Are you turning your gizmo into a gremlin? Understanding and managing anxiety

June 4, 2021

When I think of anxiety, I think of the movie, Gremlins (1984). For those of you who have seen this movie, you know that feeding a gremlin after midnight turns it into a dangerous, scary, destructive creature. Actually, prior to becoming a gremlin they are called mogwai which is what the main character in the movie was. His name was Gizmo, a cute, fuzzy, friendly pet, but he had three rules to keep him that way. Do not feed him after midnight (he gets mean), do not expose him to light (he dies), and do not get him wet (he multiplies). I am only going to focus on the “feeding him after midnight” rule as it relates to the topic of this article about anxiety.

When I talk to people about anxiety, I often refer to it as a gremlin; more specifically, how many of us over worry and become anxious for feeling anxious, and how we add more fear to fearful situations. In other words, we feed it by giving the feelings way too much attention. This keeps the nervous system on alert (fight, flight, freeze stress response) when it is not designed to be on alert. This is only supposed to be activated in dangerous situations. Not when we are experiencing something uncomfortable. In other words, when we allow our worried thoughts to overcome us, we let out our inner gremlin, and as you can see in the image below, it is not a pretty sight. Interestingly, the word mogwai is the transliteration of a Cantonese word meaning “monster”, “evil spirit”, “devil” or “demon.”

The other day I was speaking with a coaching client about a treatment (Botox) she has been getting that helps her health condition (dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that I also have). Although she doesn’t want to get the treatment, it helps her. She feels better with it, but doesn’t like getting it because she would prefer to be all natural in her treatment approach. She is also fearful of not getting it because she worries she can’t function well without it. Her constant fear and worry about this mode of treatment, and whether to get it or not (which she always does) creates more anxiety than already exists in her life that she admits to having had for years. Her existing anxiety is strengthened with this constant worry. She created a gremlin and continually feeds it with more and more worry.

When I talk to people about anxiety, I often refer to it as a gremlin; more specifically, how many of us over worry and become anxious for feeling anxious, and how we add more fear to fearful situations. Click To Tweet

Logically to her it doesn’t make sense that she would fear this treatment that helps her so much, but emotionally it does because anxiety is very good at distorting reality. For example, some people have anxiety to such a degree where they are safely sitting on their living room couch watching TV yet feel as if they just saw a bear on their front porch, which is a situation when the fight/flight/freeze response should naturally kick in to protect us. Not when we are safely protected in the comfort of our home.

I shared with my client the gremlin story as a way to for her to visualize what she is doing every time anxiety, worry and fear set in and she reacts to it with more anxiety, worry, and fear, as well as over thinking and even shaming herself for having all these feelings. We discussed how her thoughts and feelings were feeding the gremlin, or anxiety, and making it worse. Since she was going to get Botox regardless of her feelings about the treatment, I encouraged her to switch her anxiety and distaste for Botox into gratitude. With this treatment she feels better so it serves a positive purpose. Therefore, rather than look at each upcoming treatment with dread, I suggested she look forward to it with joy and gratitude, so she can switch out of the fear response she is having, which spills over into other areas of her life. The same way cute and fuzzy Gizmo becomes a mean gremlin when you feed him after midnight.

Rather than worry about the natural feelings that come with anxiety, let them be what they are and practice becoming a third party observer. Click To Tweet

When we have anxiety, we often feel things like sweaty palms, a racing heart, dizziness, excessive worry, unclear thoughts, and muscle tension, among others. Many people become fearful of these feelings which makes their anxiety and fear worse, just like my client. Rather than worry about the natural feelings that come with anxiety, let them be what they are and practice becoming a third party observer. For example, if your heart races, do not become afraid. Instead, think of how healthy your heart is to be able to beat that fast. You can do the same with all your bodily sensations that accompany anxiety and fear.

ALSO, remind yourself that this is just anxiety. It’s normal and it’s okay to feel this way. There is no need to be alarmed above and beyond what we already are (feeding the gremlin). Just like anxiety came on, it will pass. Tell yourself this, over and over and over if need be. Don’t keep feeding the gremlin with more anxious, fearful thoughts. Let them come and let them go.

This is vital because whenever we have an unpleasant physical sensation, such as pain, if we react to it in an alarming way, the body produces more adrenaline, which worsens the pain because of increased muscle tension. By living in this heightened state of stress, it keeps anxiety and pain alive. Tensing up then becomes habitual and we forget how to relax, keeping us in a chronic state of anxiety where it is impossible for healing to take place. When we instead learn to flow with the pain and not react to it as something to fear, our anxiety levels are lowered.

