Most days I feel optimistic about the future, but today there are so many things to feel anxious about. What will happen with the Voting Rights bill? How will Texas teachers cope now that the Texas Legislature has virtually abolished teaching about racism? What’s going to happen in the Senate in 2022?
I think about the young people in my life – grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Do they know enough to protect themselves? Will knowing enough protect them from people with a racial vendetta?
And then there’s my personal future. We in Leading Consciously have invested time and effort in building Pathfinders, our membership program. We are making plans for expansion. Will they work?
Over the last month I have been asked several times how to deal with situations in which a person is waiting and the anxiety is overwhelming. One was exposed to Covid – would she get it? Had she infected her family? Another is waiting for the results of a test for admission to the law school of her choice. Another is heavily invested in campaign petitions to stop voter suppression in her state. Still another is waiting to see whether her husband will be transferred thousands of miles away.
How might we deal with our feelings of anxiety? It’s not easy. It takes commitment. Yet it can be done.
First let’s distinguish between fear and anxiety. Theoretically, fear occurs when the threat is imminent. People in a neighborhood near us were afraid when a tiger was seen serenely relaxing on someone’s lawn. The threat was known and visible.
In contrast, the person waiting to hear about her husband’s possible transfer said, “I’m really scared that he will be transferred and the lives we have built here will be thrown into chaos.” Technically she is describing anxiety, not fear. The threat was in some imagined future. Anxiety occurs for some of us when we think about the 2022 election and voter suppression laws. Or we wonder whether we were exposed to Covid. Anxiety may also stem from the “impostor syndrome,” a fear of being exposed one day as a fraud or failure. We addressed it in blog #14, "How to avoid the trap of impostor syndrome."
The distinction between fear and anxiety affects our choice of responses. If it’s a real threat, fight or flight is the logical response for danger control. Act first, then think.
If it’s anxiety, we can choose to recognize it as something we are doing to ourselves – consciously or unconsciously. To counter it, we may choose to shift into anxiety control by taking steps to reframe our thoughts and channel our raging emotions.
Those of us who are committed to social justice would be wise to learn how to handle our anxiety. We have enough problems in our day-to-day lives. If we add to that our concern about the world at large, we can easily get overwhelmed, become unable to cope, and lose our effectiveness.
So what might we do? Let’s first consider retooling our mindset so that we can better handle mental distress.
First, carefully look at the facts. Is the dreaded thing that strong a possibility? My sister used to say, “90% of that which we worry about never comes to pass.” Turns out she was right. One study asked people in therapy with Generalized Anxiety Disorder to record their worries for 10 days, then track them to see which came true over 30 days. Turns out 91.4% of the anticipated worries never came true. Having the facts helped. Those with the most evidence that their worries didn’t come true showed greatest improvement in treatment.
And so it is with my life. Derrick Chauvin was found guilty. People did sign up for Pathfinders. Democracy seems to be surviving. Now when I find myself starting to ruminate, I remember my sister’s words and think to myself, “Just give it time.”
Sometimes anxiety can be delicious, a way of letting us know that our worries are worth every agonizing moment. They are a badge of honor: if I’m this upset, it must be serious. If I’m this upset, I must have special sensitivities.
We may choose to stay anxious to avoid the dramatic letdown if the good thing we are actually hoping for never comes to pass. This is known as contrast avoidance theory.
The theory revolves around the idea that people may make themselves anxious intentionally as a way to avoid the letdown they might get if something bad were to happen…. This isn't actually helpful and just makes you more miserable. But because most of the things we worry about don't end up happening, what's reinforced in the brain is, “I worried and it didn't happen so I should continue worrying.”
One of my relatives would forbid herself from hoping for a positive outcome for anything she wanted. I would say to her, “Affirming the negative means you sap your joy and stay in dread. What good is that?”
Then, one day, something she had been longing for did indeed come to pass. She announced triumphantly, “I’m glad I worried, because now I am that much happier.” For her, the contrast worked in reverse – she invested in worry so that she could savor the eventual excellent outcome.
