All Episodes

326. Finding Life-Enhancing Benefits in Anxiety with Dr. Kirk J. Schneider

the daily helping podcast Sep 11, 2023

Today we welcome Dr. Kirk J. Schneider to the show. He is a towering figure in the field of psychology, specializing in existential humanistic and existential integrative psychology. Not only is he an adjunct faculty member at some of the most prestigious institutions like Saybrook University and Teachers College, Columbia University, but he also co-founded and currently presides over the award-winning Existential Humanistic Institute. His new book, “Life-Enhancing Anxiety: Key to a Sane World,” promises to be a game-changer and is now available everywhere.

Dr. Kirk J. Schneider’s journey into the world of psychology began at a young age. When he was just two and a half years old, he lost his seven-year-old brother, a tragedy that threw him into a whirlpool of emotions and led him to early psychoanalytic therapy. Far from being a crutch, this therapy experience transitioned him from a state of paralyzing fear to one of boundless curiosity and wonder. Influenced by his father, a humanistic educator, and captivated by classic shows like “Outer Limits” and “The Twilight Zone,” Kirk developed a multi-dimensional worldview that eventually led him to dig deep into existential humanistic psychology.

Some might question what they think to be a contradiction in the title of Kirk’s new book: How can anxiety be life-enhancing? Well, it turns out that there is something called ‘Eustress,’ which Dr. Schneider describes as a positive form of anxiety that can be energizing and life-affirming. If you’re struggling with the weight of existence, he recommends setting aside undistracted time for practices like diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness. And if that seems too overwhelming, it might be a sign to consider therapy for a deeper dive.


The Biggest Helping: Today’s Most Important Takeaway

“My latest life enhancing anxiety is this YouTube channel that I’m developing called Corps of Depth Healers. It’s an attempt to gather resources for people, especially for people who have some training, some serious ability to go out there in the world and translate these principles of depth-oriented practice that we’ve been talking about, helping people cultivate presence, namely, but to translate those principles to addressing social crisis in the world.”



Thank you for joining us on The Daily Helping with Dr. Shuster. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Podcasts to download more food for the brain, knowledge from the experts, and tools to win at life.




Produced by NOVA Media


Download Transcript Here


Dr. Kirk Schneider:
You can experience much wider and deeper ranges of living, and of relationships, and of creativity, and of bridge building conversations with people who are different from you than you would have otherwise. And that’s a lot of what my work is about, and that’s a lot of what the book is about.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
Hello and welcome to The Daily Helping with Dr. Richard Schuster, food for the brain, knowledge from the experts, tools to win at life. I’m your host, Dr. Richard. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from and whatever you do, this is the show that is going to help you become the best version of yourself.

Each episode, you will hear from some of the most amazing, talented and successful people on the planet who followed their passions and strive to help others. Join our movement to get a million people each day to commit acts of kindness for others. Together, we’re going to make the world a better place. Are you ready? Because it’s time for your daily helping.

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of The Daily Helping podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Richard. And I’m really excited to share with you another fellow psychologist, colleague and a really just brilliant, kind man, Kirk J. Schneider, PhD, is a leading spokesperson for existential, humanistic and existential integrative psychology and adjunct faculty member at Saybrook University and Teachers College, Columbia University, co-founder and current president of the award-winning Existential Humanistic Institute.

And he’s here to talk with us today about his newest book, Life Enhancing Anxiety, Key to a Sane World, which is now available everywhere. Kirk, welcome to The Daily Helping. It is awesome to have you with us today.

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
Well, thanks so much, Dr. Rich.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
This is great. I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a while. I can’t wait to talk about your book. Before we do, though, I want to jump into the Kirk J. Schneider time machine. Take us back and tell us what puts you on the path you’re on today.

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
Well, that’s a very long story, Dr. Richard. It actually goes back to my earliest days. I was rudely awakened to this field by a very grave loss of my seven-year-old brother when I was about two and a half. And as you can imagine, my whole world just turned upside down at that point and that of my parents as well. It was a ten-month process dealing with him until the end and there was just a lot of upheaval at the time without going into detail about that.

But just suffice it to say that I was ripped open to heavy questions about life at a very early age and they were overwhelming to me. My parents were psychologically minded enough and fortunately have the means to send me to actually a child psychoanalyst when I was six years old, because I was still struggling even at that point in a big way.

