Tuesday, December 06, 2005
An Unwanted Journey: Day 0012 - Anxiety
Anxiety is systemic.
It’s an interesting idea. And not just academically interesting – interesting in a theoretical, dispassionate sense of the word. It’s interesting in the sense of timely and appropriate to the circumstances.
At work, we have a consultant who has been involved with our company for about a year now. I have met with this consultant three or four times discussing leadership and team building. In one of those meetings, she recommended I read a book by Jeffrey Miller entitled The Anxious Organization: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things. I ordered the book and it finally arrived yesterday.
As I become fatigued with constantly reading about colorectal cancer, the arrival of this book provided a welcome diversion. Ironically, though, the thesis of the book seems entirely pertinent to the situation in which my family and I find ourselves – we’re anxious - anxious about my health, anxious about our finances, anxious about how each of us in the immediate family is coping, anxious about our dear friends whose father just died early in the morning…anxious.
Systemic implies something that affects the entire organism or organization. Even a single person's anxiety can be considered systemic in the context of the entire organization. In that sense, anxiety is contagious or infectious. But the author’s contention is that this pattern of contagion can be interrupted. In other words, one person, making what appears to be a minor change, can affect the entire organization, for good or ill, whether that organization is a corporation or a family. If one person in the family is overly anxious, the entire family's level of anxiety increases, and as it does, it becomes increasingly dysfunctional.
I can see that first-hand in my family’s response to the diagnosis of cancer. Tonight, for instance, as I prepare for the next biopsy and sigmoidoscopy tomorrow, I’m feeling anxious, irritable, and less likely to be a positive influence on our family.
But here’s the really cool thing about what Miller has to say about the feelings of anxiety. They are not the real me! Miller says, “We discover our true selves when we make calm, clear, and conscious choices.” That’s not to deny feelings, just to put them in their proper place.
Miller argues that thinking carefully is one of the best ways to overcome the automatic pilot of anxiety and the evolutionary dead-ends into which anxiety-driven reactions lead us. Anxiety is still important, but the automatic responses and reactions coming from our "lizard" brain, and even the "mammalian" emotional brain, do not represent the best of our evolutionary heritage. The real me responds to anxiety with recognition of the causes of anxiety, with acknowledgement of the fight, freeze, or flee response mechanism, and with gentle appreciation for the complexity and authenticity of emotional responses.
Although it is easy for us to discount the reptilian brain's meagre list of reactions, it is far harder for us to recognize the limitations of the mammalian brain's massively complex emotional responses. But that is precisely what we have to do; for once we recognize that so many of our emotional responses are habitual and based on childhood or adulescent behaviour patterns (the way we always respond), we find that we have other resources. We have choices.
It is the next step, where we marshall the resources of our neo-cortex, where we analyze, synthesize, and carefully discover what we really think, where we recall what our true principles are - it is then that we are in tune with our real nature. This is not to deny what people of faith refer to as God. It is not to toss aside prayer, contemplation, meditation, or even active listening to other people. It is simply to say that the best of me is all of me - but the command centre is the thinking brain.