Spread calm not fear. Can I make that into a t-shirt? Early March, this year. As I sat down on the tube, the guy opposite grinned at my loo roll loot. “It’s you who’s hoarding all the toilet roll, is it?” I smiled sheepishly back. “There’s been none near us for a couple of weeks now – so we snapped this up!” Yes, I admit it – I was one of those muppets who succumbed to pandemic panic-buying of poo paper. But only briefly, and look, I wasn’t alone, alright? Because it turns out, fear and anxiety are even more contagious among humans than pathogens.
If I’m honest, I’ve been feeling super anxious these last couple of weeks. The neverending Groundhog Day of lockdown has taken up residence in my body. Every day as I stare into my screen, the familiar, agonising band of anxiety squeezes around my stomach, clenching tighter and tighter. Thankfully, a friend recommended Brene Brown’s new podcast, and I found an episode on anxiety which has helped to loosen its grip.
Anxiety is contagious, and collective
I learned so much from this podcast. I don’t know about you, but I mostly tend to get lost in my own thoughts and feelings, and focus on my own anxiety. But Brene explains that anxiety is contagious. It isn’t just something that happens to you, or is experienced alone. It manifests in our relationships and our group dynamics with friends, family, partners, colleagues, communities. “Anxiety is so contagious that it’s rarely a function of individuals, but more of groups. When one person’s anxiety flares up, it’s hard to contain, and for it not to spread.”
Identifying your anxiety response
We all have patterned responses to anxiety, which are known as over functioning and under functioning. As an over functioner, you may be a perfectionist, and take on more responsibility than is necessary or healthy. You move quickly to take over, rescue and advise in stressful situations. You focus on other people’s issues to avoid addressing youir own, and find it difficult to be vulnerable. You want to fix everyone and everything, are frequently overwhelmed, and prone to burnout. As an under functioner, you become less competent under stress, and do less. You may be seen by others as not realising your potential, or as zoning out. You often let or invite others to take over, and may be labelled as fragile, or unable to cope under pressure.
These roles are formed in our first families, when we are children. Brene posits that birth order may play a part, with first children being over functioners who are used to taking charge of others, and the youngest being under functioners with less responsibility. Does any of this sound familiar? Learning about these things blew my mind. Now, not only can I recognise these patterns in myself, but also in others, and in all of my relationships. And while every article I’ve since read on over and under functioners splits people into being one or the other, I know that I do both, as I’m sure many of us do. We all contain multitudes, and our behaviours can change in different contexts.
Patterns in practice
For me, over functioning shows up as perfectionism, manically trying to do it all, and feeling that if I can get everything done, I won’t be stressed anymore. That can manifest in pushing myself to burnout. Like when I convinced myself that I couldn’t possibly take even a day off work, and had to be signed off by my doctor a day later. I also have to be obsessively organised, and make everything really hard for myself by doing the most amount of work possible. Frankly, even me writing this piece and hoping it may help others is probably over fucking functioning (sorry, not sorry). By contrast, when I’m under functioning, I retreat, hold back, and don’t step up. Other common signs for me are avoidance, resistance, procrastination, rumination and overthinking (oi, brain, quiet at the back). Sometimes I hope that others will step in, or rescue me. Physical symptoms of stress and anxiety also manifest in my body (hello insomnia, stomach issues, joint pain and other fun stuff).
Name and shame
When Brene explained that others often label our patterned responses to anxiety, and that those labels can cause deep shame, that was another lightbulb moment. Shame is about identity, and things that we don’t want to be perceived as. I realised that when I’m over functioning, sometimes it’s because I’m afraid of being labelled as someone who can’t handle stress. A couple of years ago, when asking for feedback for a development talk at work, one of the responses was: “I’d like to see Lucy learn ways to manage her stress.” It was a completely valid point, and useful feedback; but it’s always bothered me, and stuck with me. Now I know why. It’s because I feel ashamed of sometimes being an under functioner, and struggling to manage my stress and anxiety. And an over functioner might be labelled as a micro-managing control freak – similarly shame-inducing.
Our anxiety responses impact both on ourselves and those around us. If we learn how to better manage our own anxiety, and how to create calm for ourselves, we can spread calm, not fear. How do we do that? Firstly, be compassionate to yourself. Remember that these are learned behaviours, and not a reflection of who you are – or your self-worth. It’s 100% OK and normal to feel anxious…it’s all about what you do with it. When you’re able to recognise your anxiety response and name it, then you can start changing it. Over functioners can become more vulnerable, and focus on their feelings. Under functioners can work on building their confidence and competencies.
Brene suggests developing a calm practice. She defines calm as perspective, mindfulness, and the ability to manage emotional reactivity. The ability to feel your feelings, but to not react to heightened emotions. Right now, that ability is more precious than ever. Panic produces more panic and fear, so we should be mindful of the effect that calm can have. Calm is also extremely contagious. So the question to ask is: “Do we want to infect people with more anxiety, or heal ourselves and others with calm?“
If we want to do the latter, we have to practise it, and learn to think before we respond, rather than react. It starts with conscious thought; identify and name your anxiety response. Carefully observe patterns in your interactions with stress, and your relationships with others. Once you establish them, you can discuss them, and start to address imbalances. I also find it helpful to remember that we are not our thoughts or emotions; they come and go. Meditation helps me to create space between myself and my thoughts and emotions. If we learn how to better manage our own anxiety, and how to create calm, we can spread calm not fear. We can have a positive impact, and help our families, friends, teams, communities, societies.
Difficult emotions like anxiety can be great teachers, and help us to make positive changes. As I wrote last week, the tricky part is that you have to change your behaviour, and not just your thoughts. Anxious predictions about negative things that might happen help us to get by in life, but also keep us stuck in anxiety and low self-esteem. Anxiety is limiting your life. It’s only through conducting your own experiments into different ways of behaviour that you can change your thoughts and beliefs.
Spread calm not fear
We’re all just learning as we go along. And if we can focus on what makes us feel good rather than what our anxiety is driving us to do, we’re more likely to be healthier and happier. I’m going to dive deeper into those ideas in future posts. For now, please don’t be that muppet March version of me. Remember that you’re not alone, you’re never alone. Anxiety is a fact of life; it’s something that we all experience. The more we talk about it, and accept both its positive and negative impacts, the more we can reduce stigma, and encourage people to seek help. There is no right or wrong way to deal with experiencing anxiety. But if we recognise that it doesn’t define us, and that we can choose to respond in a productive way, we can help not only ourselves, but also each other.
Repeat after me: spread calm not fear. Right. I’m off to order some t-shirts…
P.S. I use all of my own photos for the blog. This is Playa Maroma in Mexico, November 2017. Because soaking in Vitamin Sea always helps me to feel calm.