And that was one of the most important encounters of my life because that relationship helped me to gradually move from a place of basic terror and paralysis and overwhelm to gradual intrigue with my situation being able to ask questions about what was going on, having more of an understanding of what was just stirring so powerfully within me, feeling freer to express myself by my hurt, my anger. And I had a lot of rage. I had a lot of tears. But at bottom, just pretty much a terrified kid. A lot of fears of monsters and witches and of death and dying.

And so this therapist was a real model of what I would call presence, an ability to really stay with whatever came up for me and his own presence, his own being was a great model for me because it felt to me that he had been through a lot in his own life. And yet here he was, this accomplished professional psychoanalyst who was also caring and kind and seemed genuinely interested in supporting me and helping me.

So I would say I moved from a place of terror and overwhelm to gradual incremental intrigue, wonder, and even discovery about this new situation that I came into. And I became a more reflective person even at that young age, beginning to think about big questions about life, what really excited me, what really mattered about life, about living. And I began to explore a lot with a tape recorder.

My father was a humanistic educator. He was a teacher. And he believed a lot in supporting creativity. So we would do plays together on the tape, old tape recorder, reel to reel. And I would reflect on everything from what was going on with me to society and pollution and politics, even when I was five, six, seven years old. And I became increasingly interested in in science fiction, too. That was a really important part of my life. And there were great television shows at the time, The Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone. And they related to me. And they were both — they went to very strange and disturbing places, but they also brought up fascinating ideas and possibilities.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
I don’t want to take us down a tangent, but I think we could probably do a whole series of episodes on The Twilight Zone. It’s probably one of the most brilliant shows ever made. So interesting. So you had the influence of your father, the tragedy with your brother that really shaped you. And now here today, you’re really the leading person in the world for existential, humanistic psychology. And they say, where I heard this, that the more syllables something has, the more complex it ends up being So existential humanistic has eight. So walk us through for those that aren’t familiar with what existential humanistic psychology is, give us a brief overview of that.

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
I think the simplest definition is it ask two basic questions, and they’re both explicit sometimes, but mainly implicit, and they run through the whole therapy. And that is how are you presently living? So it’s a chance for people to take some time to explore, to check in. How’s it going? What really stands out in terms of their life at this point? And it’s usually their battle. It’s a battle between a part of themselves that’s trying to break through and liberate themselves, to feel freer, to choose their lives rather than react to their lives. In other words, to respond, to be able to have greater capacity to draw from their thoughts, feelings and body sensations, their whole body experience to direct their lives.

And on the heels of that question of how are you presently living is how are you willing to live? So okay. Given that you’re continually coming up against this battle and this place where you’re stuck or you’re feeling very contracted in your life, you’re depressed, you’re anxious, you’re fearful, what does that bring up for you? And not only what are you wanting to change, because people usually want to change something about their lives. People we see. But how are you willing to change? Is it actionable?

And this, of course, can take quite a period of time. And I think this is one of the problems in our society is we have a sort of quick fix, instant result model for living. And I do think it would be very, very helpful for more enduring change and deeper change for people to have opportunities like I did to be able to really grapple with these questions, how are you presently living, how are you willing to live, over some period of time.

And the existential humanistic therapist ideally provides a kind of mirror to that patient, an active and passive mirror. By active mirror, I mean at the appropriate points sharing his or her own feelings, responses to that person’s struggle, to deepen the exploration. That’s really the key here for from the therapist side is their sharing of their own response, the reaction with the patient going to deepen the patient’s exploration or will it stifle you, or will it even add to their own fear and make them contract even more?

And then sometimes the therapist is a kind of passive mirror. And I don’t mean that in a negative sense, but the therapist is helping the patient to gradually see their battle closer and closer, how they both lock themselves in their lives, how they’re stuck, how they’re withdrawn, let’s say. Or maybe, overactive, whatever the extreme is, and how they’re trying to shift their lives, the side that’s trying to liberate.

So by calling attention to the patient’s battle, especially people who are willing and able to go deeper into that battle, the therapist helps the patient to keep revisiting the battle, the tension, the struggle. And the hope is that the patient will eventually see very vividly how they’ve been holding themselves back and crushing themselves, and now or more and more how they’re not going to take that anymore. And they’re going to throw that off and come into this new place of meaning and pursuit of, let’s say, a relationship or a project or a job that they’ve wanted to pursue, something creative perhaps, or to just live a more expressive, full life. And that’s one of the greatest gifts that one can be given through a process like that.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
You know what’s interesting? And you use this expression a couple of times, how are you willing to live? How is a person willing to live? What changes are they willing to make? And the data has shown for many years that usually when people make a change, it’s because there’s some sort of stressor in their life that’s significant enough to bring about this change, which is why I think your book, your newest book is so important right now.

