What Anxiety Steals from Us (and How to Steal It Back)


Photo Credit: Marko Drazic (Bigstock)

My pockets are empty, and it’s disconcerting.

We’re at a church picnic in a local city park. The sun is shining and it conspires with summer foliage and a gentle breeze to dapple the grass in dancing light and shadow. The children do their dance, bouncing and playing amongst it all. But thunderstorms are predicted and I’ve left my iPhone at home and I have no way to check on the ever-shifting summer forecast.

I mindlessly reach for it several times. I touch only lint.

Finally, during a lull in conversation, I ask someone with a phone if it is going to rain. And then she does something that undoes me. She doesn’t reach for her phone. Instead, she looks toward the sunny skies in the west, looks back at me with a smile, and says, “Not for the next thirty minutes.”

Not for the next thirty minutes.

She’s not just giving me the answer to my question, she’s giving me the answer to my season. What I mean is, I’ve got a busy autumn coming—more blogging, a new podcast, speaking engagements around the country—much of it new and uncertain, all of it demanding in the way only new and uncertain things can be.

And I’ve been focused on those storms coming.

Meanwhile, while I keep checking my mental radar, this thirty minutes of life—these dog days of summer filled with sun and swimming pool noodles and kids with no homework or extracurricular activities or back-to-school nights—are quickly slipping past. This is what anxiety does to us.

It robs us of the sunny moments.

We go through stretches of life in which everything is basically okay. The kids are mostly healthy, the bills are paid—for now, your spouse doesn’t mind sleeping next to you at night, your lungs and your body are working for the most part, your job is as stable as a job can be in this day and age, and you have some friends down the street who are happy when you show up.

In other words, life may not be perfect, but it is probably as good as it gets.

We are given respites in life—thirty minutes here and there of sunlight and dancing shadows, thirty minutes to play a little bit, thirty minutes to rest and recover from the hardships of being human—but our anxiety turns even those respites into rigor. It robs us of our rest. It focuses us not on this thirty minutes; rather, it brings the storms that aren’t yet upon us into the present moment, until there are no present moments left to enjoy.

I have only a few more days to enjoy this last summer before my daughter’s second grade year, my son’s fourth grade year, and my oldest son’s last year of middle school. Only a few more days to enjoy this thirty minutes of sunlight that is not always easy, but is certainly not a storm. Sure, a busy autumn is coming, but…

Not for the next thirty minutes.

Recently, I asked someone else how they were planning to spend the remainder of their summer. They answered me by asking me a question:

“Did you know a reed’s only job is to sway?”

I know we human beings are here to do a lot more than sway. But maybe sometimes, on some sunny afternoons, on some dwindling days of summer, our only job is to sway. To stand still in one place and to simply be. To let ourselves be nudged around by the winds of time. To be gently moved by it all.

Maybe, for this next thirty minutes of my life and the lives of my children, I’ll steal the present moment back from my anxiety. And I will do so by repeating this mantra on every breath, “Don’t miss this thirty minutes.”

This isn’t an idea; it’s a practice. And like any practice, if we are faithful to it, it can bend our life to its shape. If we are faithful to it, for just a little while, we may discover the freedom to simply sway.

And then, as we sway, we will begin to trust

when the storms come,

as they likely will,

they will bend us,

but they will not break us,

and eventually they too will pass,

for another thirty minutes or so,

and then we will be free,

once again,

to simply sway.

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Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

29 thoughts on “What Anxiety Steals from Us (and How to Steal It Back)

  1. Take 3 deep breaths and smile. This is a mini-mediation I’ve found useful in dealing with fear. In general, I’ve found a consistent meditation practice to be very effective with reducing anxiety. Set aside 5 minutes each morning to just sit and be still. If you have to have *something* to do, then count breaths or repeat a mantra. But the goal is to just be.

    I resisted doing it for a long time because of my own prejudices. Not so much “It’s hooey” but prejudice around how I was supposed to do it and what results I was supposed to get. I expected to be able to sit down as a beginner and achieve total-calm-assurance within 15 seconds while sitting in criss-cross applesauce position, perhaps slightly floating above the cushion. As that is impossible I was sure that meant mediation wouldn’t work for me. I’m kinda stupid sometimes.

    Your point about practice is spot-on. When I finally gave in and started doing meditation, rather than thinking about or talking about, I got some very powerful relief from exactly the thing you’re writing about.

    On a related note, why is it “anxiety” instead of “fear”? Is one more acceptable than the other?

    • Love this, Mike. It’s so important for people to hear that practice isn’t first and foremost about achieving peace and calm. If you try to make it into that, you’ll quit, frustrated. It’s about achieving presence. Calm is a byproduct that usually comes afterward. And great question about anxiety versus fear. I tend to use them interchangeably, though if I had to distinguish, maybe fear is the adaptive function of our lizard brain, whereas anxiety is fear that has become dysfunctional? Sort of like depression being sadness that has become dysfunctional? Just some thoughts…

  2. Thank you, Kelly. Good thoughts for me today.

    While not generally a worrier, I’m a little concerned for the new challenges on time and your soul that may come with your rising notoriety. Shauna Niequist’s latest book, Ptesent Over Perfect, may give a glimpse into things to consider for this very specific and unique season you are entering. Thank you for what you give – but please don’t give more than you can!