Bottom line: What benefits do you derive from the worry? Are you forestalling a sharp disappointment if the worry comes to pass? Or are you attenuating the high if the delight you hope for actually does happen?
If you worry about the fact that you are worrying, it’s counterproductive. You are pouring salt on a wound.
Fascinating research has shown that it’s not our worrisome thoughts that create many of our problems. It’s our negative thoughts about our thoughts that do us in. The thoughts come unbidden and are often beyond our control. We have greater control over the thought about the thought.
What to do instead? First, distinguish the negative evaluation of the thought from the thought itself. Thinking, for example, “anxiety is bad” or “I shouldn’t worry so much” is a negative evaluation of your anxiety. We can decide to condemn ourselves for worrying or we can say, “Oh, I see I’m worrying again. I’ll try xxx instead.”
New therapies and approaches such as mindfulness have evolved to encourage people to accept their feelings rather than seek to avoid them. In our own work, we use a process to promote compassion and self-healing that has these three steps: feel it, intensify it. and release it.
Literally, during the Chauvin trial, I said to myself:
My foreboding about whether the jury will find Chauvin guilty is disturbing my peace of mind. I will accept that it’s okay to worry and allow myself to feel it.
So I sat with it for about 5 minutes. That alone was sufficient for my anxiety to subside. For more intrusive worries, read on.
When I have explained this to some people, they think I’m inviting them to step into a feeling morass from which they will never recover. The idea of amplifying a negative feeling fills them with dread. Various terms are used to describe avoiding dreaded feelings, including experiential avoidance, thought suppression, and psychological inflexibility. Each is associated with psychologically distressing conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder and depression.
If any of this resonates with you, consider learning how to feel what you feel and accept that you feel that way. This is the vital step in emotional mastery and releasing yourself from chronic worry. If you can’t do it alone, various therapies have emerged to help. Seek a competent therapist familiar with mindfulness training, future self orientation, acceptance and commitment therapy, dialectical therapy, or the like.
This is also hard to pull off as a mental discipline. When the world crashes around you, it’s hard to believe that an ultimate good can be found in the disaster, or even that you can survive it. The skeptics among you are now thinking I am putting a happy face on disaster.
I am not talking about pretending all is well. Better to feel what you feel. I’m saying that perceptions shape reality and your perceptions of your capacity actually help determine it. If we are mired in disappointment and assumptions about our deprivation, we cannot see opportunities that might emerge. If you can bring yourself to affirm your capacity, you will seek out possibilities in unexpected places, or recognize them when they pop up. Doing so is a form of cognitive reappraisal and has been found to be an effective emotion regulation strategy.
Few of us are taught how to affirm ourselves. Rather, we are taught not to be boastful or to think too much of ourselves. This is exactly the wrong strategy for good mental health. Self-affirmation is not the same as boasting about your accomplishments to others. Self-affirmation provides a highly successful strategy for improving your health and relationships.
A former student passed me in the hall looking downcast. Her husband had been laid off. She didn’t know if she would have to drop out of school and take a second job. A month later, I passed her in the hall again, looking like her normal chipper self. “How’s your husband,” I inquired. “Turns out getting laid off was the best thing for him. We struggled for two months and then he found a better job, closer to home, that paid one and a half times as much.”
We have written in several posts about the downsides of White fragility <blog #2, “Behind the Scenes: Coming to Terms with White Fragility”> and <blog #3, “Free Resources for Learning About Antiracism”>. Behind any of our fragile feelings is the assumption that we are not supposed to get our feelings hurt, especially in cross-racial settings. Those who learn to move past feelings of fragility are willing to expose their actions that had been hurtful to others. We endure hurt so that others won’t.
This is the heart of learning to take corrective feedback. IF we want to be better at what we do, we allow others to give us uncomfortable feedback (adjust the thermostat) so that all may be comfortable in the new metaphorical temperature.