Whenever we have an unpleasant physical sensation, such as pain, if we react to it in an alarming way, the body produces more adrenaline, which worsens the pain because of increased muscle tension Click To Tweet

The key to switching out of any anxiety state is to fully experience and accept all the uncomfortable feelings and allow time for them to pass. Let them come. Let yourself feel all of it. Breathe and let your rational mind enter. Speak to your anxious thoughts with that rational mind, understanding that these are just harmless thoughts that have no meaning other than what we choose to give them.

From personal experience, this is SO MUCH easier said than done which is why letting go needs to be a daily practice with steadfast dedication. Changing our mindset involves small, repeated steps. Each step builds on the one before it, and this takes time. Be okay with this. There is no rush. Remember that your mind has been doing what it has for a while and it will take time to unlearn its habits. Be patient. Be kind to your Gizmo so he doesn’t become a gremlin.

Whenever you feel yourself being overly anxious or inappropriately fearful, remember that you are “feeding the gremlin after midnight.” Distract yourself, change your thoughts, replace your thoughts with new thoughts that are calming, repeat them over and over and over and over and over to break the pattern of the broken record of fearful and anxious thoughts, meditate, breathe, go for a walk, talk to someone; do whatever you need to do to not feed that gremlin!

Resources:
Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey by Tom Seaman
Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges by Tom Seaman
Hope and Help for your Nerves by Dr. Claire Weekes
Pass Through Panic by Dr. Claire Weekes
Reversing Chronic Pain by Maggie Phillips
Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective by Aaron Beck and Gary Emery

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Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021). He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers NetworkThe MightyPatient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram. 

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8 responses to “Are you turning your gizmo into a gremlin? Understanding and managing anxiety”

  1. David Woolford says:

    Hi Tom i suffer with anxiety caused by how i perceive i look to other people with cervical dystonia – trying to think of the gizmo analogy will help
    Could you please refresh how I acquire or the name of the piece of equipment that hangs you vertically upside down ?
    Thank you
    David

    • Tom Seaman says:

      Hi David- Thanks for being open and sharing your anxiety. I think it will help others who are experiencing the same. I think anxiety and worry can be amplified by sometimes feeling like we are alone and no one could possible understand us. I can and so can many others. The equipment you are referring to is a gravity/inversion table. I am not sure where you can get one in the UK, but some sporting goods stores in the US carry them, and you can also get them online from various places. My favorite is Teeter Hangups. Here is a link to a blog I wrote about inversion therapy – https://www.tomseamancoaching.com/health-benefits-of-gravity-table-inversion-therapy/

  2. Lisa Thur says:

    Hi Tom. Thank you for pointing me towards your other blog regarding mindfulness. Always interesting and reassuring. I’ve also dug out my/your book, Diagnoses Dystonia. Time to dive back into the pages. I also Amazon ordered your latest book, Beyond Pain And Suffering. A timely read that I’m looking forward to! Thank you again!

    • Tom Seaman says:

      You’re welcome, Lisa. I hope you find the other blog helpful, as well as the new book. Please let me know what you think after you have had a chance to spend some time with it.

  3. Susan St.Cyr says:

    Dear Tom: Why am I not surprised that the Gremlin story was in my inbox. Just when I think I can’t take any more pain & frustration, I seem to reach out for some much guided support along with your knowledge & wisdom.. You say it like it is. No big words; No lectures; Just kindness & reminding “that this too will pass”. I will continue reading your 2nd book & try to change my attitude to things I cannot change & I thank you. Thank you for reminding me that there are people willing to talk me off the edge, Yes YOU. I just need to reach out., Kind regards..Gremlin Susan St.Cyr, NH

    • Tom Seaman says:

      Hi Susan and what a nice message to receive. Thank you! I really try and share what is on my mind exactly as it is on my mind, so I am happy to hear that it comes across that way. Don’t ever hesitate to get in touch when you are on the edge. I’ll hang out and sit with you and then we can walk away from it together.

  4. Lisa Thur says:

    Dear Tom: I’ve enthusiastically followed you for quite a few years now. I was diagnosed with Dystonia in 2009. Through much perseverance, research and help along the way with my rockstar team of family, medical and holistic help, my Dystonia is a very small part of my daily life. Today your message is very timely. I’ve recently had the first of two knee replacement surgeries. Dealing with the pain has been a massive challenge. Thank you for reminding me of the power and destructiveness of anxiety. Today I will remember to be a little kinder to myself, and breath a little deeper. Your life’s work helps in ways and times when you may not even be aware of! Thank you for all your help along my journey called life.

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