ARC Blog

Using Positive Experiences to Build Strength Over Anxiety

Living with anxiety can be like living with a second identity. It can control many of the experiences we desire, the choices we make, and the relationships we pursue. It can even feel as if we have become an obstacle to ourselves. In more confident moments we may create a plan to manage the anxiety, but when the anxiety is there- right in front of us, it feels like conquering the impossible. Our anxious self steals our ideal self from right in front of us; heart racing, breath shortens: we suddenly feel a great loss of power over our own lives. It is as if we have been captured by an invisible, emotional self. Slowly these experiences begin to permeate other areas of our lives as our confidence decreases. We may feel less capable, less in control. We avoid the ultimate goals we desire to achieve. Ultimately we are separated from the quality of life we so desire.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t worry, you will not be quizzed on the spelling of his name), a positive psychologist, once said that,

“The most important step in emancipating oneself … is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment.  If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from ones shoulders. Power returns to the person… one begins to harvest the genuine rewards of living.”

Mihaly is best known for his theory of “Flow.” Flow can be described as that moment when we are so involved in a task that our concentration becomes enhanced. We enter what you might think of as being “in the zone.” Many think of this as something that predominantly athletes encounter, but it can apply to anyone. You become so fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus and total enjoyment of the activity at hand that all else fades away- even anxiety. It has been described as a single-minded immersion and representing the ultimate experience in harnessing emotions. This is what Mihaly discovered in his research of Flow. He observed and interviewed individuals from all walks of life: rock-climbers, musicians, artists, surgeons, Hindu Monks, children and youth… In each person he noted one common factor, “Play as motivation caused increased concentration, interest in the future and self-esteem.” Play increased an individual’s skill to overcome obstacles.  An energizing moment aligned to the task at hand. Everything else melts into nothingness around us.  We control our own emotional experience at this moment. Mihaly implied that in doing this the “self” grows.  In time, the person develops further contentment and confidence in all areas of their life. “Regardless of culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in ‘flow.’ There is this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity; you know exactly what you want from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know what you need to do is possible to do… what you are doing becomes worth doing it for it’s own sake.”

These 7 conditions are:

  1. The experience of Flow usually occurs when we confront a task we have a chance of completing
  2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing
  3. The task has clear goals
  4. We receive immediate feedback from the task
  5. One acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes awareness everyday worries and frustrations
  6. Enjoyable experiences allow a sense of control over actions
  7. Concern for the self in a self-centered manner disappears, yet there is a sense of a greater self. Time passes effortlessly and hours feel like minutes.

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it. We become motivated to achieve in order to obtain the experience itself. We feel empowered to obtain! This process is quite alternative to how traditional therapy addresses anxiety. Many therapies focus on conflict, under the assumption that once the “issue” is worked through, happiness will take care of itself. In the approach of Flow, the self becomes organized around goals, strengths and interests instead of focusing on the conflict of negative situations. The individual is empowered by interests which they love and a further gaining of the self.

In the research about Flow a story of a young woman was shared. This woman lived with fear of being alone in public; crowds gave her an overwhelming sense of anxiety. In the period of a year she was directed towards activities of great interest to her. With assistance she participated in volunteering and social events that she desired. Once she would enter Flow through engagement in experiences of her choosing she was slowly able to experience success. The positive and immediate feedback from each event would create a cycle of wanting to do it again, and slowly increase the challenge of the experience each time she did.  In time she was able to attend social events without accompaniment. She experienced empowerment over positive use of her free time as she chose. This all did not come as submerging herself in negative environments but instead by first building small skills in environments of her choosing.

Putting ourselves in an environment or situation that is overwhelming can often create anxiety, and ultimately, failure about the experience. However if we put ourselves in an environment or event that we believe firmly we can conquer and we desire to participate in then when we DO conquer we feel a great sense of confidence. We should not create a challenge for ourselves so great that we cannot meet it but instead a challenge that our current skills are matched with. With each accomplishment we again build confidence and enhancement of the skills at hand.

So then the question remains, How Do I Obtain ‘Flow?’ In exploring that consider these three factors:

What interests you?
What do you obsess over? What is your passion? It does not mean you are an expert at this thing- just that you desire to know more about it. Sports, games, arts and other activities such as this are more conducive to “flow” as they provide immediate experience feedback. This rewards the person to return to the activity again and again, allowing the skill to increase. While these types of activities are conducive to flow, do not be deterred by what you may feel an interest in. We are all unique and it is the subjective challenges and skills that influence the quality of your experience.

What are your obstacles to this interest?
Consider what obstacles there may be and do not be afraid to admit them. This will help you identify how to set reasonable and attainable goals. Is time an obstacle? Is it money? Is it not knowing where to begin or whom to speak with to find out? Is it fear of failure?

Start small.
Upon understanding what you may desire to pursue and what your obstacles may be, set a small goal. Set a goal that you KNOW you can meet. For example, if you desire to learn to Rock climb but have never done it before, a goal to begin with would not be to climb a mountain within a year. But a reasonable goal might be to find a book for beginning rock climbers, go to a rock-climbing center and ask if you can observe or ask for a short beginner lesson. Make sure you set a goal you KNOW you can achieve- and don’t be ashamed as to how small this goal may be. Set yourself up for success, and then set the next goal slightly higher, but also within an attainable reach.

Once you experience Flow, even if for just a minute or two, it can begin to enhance your belief in the ability to harness your emotions. Start small and don’t be afraid to go backwards. If one experience flops, and your anxiety interrupts your focus, do not feel that all is lost. Your curiosity about the world and passion for power over your life can fuel you. Reach out to your supports and share your goals. Surround yourself, as much as possible, with people who will walk through these experiences with you. It may seem at times that Flow can be impossible to obtain when overwhelmed by anxiety, but in time it can be attained and can be a major contribution to the quality of life you deserve.

Miranda Ward is the owner of Living Well Recreational Therapy. She can be contacted for more questions about her experience or a consultation at [email protected]
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