If you’re reading this article, you have anxiety. How do I know this? Is it because you started to read this particular article? Actually, no. It’s because to be alive is to be anxious; there is no other way.
We all have anxiety—and for a very good reason. In fact, if we weren’t anxious by nature, we wouldn’t be here right now. In every living thing, anxiety is part of the survival instinct, the built-in response to perceived threats. This is what makes us drive carefully in a rainstorm and avoid walking too close to the edge of a cliff.
It’s our inner alarm system. It helps keep us alive. All living things have it. Even animals that are running for their lives from the predators chasing them down display anxiety. That’s what gets them moving. When seen in this way, anxiety isn’t pathological or dysfunctional; it’s a natural and appropriate response to a perceived threat.
A common belief about anxiety is that it’s an emotional disorder existing inside of a person, consisting of that person’s overthinking, excessive worrying, and fearfulness about the future. Anxiety is listed as a mental disorder, characterized by significant feelings of anxiety and fear. Most of the time, the professionals diagnosing this disorder, and the patients suffering from it, don’t even think or talk about the origins of anxiety. They don’t dig deeper into what’s going on; their sole focus is on getting rid of it.
And thinking of anxiety as a mental health concern, as something that’s inherently wrong with you, isn’t particularly helpful when it comes to properly learning how to manage it and live with it. The more we judge ourselves or feel bad about our experiences, instead of seeing them in context, the more difficult it is for us to deal with issues when they arise.
It’s a fact that anxiety has important adaptive functions for us. However, like most things in life, too much or too little of it reduces our ability to function and hinders how well we adapt to new situations. Although anxiety plays an important role in our survival, there’s more to learn and know about it, especially when it starts to create problems in our lives and relationships.
For the sole purpose of survival, throughout history, people have dealt with their anxiety by coming together. In the Stone Age, cavemen hunted as a team, which helped them become fierce hunters with sophisticated tools. They lived in close-knit family groups, allowing them to evolve.
They took turns making sure the fire kept burning, and over time, their ability to kill larger animals as a team allowed them to eat the meat quickly. Then go out and get some more food before it went bad. Survival anxiety and close-knit communal living came into play at the same time in our evolution. As Jeffery Miller explains in his book, The Anxious Organization, “Survival has always been an anxious business, and forming organizations is one thing humans do and always have done.”
In modern times, most of us aren’t worried about where our next meal will come from, or whether we’ll be eaten—that is, unless you frequently hike in rural areas, or you’ve watched Hannibal Lector one too many times. These days, we’re less concerned with merely surviving and more focused on the quality and meaning of our lives.
All of us are part of a larger living system; our families, workplaces, communities, and even our solar system are living systems. We seek out a sense of community, rely on our family and friends, and gravitate towards intimacy and connection. This begs the following questions: How has our sense of community and togetherness become a resource to help us manage and ease our anxiety throughout history? And how has it played a part in making us more anxious than ever before now?
We need a human connection and the bonds of relationship; however, we also need our individuality. Many of us like to be affiliated with some type of community, whether it is our religion, country of origin, or ethnic group. However, thinking of ourselves as merely part of a group doesn’t sit well with us either. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves while also leaving our own unique mark on the world.
We want to live with purpose and meaning. Since we no longer need to worry about our survival constantly, we’re able to be more aware of our higher-level human needs. What this means is that these days, a threat to our purpose, value, or sense of meaning can bring about just as much anxiety as a threat to our survival.
Does knowing this fact make it easier to deal with anxiety? As a matter of fact, yes, it does. Having a clearer and more logical understanding, all the while knowing why something is happening in your life, provides a path to freedom. The more you understand something and see it for what it is, the less control it will have over you and your life.
The members of our families and communities are all, at a subconscious level, affected by anxiety. Therefore, our instincts are on high alert, ready to respond to a threat at any moment. Anxiety, especially chronic anxiety, is such a part of our nature that we only perceive it when it creates real problems in our lives.
When we’re anxious, we’re liable to make some very erratic and unhealthy choices. We tend to make things worse with our anxiously driven natural reactions. Our reactions to anxiety don’t usually solve anything. They just cause us to displace our anxiety, instead of addressing the real problem that started it in the first place. Since anxiety is uncomfortable for us, our initial reaction is to get rid of it immediately. However, the things we do in an effort to rid ourselves of anxiety usually just cause us to pass that anxiety onto someone else, most of the time, without realizing it.
For example, let’s say you have a bad day at work because your boss yells at you for not being clear in your presentation. You’re upset because you know you didn’t prepare enough for your presentation. You come home and walk right past your spouse without any acknowledgment. He sees that you’re upset about something, but doesn't know the details.
Later, he screams at your son for not brushing his teeth before bed. Your child then begins to scream and cry uncontrollably, which is normal for him to do when he gets yelled at. Now you can feel yourself getting more upset and anxious. Without knowing it, your anxiety has spread from you to your spouse, to your son, and back to you again. Everyone in the family is now feeling anxious, and no one is exactly sure why, like a subconscious game of hot potato.
When you look at anxiety this way, you can understand that it doesn’t just go away, even if you feel relieved for a moment. Instead, it circulates within the relationship system, like a football being passed from one person to the next. Everyone’s so busy throwing around the anxiety football that the real threat remains ignored, avoided, and overlooked completely.
In the example I gave you, if your work stress and inability to prepare well for presentations aren’t addressed, you’ll just keep coming home upset, spreading anxiety in your family like an electric current. When it comes to anxiety, causes are never as simple as they may seem. The experience of distress can be pretty complicated.
When viewing anxiety through the lens of the Bowen Family Systems Theory, a systemic way of looking at a complex problem, it becomes clear that anxiety isn’t just some defect playing out within one person. From this perspective, it’s helpful to not only look at the individual but also at the whole family system when attempting to understand anxiety. When you can see each relationship system that you operate in as a whole, and understand the role you play in it, you tap into a valuable resource that can help you manage your anxiety over time.
What Can I Do About Relational Anxiety?
We’re all researchers in our own right, always observing our environments and the people around us, making judgments and assumptions about why things are the way they are. Assumptions about why Jennifer in the office said what she said to you. Why that jerk cut you off in traffic. Why your dad has anger issues, and why your sister can’t keep friends.
Like good researchers, we’re constantly coming up with theories to explain why certain situations occurred. However, there’s a big difference between making observations about people and situations and making assumptions about them. Observations come from a more curious and objective place, while judgments and assumptions come from our subjective experiences and prejudices.
Practice being an observer of your own life, much like a researcher or journalist. Whether you’re at a family dinner, at a work meeting, or about to bring up something important and anxiety-provoking to your spouse, practice being an observer without making assumptions. Watch how the process of anxiety gets transferred from one person to the next; take note of how it spreads like wildfire.
Pay attention to what it brings up for you. Tightness in the chest? Shoulder pain? Anger? Frustration? An urge to smooth things over? Whatever it is, just observe it. Watch the natural process at work.
Afterward, ask yourself:
1. What did I notice when I was simply observing my own life?
2. How did the anxiety circulate?
3. What is my automatic reaction to others being anxious?