Managing anxiety in times of stress

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Mark Twain said: “I’ve had many troubles in my life and most of them never happened.”

Jesus said: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. … Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6: 25)

If this is true, then why did God create his creatures great and small to constantly anticipate danger in preparation for fight or flight? A childhood friend grew up in a family where her mother and grandmother lived by the mantra: “Look out ahead of yourself to name the possible catastrophes, worry, and prepare for the worst yet to come.” This focus on future doom never got to the real cause of their terrors, nor did it give them strategies to face life more calmly and faithfully. It was chronic anxiety, which differs from the acute anxiety we rely on to get us out of harm’s way. (“Oops, that truck running a red light would have crushed me if I hadn’t jumped back on the curb!”)

Over time, her family’s general anxiety spread like the flu to my young friend, who by osmotic absorption of fear seemed to attract bad luck – frequent accidents, illnesses and troubles in school. She became a timid adult and indeed her misfortunes followed her.

Her only son’s diagnosis of schizophrenia and the early death of her husband strengthened her resolve never to stray far from home in order to protect her son and herself. So she religiously tended her garden, invited a few people over from time to time, and gradually lost touch with her church community, insisting it couldn’t meet her needs. Since it takes a community to raise a child, her son suffered as much as she from her alienation. She saw doctors with expert opinions and took many medications, but she simply became more reclusive. One of her remaining friends remarked that she could have gone for a brisk walk in the time it took her to swallow the enormous number of pills she consumed each day.

In her mid 50s she was poisoned by arsenic from chemical toxins left in her garden’s soil by live WWI bombs buried for safety in her neighborhood. She had never truly lived. Avoiding danger was no safer in the long run than exposure to risk.

All of us bear the brunt of some familial anxiety, and searching for its real cause can be of great benefit. But the best way to reduce anxiety is often to increase one’s basic level of differentiation. How might my friend’s life have been different if she had worked more at being an individual and less at perfectly pleasing her family?

The following three questions have saved many a life from fear and anxiety paralysis:

• Where do I begin and end and where does another begin?

One of the most challenging and defining things you – or anyone – can do is to work on being clear about your beliefs and then having the courage to say “No.” No to family or friend when their expectations differ from your life goals. No to situations at work that don’t allow you to use your strengths. No to children when their demands are excessive or contrary to your principles.

• How can I stay connected with my family and others when their disapproval of my

opinions and choices makes it tempting to cut them out of my life?

Though they may not like your decisions, people appreciate clarity of belief and someone who is willing to take a stand when it is clearly, calmly articulated using “I statements.” Even so, it’s human nature to strive for “togetherness” and to resist another’s clarity. Learning to plan for that resistance and contain your reactivity to it is the true mark of progress. (Hint: more playfulness and less seriousness are essential to persistence when it seems easier to give in to another’s complaints.)

• Is all this worth it to grow up?

If your answer is “Yes,” you will have embarked on a lifetime process with a goal that mortals can never fully achieve, although Jesus provides us a model to reach for.

Differentiation is thoughtfully taking responsibility for your emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others and your lot in life. This means forgiving others for trying to fix us and forgiving ourselves for never measuring up. If we decide to welcome God’s presence on our journey and draw on our faith, we’ll have a better chance of moving toward the wholeness and maturity that is God’s wish for each of us.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

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