Some of Your Anxiety Might Not Belong to You
Robert Stewart, LMHC
Forensic Residential Program Supervisor
Recently, one of the training wheels broke on my son’s bike. Rather than replace it, I decided that the time was right to take off the training wheels altogether and teach him how to ride on two wheels. Now, I think we can all agree that the mechanics of riding a bike are not that difficult. We even have an expression to describe something that’s easy to remember and pick up again: “It’s like riding a bike!” But going through this journey with my son brought me to the realization that learning to ride a bike is really not about getting the mechanics down. It’s about managing anxiety. The more my son fell off the bike, and the more his anxiety about falling grew, I noticed that I started getting stressed out on my son’s behalf. I was taking on his anxiety!
Generally speaking, anxiety is conductive. If someone is anxious about a problem, they want to make it someone else’s problem as well. Sharing the anxiety validates that feeling and helps offload that burden. For example, if a friend is stressed about something that happened at their job, they may want to pass that worry onto you. If you stress out about it too, you make them feel better about being worried. The problem is that this kind of transferred anxiety often just makes matters worse and it doesn’t lead to good solution-finding. When I took on my son’s anxiety, frustration followed, and I became less effective as a teacher.
The trick to dealing with anxious people is two-fold: First, remain calm. Nothing good happens otherwise. Does my kid want me to look at his skinned knee and declare that he’s never riding a bike again, or to look at it and very calmly say “Let’s take care of that and try again later?” Second, be empathetic. Now that you’ve taken control of the situation by remaining calm, you can acknowledge the other person’s anxiety without taking it on as your own.
Everyone experiences stress and anxiety. However, if you can remind yourself that some of your anxiety actually belongs to someone else—and therefore, it’s okay to let it go and simply focus on the problem at hand—you might be able to reduce your own.