No, you’re not just imagining it – anxiety is actually everywhere. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting more than 40 million adults. And if you do the math, that’s 18% of the U.S. population every year that is dealing with anxiety. So, odds are that you’re regularly around someone who has an anxiety disorder. And the odds are even greater that you are around someone who is at least occasionally battling an anxious mind.
When you think about anxiety in the U.S., it’s cultural. This is brought on by the pace of our life today, and then double down on everything we’ve been through as a society in the last few years. And just like you can catch a cold or catch the flu from someone else, you really can absorb anxiety. If you think about how you feel when you’re listening to a friend who’s venting about her toxic work environment, or maybe how you feel when you’re watching a TV news interview, or when you see something in your feed that sticks with you long after you put down your phone – anxiety can be contagious.
So we know that we are most likely going to be around people with anxiety or who are experiencing anxiety. That’s just statistics. But how do you do this without absorbing it yourself?
There are three key mantras to think about when it comes to protecting yourself from someone else’s emotions:
Be a calm doctor
Imagine you slice your finger open and have to go to the emergency room. Do you want the doctor to scream when she sees it? Or do you want her to look at it very calmly and say, “Let’s take care of that.” It’s the same situation when someone comes to you in an anxiety-related panic. If you throw fuel on that fire, it will make it worse. And it’s hard because we have this desire to be empathetic and that sounds like it’s a really compassionate thing to do, but it’s often counterproductive. It can make it worse instead of making it better.
Be a sieve, not a sponge
When someone is sharing a lot of heavy stuff, it’s really easy to take it on as your own to feel it with them, to internalize it, to try to hold it for them, because you’re trying to create relief for this other person. But when you hold it like a sponge, you let it come out of them and into you and you hold it. And that feels heavy. So there’s an alternative to this and that’s to let it pass through you like a sieve or a screen. Let them get it out, let them release their anxiety, but then let it pass through.
Change the channel
The human brain can get caught in a loop, kind of like a never-ending rollercoaster. If you think you’re going to fail a test that’s coming up, you can’t get that thought out of your head, right? The key is to interrupt that thought pattern or change the channel. Splashing a bit of water on your face can help. Do 10 pushups. Turn on your favorite song and have a dance party.
These mantras are not a substitution for seeking professional help when there is an extreme case of anxiety, but they can help in a lot of everyday circumstances. If you know someone who is experiencing anxiety, please share these ideas with them as well. Take care of others, and most importantly take care of yourself.