Feeling anxious today? Me too. For me, anxiety means shallow breathing. It means not sleeping well. It means ruminating thoughts. It means grasping outside myself for assurances that everything is going to be okay. To a large extent, popular media are anxiety generators. Rather than provide objective information, they inject alarm, uncertainty, polarization, outrage, and blame into our otherwise already anxious lives.
This past year, I found a new tool to deal with anxiety that has made a world of difference for me. “Family Systems Theory” offers an understanding of the world as a system, or as set of systems, within which individuals, families, communities find themselves. In this post, I want to share an elevator speech version of what has been so helfpul to me.
Systems are everywhere. Our bodies are systems made up of systems and humans are part of various systems larger than the individual. Every community is a system: a marriage, a friend group, a family, a church, a town, a region, a country, the planet. Systems are inherently anxious and unstable. They experience pressure from without and from within. As individuals, we experience the anxiety of the systems to which we belong. Anxiety is uncomfortable and we often look for ways to decrease it or avoid it. There is a variety of unhealthy ways to offload anxiety: scapegoating, drug use, and violence to name a few.
A healthier way is through self-differentiation, which means doing honest self-reflection and taking responsibility for yourself. It means working to get clear about what you believe and taking ownership for your commitments. When we self-differentiate we recognize that we are a self and that we can only be responsible for our own self. Doing this work can help us to be what is called a “non-anxious presence.”
I’ve heard the term non-anxious presence for a long time and it has always simultaneously attracted and annoyed me. It sounds so wonderful to be a non-anxious presence, but it also sounds like the lofty idea of a guru. Which is why I was happy when I read in a book on congregations as emotional systems by Peter L. Steinke that, “There is no such thing as a non-anxious presence. There are only presences managing their anxiety.”
So the goal is not to reach a permanent anxiety-free state, but to manage our anxiety. (In fact, research shows that most of us manage our anxiety about 25% of the time while the most mature and self-aware people only get up to 75%.) Here are some ways I’ve found to do manage anxiety the best I can:
1. Focus on breathing through mindfulness meditation or centering prayer. (James Finley suggests this one: As you inhale, receive the phrase “I love you” from God. On the exhale, return the “I love you” to God. Do this for 5 – 10 minutes.)
2. Take a break from consuming media that make you anxious.
3. Go outside. Get dirty. Exercise. Gaze at clouds. Wonder what kind of tree that is. Listen to songbirds and creeks and wind passing through branches.
4. Spend time with a non-anxious (or less anxious) person.
In his book, “Anxious Church, Anxious People,” Jack Shitama says that to reduce anxiety in ourselves, and in the systems of which we are a part, we should practice three things:
2. Staying connected to others
3. Managing anxiety
Why has this thinking been so helpful to me? Because I was trying to manage the anxiety of the systems of which I as a part. That is impossible and a recipe for burn-out. But it is possible for me to manage my own anxiety. And I don’t have to avoid anxious people in order to be less anxious myself. In fact, I can stay connected to others because I’m doing the work of self-differentiation. I can’t guess what people are thinking and can’t be all things to all people. The best I can do is be fully myself. What the theory suggests is that when an individual within a system can self-differentiate, it contributes to reducing the anxiety within the whole system, not just incrementally but systemically.
Even when global issues seem overwhelming and scary and sad, we can acknowledge those feelings without being overcome by them. Shitama shares this quote: “Anxiety is the experience of failure ahead of time.” In other words, anxiety is the feeling of experiencing the worst we can imagine before it has even happened, and in light of the very real possiblity that the worst that could happen will never come to pass.
Before I close, I want to thank a therapist who, in 1998, first introduced me to Family Systems Theory through the book “Genograms” by Monica McGoldrick, Randy Gerson, and Sueli Petri. And I want to thank Marta Fioriti for re-introducing me through “Generation to Generation” by Edwin H. Friedman. And finally, thank you Rachel Knuth for re-re-introducing me in recent conversations which led me to the work of Peter L. Steinke and Jack Shitama.