    • Sara, this is one of the most caring things anyone has ever said to me. I really appreciate it. Perhaps not coincidentally, I found myself today writing a post about the importance of honoring our limitations. I will have to be especially attentive to that in this coming season! Thank you again; I’m grateful.

  3. Lovely reminder to thoroughly revel in that time we are all gifted, no matter how many minutes that might be, it is the practice of noticing and connecting to all that are happening right here and now…the dog baking at the the squirrel, the hug and twirl to a tune familiar to you both, a knowing smile that signifies a shared common memory. Thanks again for the reminder to enliven those precious minutes that can smooth the day’s flow from dawn to dusk.

  4. So true. I experienced a powerful moment of this myself when after a year of stressful wedding planning for my son, I was dancing at the reception and the song came on… https://youtu.be/2-hkpLXwHUQ . Now obviously I cared very much, too much about everything to do with that day but it felt really, REALLY good to let that go for a minute and scream the chorus with all my loved ones. Good to remember.

    • You’ll forget, Mary; it’s the moment in which you realize you forgot and start again that begins to change your life. Don’t be hard on yourself; just keep returning to the practice!

  5. This is my first day as vacation relief manager of a refugee camp in Greece. I made a couple of mistakes today, and I was very, very busy for all but about 45 minutes. I helped 12 people with problems. But I had 45 minutes, and 450 people did not have problems for me to fix. I hope for more 45-minute unbusy times.

  6. Thank you Kelly…we need these reminders. As one (and I’m sure most of us) that knows, the storm will surely come. Embrace and be GRATEFUL for the peaceful times. Those memories and the assurance that they’ll come again are what get us through those storms, aren’t they? I think you had an angel with no cell phone that day! (;

  7. Thank you for this reminder today. I really needed it. I’m in a good space in my life right now and so have taken on new challenges as I’m feeling up for them. However, I can feel the worries and anxieties encroaching on every moment as I think of all the duties I’m trying do and do well – a mum, back to work for the first time in years, chair of PTA, getting fit again, being a loving wife, looking after the house etc etc. Today my mantra will be “just this breath” and I needed the reminder it’s a PRACTICE not just an idea to list along with all the other thousands of ideas that flow through my head. Thank you.

  8. The approach I take to the weather would do me some good if transferred to other aspects of my life:

    So what if it does?
    (Then I’ll do the backup plan. Get wet, grab my jacket, move the party inside, whatever. Backup plan is IFTTT.)
    But until then, why worry about it?
    Might as well enjoy myself and/or do something useful while waiting to see what happens.

    Easy for rain (for me), not so easy for other things…

  9. One of my Qi Gong teachers gifted us by explaining it like this: “if something is going to happen, it will happen, don’t worry because most of the time you will be unable to change it’s coming. All you can do is deal with the moment. If something that might happen never does, what is the benefit of worrying over something that will never come. Either way, don’t worry, enjoy the now.” I think he said it more gracefully, but it has stuck with me. You have guided us masterfully as well. Thanks!

  10. Hi Kelly,
    I am late to the conversation today… why? for not allowing those 30 minutes to just be, to read your post and comment, instead of being pulled by the thought “I have something else waiting on my list”… And now, reflecting again, and reading the post again, and a second time “reflecting again”, I realize that attention to the moment, to be in the moment and be able to “en-joy” it, (have joy for being here living it), is essential and no matter how busy we are, that should be the priority. Thinking in the future doesn’t guarantee we will control it, the only guarantee is that we will loss the moment we are living now.
    En-joy this reminder! Big hugs! Cris

  11. Lesson of the day……leave the smart phone locked away. At least for a few hours a day. Such a lesson. Everyday has a mountain to climb, so stop and enjoy the view before the next peak. I share your blog with many. Thank You.

  12. Hi Linda Can you share with me how you applied to be a vacation relief manager at the camp in Greece?

  13. Love this Kelly. Thank you. I love how you take such a great moment in life, a moment of encounter and weave it into a thought that punctures through to the tendency we all have to miss out on the moments now. Be present to your breath, someone told me today. To stay with that breath. Thanks for this advice, Kelly. Thanks for this gift. I’m swaying.

  14. Great insight, as usual.

    I am on the tail end of a stormy period in my life, and starting to feel the first rays of sunshine. Not because the storm itself has abated, but because I realized that, if I choose to focus on the storm, it’s always there; but if I choose to look for the breaks in the clouds, those are there too.

    As you point out, it takes repeated effort to choose to enjoy the respites. For those of us who are natural worriers, we feel like slackers if we aren’t constantly thinking through a problem to come up with a solution! But, as humbling as it is, it is also a relief to realize that worrying never solved any problem, and that by letting go, we may in fact be helping ourselves more by allowing God to step in.

  15. Like this a lot–especially the metaphor of the reeds. As someone diagnosed with OCD, a lot of my journey has been discerning which thoughts I have are worth listening to and which are not, and allowing myself to sway back and forth through the storm.

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