And I’m excited to dive into it in just a moment because one of the things you said, you asked the question, how are you doing right now? I think there’s a lot of people in the world that would answer that by saying not so great. And so before we even dig into the meat of the book, I wanted to find out what was your impetus for writing the book?

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
Well, again, it was my whole life journey. It came out of the tragedy and very, very stormy beginning but also, the good fortune to have been exposed to relationships. And it wasn’t only that early relationship with the psychoanalyst, but it was a later, very pivotal therapy in my graduate school when I re-experience some of these very primal fears.

So the book comes out of a recognition that many of us go through very difficult times. And yet, if we can be fortunate enough, if we can be active enough to pursue one of these helpful witnesses, like existential or depth-oriented therapy, we can markedly turn that around and it can last. And so my last depth existential therapy in graduate school has basically lasted 45 years. I was about 22 at the time.

And I feel that the tools that I gained from that have stayed with me for all those years and have been extremely important in having a greater sense of inner freedom in particular. And that’s the gift is the capacity to stay with, to stay present to one’s whole body experience to the degree possible. In other words, to feel like a whole person rather than just a part of a person, rather than just being in your head or just changing behaviors, let’s say, in a very conditioned way or even through medicine, something introduced from the outside to change you.

I’m not saying those things aren’t good or helpful. That’s why I’m existential integrative because I do believe, depending on the client’s desire and capacity for deeper change, many Bonafide approaches can be helpful. But for many people, being able to work with them in this longer-term in-depth way of helping them to develop greater presence to their battle and revisit it and learn to stay with very uncomfortable feelings, body sensations, et cetera, that is the path to enduring change and richer change.

So life enhancing anxiety is all about developing the capacity to live with and make the best of the depth and mystery of existence. If you want to put it philosophically, if you want to put it more concretely, it’s the capacity to live on the edge of wonder and discovery and not just terror and overwhelm when one is uncomfortable. And it really is very primal. I do align with the psychoanalyst Otto Rank here, who talks about the basic anxiety starting at birth.

And this is something we all experience. And this is why I think uncomfortable conversations, uncomfortable ideas are so threatening to people is because they have echoes of that primal separation from relative non-being and unity to sudden abrupt being and pandemonium. And suddenly having to deal with this radically different world, which causes a lot of anxiety, a lot of physical threat that we didn’t have in the womb and prior and a lot of emotional psychological threat, especially depending on how we’re met by the parents and the culture that we’re thrown into at birth.

And if we’re met with a lot of fear and a lot of prejudices and presumptions about threatening things, people, places, then that’s how we’re going to grow up and that’s how we’re going to — and can be — live a kind of contracted life or maybe a very surface life because it will be too terrifying to go elsewhere. And for those who are traumatized and if they’re living in that kind of thin life, it blasts the whole thing back open again. And we’re faced with the abyss, with the radically unknown, with mystery, as I say.

So this is really what life enhancing anxiety is about. It’s the basis of optimal depth and existentially oriented therapy in that it’s helping people to come to terms with that very primal anxiety of groundlessness and helplessness at birth, I believe, the echoes of that. We’re not going to be able to absorb it all. I don’t want to get Pollyannaish here and say, oh, it will be sweetness and light after you get this kind of therapy. No. But you can experience much wider and deeper ranges of living and of relationships and of creativity and of bridge building conversations with people who are different from you than you would have otherwise. And that’s a lot of what my work is about. And that’s a lot of what the book is about, including the journey.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
I knew you were going to get very deep very quickly because you’re an existentialist. That’s what you guys do. But in all seriousness, what’s exciting to me about this book, for many people, the title might even sound counterintuitive, right? We’re talking about life enhancing anxiety. How does anxiety enhance one’s life? I think most people, while they’re anxious, they’re stressed, they think that it’s this is all bad. And then there’s all these you can’t go anywhere on the Internet without seeing the physiological dangers of anxiety. It increases your cortisol levels, your risk of heart attack and stroke. There’s all these bad things.

But there is something called eustress, right, which is good anxiety. Right? And I know, of course, you write this book from the perspective of a therapist because this is what you are and you’re training. But for somebody who picks this up, I wonder if you could share, and again, I know you said that we as a society have a quick fix mentality. So I’m not necessarily asking for that at all, but maybe a couple of practical exercises or tools that somebody could do to begin this journey.

