The Flavors of Anxiety

Getting a taste of new functioning in your relationships.

When I present on anxiety*, I often show a picture of Neapolitan ice cream. Vanilla. Strawberry. Chocolate. Predictable, universal flavors that leave much to be desired.

Your anxious functioning is like this. When you dial up the tension, we really only do a few things. It’s hard to be creative, flexible, or curious when you’re anxious, so you turn on your autopilot, struggling to shift out of the same old maneuvers. This is how individuals, families, and organizations end up feeling stuck.

What are the flavors of anxious functioning? Sometimes I think of them as the Fs:

  • Fleeing (distancing physically or emotionally)

  • Fighting (insisting others are the problem)

  • Freezing (acting helpless)

  • Fixing (trying to control others)

  • Fretting to others (venting, gossiping)

These are adaptive and predictable responses to stress, but they can also be incredibly limiting.

What can it look like to exist beyond the Fs? To see an alternative to our original programming?

For me it can look like:  

  • Being curious about a friend’s challenge instead of telling them what to do.

  • Talking about my beliefs and interests (and asking about others’) instead of always sticking to the superficial.

  • Practicing self-regulation when I’d rather have someone else calm me down.

  • Striving to know the thinking of family members instead of mindreading.

  • Working on my own maturity instead of trying to make people behave better.

  • Observing the larger system when I’m tempted to label one person as the problem.

  • Getting clearer about my own beliefs instead of borrowing them from others.

I won’t lie—these moments can be rare. Most of the time I am swimming in a sea of vanilla. But when you get a taste of relating to people in a different way, one that is less about controlling others and more about managing yourself, you want more.

This week I challenge you to think about the flavors of your own anxious functioning. Are you quick to overfunction for others? Do you avoid conflict at all costs? Do you always rely on others for reassurance? None of these behaviors are inherently bad. But they can only take you so far in life and in your relationships.

Some questions:

  • What are my predictable responses to anxiety?

  • What has been the cost of relying on these responses?

  • When have I managed to respond to anxious situations with more flexibility or creativity?

*Using the Bowen theory definition of anxiety, which the reaction to a real or perceived threat. A threat could be as minor as someone not liking you.

News from Kathleen

The Kindle version of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, is on sale for $4.99.

For Medium’s Forge Mag last month, I wrote about how no amount of success will ever calm you down, and how you can just let people be anxious. I also gave some advice on how to build fast friendships as an adult.

I had a great conversation on Instagram live with another therapist about my book, anxiety, and Bowen theory.

August 5th – The mass market paperback version of Everything Isn’t Terrible drops in the UK and Commonwealth countries.

September 24th - I’m presenting all day at the Bowen Theory Education Center’s Annual Symposium in Chattanooga about Staying Curious in an Anxious World. The event will also be on zoom, so check it out.

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Want to read more of my writing? You can read my essays for Medium’s Forge Magazine, read old newsletters at my website, or buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or your local bookstore (best option).

Want a free anxiety journalCalming Down & Growing Up: A 30 Day Anxiety Journal includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors. To receive a copy, just email me your receipt.

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Want to learn more about Bowen theory? Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about their conferences and training programs (which are accepting applications now).