The goal is resilience, learning to build anew when whatever we have carefully put together has been disrupted. And make no mistake, disruption will come. As human beings we are not meant to have an entirely peaceful pain-free life. Disruption will come. That’s how growth occurs. The question is how we handle it.
Okay, so we finally accept that perilous things will give us plenty to worry about or anticipate. What do we do? How do we reconstruct the pieces of our life when everything seems ready to blow apart? Here are three practice techniques to try.
Decide how many times a day you will allow yourself to worry and set the timer. Plan ahead for how long you will allow yourself to worry. Half an hour, an hour, half a day. It doesn’t matter. This is your time to indulge the worry.
When the time comes, throw yourself into it. Think of how horrible everything could be if that dreaded thing comes to pass. Let the grief and disappointment wash over you and flow through you.
Then get up and live your life. If the worry wants to pop back up out of turn, tell it to wait. If need be, and you can’t hold it off until the designated time, shorten the time between worry episodes. Train your mind to not let worry control you.
How is this situation helping you? Are you learning positive things about someone? What good could come of this situation? Where is the grace?
I remember sinking into despair years ago when looking for the right house. Even then, I reminded myself how fortunate I was to have the financial means to even consider buying a house. I remember thinking I had some nerve being all upset while some people were homeless. Yes it did temporarily ease my angst. The ease might not have lasted, but it worked for as long as it worked. And I truly was grateful.
At the time, my husband and I did a vision board of our desired new house. After staring at it for weeks on end, eventually it gave me the fortitude to pick myself up and go house-hunting again.
If the idea of a vision board seems too “out there” for you, then consider this research. Writing about “a bright future life” boosted positive affect or sense of well-being in multiple studies.
Think of lifting a weight, intending to hold it all day. Will your muscle get stronger or finally collapse in fatigue? Staying on the anxiety treadmill has the same effect. No wonder we burn out or sometimes boil in resent. We are carrying unrelenting weight.
As an antidote, figure out a way to take periodic short breaks each day. One minute gazing at a plant, 5 minutes listening to music, 15 minute power nap.
If you are serious about releasing the weight, consider learning to meditate. Great apps exist for this. I meditate daily and more during periods of intensity. I can't imagine my life without it.
Writing has been my other salvation, my go-to when I’m upset or engaging in obsessive worry. Years ago, when I first started, I felt awkward and self-conscious. What possible good would writing do when my world was falling apart?
Yet a ton of research supports the value of journaling. When I try to explain this to my friends, some chose not to do it. One person told me flatly that she did not want to give her thoughts power by writing them. Her belief belies the fact that those thoughts were haunting her anyway. Writing them down allows you to stand back from them rather than be subconsciously ruled by them.
Your anxiety is fueled by thoughts you don’t dare think. Give those thoughts a voice. Get them out of your system and head and onto paper or the screen. Don't try to be coherent. Write in vivid detail. When you hit pay dirt, you will know it by the rush of emotion. Let it happen. This is one way to do what is called emotional clearing. If you don’t get those thoughts out of you, they will stay stuck, wreaking havoc and fueling your self-doubt.
Commit to using any of these practices to develop your resilience. Decide to do something on this list every day for at least 10 minutes, more if you can manage it. This requires perseverance, not a one-and-done. View it as strength-building. If you miss one day or week, do it the next. You are developing your capacity for resilience.
A former colleague had breast cancer. She sent an email to the faculty about her situation. In it she said she would not have asked for cancer nor does she want it. But now that she had it, she was also aware of the grace it was giving her. Life was sweeter because of it.
When she died, I remembered her words. Even in sorrow and pain, something new can happen if we open ourselves up to it.
Questions to ask ourselves:
Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:
 Blackman, J. (5/11/2021). Texas Republicans advance bill limiting racism curriculum, banning 'service learning' credits. Retrieved 5/17/2021.
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Derek Chauvin Found Guilty Of George Floyd's Murder. April 20, 2021.
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