!”

2) If the spouse is not guilty as charged this means the mind reader has issues to work on. It’s much easier to blame others for our unhappiness.

Two ways to get out of this dysfunctional pattern.

1) drive each other so crazy with false accusations, negative spins, and erroneous mind reading that one of you leaves. You can’t mind read if there’s no mind around to read.

2) Get so fed up with poor communication that one of you admits, “My interpretation might be wrong.”

Two ancient Proverbs on this topic.

1) “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”

2) “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.”

Four practical things a mind reader can do to break this habit.

1) Check the accuracy of your speculations, “I have a feeling you’re mad. Am I right?” If they say no, believe them.

2) Get in the habit of coming up with alternative explanations why your spouse does what they do. “He’s silent because he’s problem solving.” “She cleaned the kitchen because it was messy.” “He was late for dinner because of traffic.” “She forgot the milk because the kids were distracting.”

3) Look inside yourself and see if mind reading is a subconscious plot to provoke your spouse, reinforce negative self esteem, feed your anxiety monster, or conjure certainties in a world of uncertainty.

4) Look at the lens through which you look at life. If it’s negative, change it. If we can’t change our spouse we can change our view of our spouse.