By: Kate Daigle
“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” -Fred Rogers
COVID-19 has been at the root of collective anxiety since the beginning of this year, and for many, the side effects of managing a pandemic has been exhausting. With our country, and countries all over the world, experiencing unprecedented times we might find that when we look inward, things aren’t as orderly, clear and understandable as they once were. We might notice that our thoughts are running wild in a state of survival, or maybe you find yourself completely withdrawn and on autopilot - both of these reactions normal. Particularly, you might notice collective anxiety showing up within your interactions with loved ones, coworkers and strangers. This is all to be expected during times of uncertainty.
Anxiety and stress exist as a collective experience or reality, sometimes as the result of shared experiences and other times as the result of a unique individual experience. The occurrence of an unforeseen and uncontrollable event can lead to feelings of uncertainty, anger, depression, anxiety and fear. And, if allowed, fear can become the driving force behind behaviors from that moment on. Anxiety, in large part, is rooted in fear, generally leading to avoidance of the crippling trigger - fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of disappointment, fear of losing control…you name it. These fears can be brought to light during shared experiences such as wars, pandemics, economic crashes, or individual experiences such as loss, grief, etc. When they’re brought to light, they can trick our brains into thinking our fears are bound to become reality.
So, how can we tell when we’re being confronted by our own anxiety? What about the anxiety of others? How do we interact with one another when under stress?
If you take a moment to pause and reflect on your own, instinctual reaction, to stress you might notice that it shows up for you in these ways:
Having trouble focusing
Repetitive movements (i.e. foot tapping, swaying, rubbing fingers together)
These are all common representations of a stress response. If you’ve experienced these yourself, it’s likely that people you know have experienced them too. When in conversation with friends, coworkers and family you might notice these reactions. Understanding patterns of stress can foster empathy. And, these reactions are generally lessened when met with empathy and compassion as opposed to criticism and judgment.
How do we find the balance and take care of ourselves during experiences of collective stress?
Consider these things when caring for yourself and others:
You might find yourself being on the receiving end of someone’s stress or anxiety. It’s important to remember that it’s not personal.
Establish your boundaries. While being there for someone else during their times of anxiety is noble, it’s just as important to be there for yourself. Take the time to consider what kind of boundaries you need to set when it comes to your emotional and physical health as well as your time and environment.
Once you’ve cared for yourself, consider how you might be best equipped to help someone else. (Hint. Empathy, compassion and normalization generally work! Nobody wants to feel like they’re alone).
There are instances when worry and fear serve a purpose for survival. Then there are instances when worry and fear can hold people back from achieving amazing and wonderful things. The trick is finding the balance. How can we take experiences of learned fear and keep them from generalizing into other aspects of life? This week, I challenge you to make note of the creativity, compassion and empathy that you’ve seen arise from historical periods of stress, uncertainty and anxiety in your life. Maybe it’s a historical event you’ve lived through such as 9/11, a war that you fought in, or the economic crash. Or maybe it’s a more individual experience such as the loss of a job, the loss of a family member or some other event that has contributed to feelings of anxiety, fear and doubt. How did you come out of those events on the other end? What exists within you that allows you to cope, persevere and keep moving forward? Perhaps you’re finding yourself going through one of those events currently and haven’t been able to identify what exists within you. Not to worry – that’s ok. If that’s your truth, then consider what external factors have helped you such as a support system. This isn’t easy. If it were then people who struggle with anxiety would feel they had more control. The point is, with practice and time, it’s possible to find alternative viewpoints. Every experience is an opportunity for widened perspective, growth and enhanced empathy.
Shared, anxiety-provoking, experiences can be the root of many instances of lasting anxiety and stress. And, while they can be immensely impactful in all ways, there is a time that comes when we can look to the growth that can come out of such experiences. It happens at different times for everyone, but it CAN happen! Challenge yourself this week to consider these ideas and see how you feel and think as a result.