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
I would say start with clearing a space undistracted alone, if possible, to, first of all, just take time to check in, to reflect on what is happening right now in your life to the degree you can. I know this can be difficult for people as well, especially people are used to avoiding precisely that kind of undistracted check in because we have so many things that can distract us and we operate so much on a quick fix mentality.

But so important to take time, to slow down, to reflect to perhaps start with some full belly breaths, diaphragmatic breaths, and see if you can observe your thoughts, feelings, especially feelings, body sensations, images that come up. Almost like you observe objects floating down a river, notice them. Try to notice them without fixating on any one particular impulse or impression so that you’re beginning to get a sense of what’s operating on you. You’re beginning to get a sense of, again, that battle that I was talking about before.

For many of us, that battle is, again, that part of us, that is the way that we’re currently living. And you may experience some of those stuck and anxious places as you slow down, you take time. But the more you do that, the more you practice that, the more you’re really bound to come into to other parts of yourself. Parts that are, let’s say, frustrated with being that way, sick and tired of it, defiant toward it. Maybe angry about it. Parts that have other fantasies about how you want to live and maybe something that you’re aiming toward.

There’s so much that can emerge when we take time and take stock basically, of our lives in an undistracted private place, maybe 15, 20 minutes even. It helps some people to write down stream of consciousness what they’re observing. Other people. I’ve had people who just observe without writing anything down, just noting it. And in therapy, of course, it’s something we can process when we meet the next week or what have you.

Some people like to speak it, to talk it out in a tape recorder. It’s another way to do it. And that can be helpful in that it’s a record. And so is the writing down as a record, something you can go back to. You can compare and contrast where you are now and where you were six weeks ago. Especially if you keep it up as a practice. And I would highly recommend that one keeps it up as a practice.

If one feels overwhelmed by it, I think that’s a signal that, A, maybe you’re not ready for that. Or B, you’re not interested in seriously encountering a fuller life for yourself. Or C, maybe it’s time to consider seeing a therapist to work more deeply at that level, especially a therapist who will respect and appreciate that kind of process of exploration and not only, let’s say, reframing thoughts or reconditioning behaviors, outward behaviors, but as seriously interested in one’s inner life and interested in helping one to find agency in that life, their own agency to discover themselves as fully as possible, as distinct from what the authority says and the therapist says or the culture says, per se, what deeply matters to that person, to you, living your life because you’re the only person living your life.

That’s something we don’t realize often enough, I think, is that no one else is going to be in that body for 80, 90 years, hopefully. And if you don’t develop a rich and enlivening inner home for yourself, you’re going to have a lot of problems wherever you go because that home will be with you wherever you go and whoever you’re with. It’s a place you can come back into. It’s a place that you’re dwelling in. So that’s a lot, Dr. Richard, but it’s a very roundabout way of answering your question about life enhancing anxiety, but I hope people are getting the idea that it’s really such a fundamental tool that needs to be developed.

You were contrasting it with the usual take on anxiety. Yeah, the usual take on anxiety is what’s called signal anxiety. It’s probably evolutionary. It’s a signal to us, a very primal signal of physical threat at bottom. When we were running around the trees and the jungle, and there was a tiger about to attack us, it’s a damn good thing that we had signal anxiety to warn us to either fight or flee. And the problem today or the challenge today is that although for sure, that’s still a very handy mechanism in certain cases, when we’re under physical threat or imminent threat.

In many cases, we’re not under those kinds of threats. And yet we still have a lot of anxiety and stress. And that’s because I think we never really learned. Many of us never developed the tools to work with these other aspects of anxiety that can be energizing, that can be life affirming, again, oriented to curiosity, to wonder, to discovery, to adventure. And that has an anxious element as well, engaging in uncomfortable conversations yet necessary conversations with your partner to deepen the relationship or to decide what does deeply matter, what direction to go in one’s life. If you’re going to be creative in your life, if you’re going to pursue anything new and often anything that brings you stimulation, excitement, there’s often going to be an element of anxiety. There’s also this model called the anxiety performance curve that might be helpful to your audience, too.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
Let’s talk about it.

