A few years ago, I worked with a middle-aged man (I’ll call him “Jim”) who was legally blind and suffered from social anxiety disorder (social phobia). Jim also experienced panic attacks. He wanted to learn to manage his anxiety better and to not have to take his anti-anxiety pills.
One day I asked Jim: “How did you make it here today?”
“The usual way – by bus,” he said. “Actually, 2 buses, a little bit of biking, and a lot of walking.”
“And what was that like for you to do today?”
“It was fine…I felt fine. Nothing remarkable.”
“Wow, Jim…Most people would be terrified to live in the darkness that you live in as a partially blind man. Yet, you go about your day taking buses, walking down busy streets, trying to improve yourself with therapy, volunteering at local agencies….and you successfully face the challenge of riding a bike despite limited vision. What courage you have! What perseverance!”
My client was stunned. He was not accustomed to seeing himself as a person with strengths. Even more foreign to him was having actual strength labels assigned to him (he was much more familiar with his identity as a “panic disordered social phobic who drinks too much”). This was an “ah-ha moment” for Jim – not an uncommon experience for clients who experience a “strengths reframe.”
“Jim, we’ve been practicing mindfulness in our last few sessions to help you learn to relate differently to yourself and to your anxiety.”
“Take a moment to pause and bring a careful, mindful attention to your day so far,” I noted, as I handed him the list of character strengths that we began discussing the previous week. “Are there any other strengths that you used today?”
He studied the list of strengths. “Yeah, I used curiosity when I asked the person sitting next to me on the bus about her daughter. And when I noticed myself start to lose focus, I used perspective to step back and see the big picture and everything that was around me. Oh, and I used fairness because the bus driver forgot to charge me my fare and I let him know.”
Jim’s strengths language was opening up. He was showing an ability to view his life from fresh angles. He was now applying his mindfulness practice to strengths awareness.
Jim spoke to a variety of character strengths that have strong links with mindfulness. Scientists have found that the essence – or heart – of mindfulness is two character strengths: Curiosity and self-regulation. Both are particularly useful for managing anxiety.
Here are 3 character strengths tips that helped Jim move through his anxiety with mindfulness:
- Curiosity: Research has found that curiosity and social anxiety are incompatible. Curiosity opens your attention and anxiety narrows it. So it is likely that if you can increase your curiosity at the right time, this will help you manage your anxiety.
- Tip: Be curious about your anxiety. Take notice of what you are not seeing (what is your “tunnel vision” preventing you from seeing?). When anxiety arises, instead of taking an approach of, “Oh no, not again!” consider saying, “That’s interesting. I wonder what’s going on here?”
- Bravery: When you are ready to face your anxiety, you should do so with coping skills. Undoubtedly, you’ll need to rally any personal courage that you’d previously been underusing.
- Tip: Focus on the outcome of using your bravery – how will you feel about yourself after you face your anxiety? How will your behavior impact others?
- Self-regulation: When you practice being aware of the present moment, you are taking control of your attention. When your mind wanders to past problems or to future worries and you bring your focus back to your breath (or to the present moment), you are taking control of your attention (in other words, you are self-regulating your attention).
- Tip: Don’t try to override panic or intense anxiety by learning relaxation techniques. I love these techniques but there’s a time and a place. Research shows learning relaxation techniques for panic can actually be harmful since you cannot override your fight-or-flight response when it’s fully activated in panic. Instead, train yourself to take better control of your attention through regular mindfulness practice.
Jim learned to use his mindfulness and strengths together in this way. You can too.
Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L., Anderson,N. D., Carmody, J., et al. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241.
Kashdan, T. B. (2007). Social anxiety spectrum and diminished positive experiences: Theoretical synthesis and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review 27, 348-365.
Niemiec, R. M., Rashid, T., & Spinella, M. (2012). Strong mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness and character strengths. Journal of Mental Health Counseling.
Niemiec, R. M. (2012). Mindful living: Character strengths interventions as pathways for the five mindfulness trainings. International Journal of Wellbeing.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Pury, C. L. S., & Kowalski, R. M. (2007). Human strengths, courageous actions, and general and personal courage. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(2), 120-128.
Learn more about strengths:
To measure your character strengths and discover your signature strengths, go to www.viame.org
To apply character strengths in your practice and life, go to www.viapros.org