A few years ago, one of our children was suffering from debilitating anxiety. He reached out to a mentor and received this simple advice, “Leave your work and go get a job washing dishes.” We like to joke at our house that we have the only family member in the history of job hunting that held out for a dish washing job. It turns out, this helped. Doing repetitive tasks is soothing and can provide relief from anxiety and depression. Take a few minutes to do something repetitive. Walk. Wash dishes. Fold clothes or rearrange a drawer. Go find a dishwasher and volunteer to load and unload it. Spread mulch. Cut the grass. Sweep your driveway. Whatever repetitive activity you practice, be fully present for the job. Concentrate on that task.
Last night I was teaching a class on conflict management and asked the group about their super powers. In particular, I wanted to know what unique super power each of them possessed that they could abuse in such a way as to reduce their connection with other people.
I got crickets. After a couple of minutes of silence, my husband chimed in and volunteered to share MY super power. Seriously. According to my husband, my superpower is my tendency to perhaps, just maybe, exaggerate the danger of a situation to such ridiculous heights that the possibility that there is any danger present AT ALL is missed. He is right. It is my superpower. After he gets out of the dog house for talking about my power rather than his, I might tell him so! Evidently...this super power can be a lot to live with! For years my husband traveled weekly for his job, usually flying. I rarely flew on a commercial airline and when we fly together, I make his experience a living hell...according to him.
It begins days before we travel. I write all our children love notes, just in case I never see them again and dispatch these off in early morning emails on the day of the flight. I insist that Pete and I consider our footwear carefully in case we need to exit the plane in haste with the cockpit on fire. (Who wants to burn the bottoms of their feet?) When we select our seats, we need to be within two rows of an exit to give us our best survival rate. No window seats for us, what if the window broke in mid-flight? (Who is laughing now? Google Southwest Airlines.) I would get really irritated if he didn’t read the inflight instructions and watch the instructions given by the steward. For a man accustomed to calm travel every week, this is overkill.
Here is what a healthier me can do. I can make the same choices for me and stop managing my anxiety by controlling his perspective. We will be flying this weekend! Wish me luck!
P.S. Update: without prompting, my husband, knowing my flying fears, paid EXTRA for us to sit in an exit row. Some cynical types may think the guys was going for extra leg room; I choose to believe he did it because he loves me and thinks I am cute.
We all wrestle with fear and anxiety but not all of us realize the devastating effect chronic anxiety has on us. My family of origin is a highly anxious system. But I didn’t realize that until I was in my forties. I thought I came from a family who was angry and irritable! My lack of awareness in this area was a big problem for me and the family Pete and I built. This is the opposite of resilient because it indicates that I was (and can be) emotionally unaware. This decreases problem solving, interferes with relationships, increases conflict and confusion, on and on the list goes of the ways I misidentified a problem in my family that resulted in me making poor attempts to resolve the issue.
One summer I was in Atlanta visiting my folks while my kids and husband were on a mission trip in the inner city of Atlanta. Part of the trip included a concert put on by our youth group at a large baptist church in the area of their ministry site. All were invited and I was so excited that my folks could come to an event where they could see my kids sing, meet people I cared about, and have exposure to the awesome work my church was doing through the youth group.
In case you are unaware, Atlanta has a lot of traffic and we chose to leave early to head across town. As the natives can attest to, this is a long and arduous trek. KInd of like a safari without decent guides. My folks sat in the front of the Suburban and I sat in the back in a way that was eerily reminiscent of my childhood. Both of my parents began to talk about the traffic and express the likelihood that we were going to be a statistic on the mean streets of Atlanta before nightfall. And in that moment I got it.
My folks weren’t angry they were anxious. They weren’t a little anxious they were a LOT anxious. Was traffic bad? Yes. Did my dad navigate it every single day without losing life or limb? Yes. Did this chatter seem like an over-reaction? Yes. In the past, I would have gone to my mind palace and thought they were fussing at me or each other. In that particular moment I realized that this is how they sound but not how they felt. Instead of getting irritated myself, I realized I was asking too much of them. No one should be put in this position. I suggested that maybe it would be a better idea if they didn’t go. They could stay home (we were still in the driveway) and I would take my car. I admitted that I didn’t realize how much this drive would make them feel so anxious and told them that I wasn’t feeling anxious about driving, so I could go and they could stay home. Dead silence.
We all went and lived to tell about it. My mom thoroughly enjoyed the program and my dad enjoyed meeting all the people and charming them with his witty repartee. Rarely did anxious moments like this go well between us even after this revelation on my part. I struggled to manage my own anxiety in situations like this and they did too. But here’s the thing I took away from that encounter: as we increase our ability to identify and handle our strong emotions, sometimes conversations can be more meaningful than mean.