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
What they’ve shown in studies going way back is that as anxiety goes up, performance goes up. This is often performance like public speaking or something that you’re doing at work, et cetera, your functioning. So your performance goes up as anxiety goes up, but to a point. And that’s where it becomes a bell curve. So at the peak, you’re kind of drawing from this life energizing anxiety. But if it’s too much anxiety, if you’re beginning to panic, if you’re scrambling, your performance goes down, right?

So this is, I think, related to the eustress you’re talking about. It goes back to Aristotle Eudaimonia, and it relates to psychological hardiness as well. Some of the studies of Salvador Mattei, a wonderful psychologist who talked about psychological hardiness. He very much talked about hardy people, even if they’re very active and have a kind of type-A personality, if they are, they feel some degree of control and commitment over the challenging circumstances that they’re in, they actually tend to be healthier, both physically and psychologically than people who lack that sense of control, commitment and challenge. But are still scrambling and going through motions, let’s say, in their lives or feeling stressed to do something that others are pushing them to do. That’s a life destroying anxiety, I think, life eroding anxiety.

So in a nutshell, I believe that we have so much life eroding and life destroying anxiety precisely because we have not faced, we have not learned the tools to develop life enhancing anxiety. And so it hits us blindsided later in life when something shocking, traumatic happens and we’re like the little kid, helpless and groundless, and drowning And what do you do? Some people overcompensate by becoming extremely destructive and tyrannical and dominating themselves so they can avoid being in that place. That’s one of the most destructive consequences not dealing, not having tools to deal with anxiety. And we see that rampant, I think, in our culture, unfortunately.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
I agree. I agree. Kirk, I wish we had more time. This has been deep and so insightful, but I’ve loved every moment of this. As you know, I wrap up every episode by asking my guests just this one question, and I’m sure you’re going to have a great one for us. Dr. Kirk, what is your biggest helping, that one most important piece of information you’d like somebody to walk away with after hearing our conversation today?

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
Well, my latest edge, my latest life enhancing anxiety is this YouTube channel that I’m developing with a graduate student named Tyler Gamblin, that is called Corps of Depth Healer’s, corps like peace corps, C-O-R-P-S, of Depth Healers, D-E-P-T-H. And it’s an attempt to gather resources for people, especially for people who have some training, some serious ability to go out there in the world and translate these principles of depth-oriented practice that we’ve been talking about, helping people cultivate presence, namely, but to translate those principles to addressing social crises in the world.

So I have been collecting videos, I’ve collected, I don’t know, maybe 15 videos so far that are examples of applying depth principles to social crises. Like I have a number of my own where I illustrate what I call the experiential democracy dialogue between self-identified liberals and conservatives or people from highly contrasting backgrounds to engage in humanizing, more dignifying conversations with each other rather than just labeling each other and reacting to each other as stereotypes.

There are others on dealing with gun violence from a more depth perspective, providing people tools to work with that, with the problem that raises. There’s another between a psychoanalyst and a conservative talk show radio host, which is very interesting, where she’s applying her psychoanalytic tools to working with somebody "on the other side". And there’s an example from Braver Angels from William Doherty, who’s a psychologist and founder of that group. I’m applying his skills and the Braver Angels approach to helping conservatives and liberals have humanizing conversations in a group setting. And a number of other videos of people exhibiting tools to help people deal with these uncomfortable situations.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
Tell us the name of that YouTube channel again, because I want to make sure people can get that and we’re going to put it in the show notes as well. But could you say that again?

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
It’s called Corps of Depth Healers.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
Perfect. We will link to that. We will link to Dr. Kirk’s book. But tell us your URL for your website as well, Dr. Kirk, so people can learn more about you.

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
Thank you. My website is

Dr. Richard Shuster:
Okay. And again, we’re going to have everything Dr. Kirk right here in the show notes for this episode. Well, Dr. Kirk, this has been fantastic. I knew that it would be. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with everybody listening today.

Dr. Kirk Schneider:
Thank you so much, Dr. Richard, and for providing the space and time for me to speak with substance here.

Dr. Richard Shuster:
Absolutely. And for those of you who took time out of your day to hear this conversation to listen to us, thank you as well. If you liked it, if you learned something, if you’re excited, go give us a follow on a five-star review on your app of choice where you listen to this podcast because that is what helps other people find the show.

But most importantly, go out there today and do something nice for somebody else, even if you don’t know who they are and post it in your social media feeds using the hashtag #MyDailyHelping, because the happiest people are those that help others.


There is incredible potential that lies within each and every one of us to create positive change in our lives (and the lives of others) while achieving our dreams.

This is the Power of You!