Not Normally an Anxious Person
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
Note: This blog was written and scheduled before the most recent events leading to civil unrest in the US. I decided to keep the post up because of the generalized anxiety which this post addresses, along with the topic of empathy. There is a call for empathy from white Americans to the black American experience. Empathy alone isn't enough, but it's a start.
Have you said, “I’m not usually anxious, but recently…” Yeah, me, too. If you didn’t have some anxiety, I’d wonder if you’ve been paying attention. (“Anxiety” as in the everyday meaning, not the clinical diagnosis.) Worry and anxiety are listed as synonyms. Both suggest fear of a dreaded future, but anxiety feels more immediate, higher on the alarm scale. Oddly, this emotion may have its roots in empathy.
Empathy is putting oneself in someone else’s place to imagine what they’re experiencing. We don’t need to have been in their exact situation to “feel” for someone. Sympathy is pity or sorrow for another, from the perspective of an outside witness. Empathy is feeling what it’s like to be on the inside of the experience.
As relentless coronavirus cases and deaths mount, it’s our empathy that whispers, “If it happened to her, it could happen to me (or a loved one).” We privately hoped there was something different about the people who got sick. Turns out it could be anyone. We see ourselves in those who are suffering, we’re uncertain about the future, and we have little control—all fertile ground for anxiety.
Empathy is collectively demonstrated by societies that provide for the most vulnerable. The idea of, “But for the grace of God go I,” drives us to help others with the awareness that we could be the ones needing assistance next. (Perhaps those who don’t hold this view believe they possess differences that create immunity from troubles). There’s no sure-fire exemption card from illness or economic instability. This virus doesn’t care who you are or how you’ve defined yourself. The leap between Us and Them has narrowed both nationally and internationally. It’s our empathy that invites humanity’s suffering to be personal suffering.
The danger of personalizing woe is spinning into despair. If you’re well and have what you need, in this moment you’re fine (and fortunate). Casting your mind to an uncertain future robs you of the good you currently have. It takes discipline to notice the positives, to take breaks from the news and social media, to curate what you’re reading and listening to, and to seek funny or hopeful stories.
Yet even with the best mental hygiene strategies, most of us will occasionally take a dip into the dire straits pool. If you find yourself in the deep end, put up a hand and yell for help. Contact a friend, use your extended network. If you’re concerned about dragging others down with you (or worse, engaging in a misery competition) listen to Brene´ Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast episode “Comparative Suffering.” brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-comparative-suffering-the-50-50-myth-and-settling-the-ball/. She makes the point that we’re not all emotionally drained to the same extent, at the same time; we can balance each other out.
What’s your resiliency level today? What do you do to bolster your reserves?
Sending you appropriately physically distanced encouragement—and a reminder to visualize hugging someone you miss.