Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable: Achieving Your Goal

Image courtesy of duron123 at
Image courtesy of duron123 at

The music is pumping, the class is full, and the energy is palpable in the room. Fitness trainer and indoor cycling instructor Wendell Mitchell moves through the rows of students.

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable!” he calls over the music, and the students respond, each giving a little more than they thought they could a moment ago.

The anxiety therapist in me delights in what is happening here. He directs students to do what’s difficult – what’s outside their comfort zone – and they do it. Each knows on some level that the only way to get to where they want to be (weight loss, endurance, energized, etc.) means having to push themselves through some level of discomfort.  They know that it won’t be given; it has to be earned.  “No pain, no gain” is the familiar gym mantra.

“This is just like anxiety treatment,” I think to myself.

In anxiety treatment, the therapist instructs and encourages the patient to act outside of

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

their comfort zone, to do something different than they might already be choosing to do. By taking these steps forward, anxiety is something that one can learn to manage and to thrive with. Yet many people fear what treatment for anxiety will be like. Just the mention of standing up to your fears is enough to keep many away from the treatment that could open the door to a much better life.

What Does He Know?

I’m intrigued by how Wendell is able to get so much out of his students, and I wonder what it is that he knows that benefits his fitness students, and applies so well to anxiety sufferers. I sit down with him to talk one sunny day. It’s clear from the start that, in the nearly twenty years he has been in the fitness industry, he has developed a passion for changing lives.  I wonder with him how he is able to inspire motivation in his students – and what nuggets I might take from this into my treatment of anxiety sufferers.

He is quick to point out that the motivation must come from each individual themselves, and not from any goal he might have for them.

“They need to find what their motivation is for being here,” he says, noting that he encourages students to think about why they are in class.

I quickly draw a parallel to anxiety treatment. A person seeking treatment must know their “Why?” Why are they in treatment? It is the job of therapist to instruct the patient in successful techniques and to nurture that inner motivation – that “Why?” – and keep it in sight throughout treatment. Without a “why,” there is no compelling reason to get better. In fitness, the motivation might be to live a healthier life.  With anxiety, the motivation might be to be able to do things a person has been wanting to do, but has felt too afraid to try.

“It’s Empowerment”

Wendell also explains to me that something happens when a person decides to push themselves, even just a little. There’s a recognition that they did something that they previously thought they could not – and that tends to trigger even more motivation.

“It’s empowerment,” he says. “Most people walk away feeling unstoppable.”

Again, I draw a parallel to anxiety treatment. When a patient does something that they previously thought they couldn’t, there is an incredible feeling of empowerment. And this empowerment tends to help propel a person forward. The  memory of that success can be a great motivator.

Baby Steps

With anxiety treatment, just as with fitness training, finding your “baby steps” is key. Rarely does a fitness student or anxiety patient start with the most difficult task.  If you’ve never taken a 45 minute indoor cycling class before, you probably wouldn’t expect to be a top performer in class on your first day. And if you’ve never stood up to a particular fear before, you most likely wouldn’t expect to stand up to the scariest thing right off the bat.

“You need to figure out where their baby steps are,” says Wendell, when discussing taking the trip up the fitness ladder. Then you can “celebrate the little small victories.”

When it comes to anxiety treatment, the same is true. A person chooses the steps that feel manageable to them as they work their way toward conquering a fear. Each step is a cause for celebration.

Be Willing

Most people begin a fitness routine knowing it will be tough work. As Wendell likes to say, “this is a workout, not a cookout, folks.” Any patient I ask about getting fit or getting good at something that involves fitness (from cycling to hiking) can tell me that it is more than just showing up and going through the motions. It takes hard work, and if one does the work, they will see improvement, and what seemed difficult at first gets easier. The same is true for anxiety treatment. It takes hard work facing your fears, learning new ways of coping, and pushing through challenging exposures. Yet the payoff is seeing what seemed insurmountable before become more manageable – maybe even easy. And just like in fitness, you get to do it at your own pace. Pushing yourself harder means more progress; going a little slower means more measured progress.

Image courtesy of stockimages at
Image courtesy of stockimages at

The key is “being willing,” says Wendell when he talks of progress in fitness. A person has to be willing to push themselves toward a goal. If they do, they may find themselves somewhere unexpected.

“I didn’t think I could do it, but here I am. I’m not gonna like it, but I’m gonna do it again.”

With anxiety as it is with fitness, if you push yourself, practice, and repeat – willingly – you may find yourself soaring to places you never imagined. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.


An Ending at the Beginning

As I write what is to be the first blog entry of my new site, I find myself compelled to share a story about an ending.  Not too long ago a young patient who had struggled with anxiety came in for session full of energy, family in tow.  I sat ready to set an agenda for the day’s session.  Instead, my patient told me with a smile to sit back, watch and listen.  So all of us sat back in my office and were treated to a 20 minute, one-person show (complete with props) about how to defeat the “Worry Monster.”

In case you’re wondering, the Worry Monster is a generic term some therapists use to helpIMG_1687 younger patients conceptualize their anxiety.  We talk about anxiety or worry like it’s a bully who keeps coming by to boss you around.  Defeating the Worry Monster means learning how to boss back and put him (or her) into his place.  Many of my young patients quickly latch onto this concept and delight in doing some bossing around of their own.

So…back to the session.  This play was so thorough, so complete in its understanding of anxiety, its description of how to overcome it and the breadth of tools it employed to be victorious that I was completely giddy.  I immediately congratulated my patient, and the whole family, on becoming so well informed and on understanding how to implement that knowledge.  What I knew, upon seeing this play, was that we were at the beginning of the end of treatment.

This was not the first time that I’ve been schooled by a patient in the ways of dealing with anxiety.  Hopefully, it will not be the last.  What it represents for me is what treatment is all about – getting patients to the point where they don’t need to be seeing me regularly anymore.  No matter what goal treatment starts with, there is one underlying goal that is common among the people I treat – to get their situation to the point where they intrinsically know how to respond to potential struggles and they no longer need me in order to cope well.  When I am working with anxiety, parents and patients often ask me how we will know when it is time to stop treatment.  One of the things I tell them is:  “We will know it’s time to stop treatment when you (or your child) start coming in and telling me how to intervene, and you actually are able to go ahead and successfully use the interventions you come up with.”

When I work with anxiety, a good deal of what I do is to teach.  I work to educate children and adults about what anxiety is, what maintains it and what puts it in its place and makes it manageable.  I find that when people have a way to understand their struggles, a frame to put it in, that treatment makes much more sense.  Even my youngest patients can understand anxiety when I put it in their terms.  When they understand, they feel more powerful…and they delight in taking charge of their lives.

When my young patient arrived for treatment and taught ME how to deal with anxiety, I knew we were at the beginning of the end of treatment.  I’m not sure who was more delighted at this prospect – me or patient and family.  We had strived together to get to this point.  The payoff was a child who had emerged from fear, who felt powerful instead of powerless and who felt ready to take on what anxiety might dispatch.  I think that this experience, and others like it, is what I bring into the beginning of treatment with each new patient.  I bring the belief that with each new beginning, each first step into treatment for people who are struggling with fear and worry, there is hope for a more empowered ending.  And it is my honor to be told to sit back, watch and listen as they move forward to live their lives.