Stopping the Spread of Anxiety as a Contagion

If there were ever a time in recent history in which anxiety seems likely run high, this current cultural moment certainly seems to qualify.

As well as pastoring a church, I help faith leaders understand the nature of chronic anxiety. Most of us are interested in noticing in ourselves, but I also encourage people to pay attention to how anxiety operates in a group.

The Viral Nature of Anxiety

Anxiety is contagious. It spreads like wildfire, and almost every group has a super-spreader. Have you ever been in a room in which someone walks in and without anyone saying a word, the entire mood in the room shifts? Have you been in a board meeting in which one person derails the entire agenda and their anger puts everyone on the back foot? Have you listened as someone tells you what they are anxious about, and now you are anxious about what they are anxious about?

Anxiety will spread between people unless at least one of them has done some immunity work beforehand. If a leader can notice the way anxiety spreads in a group, then he or she can effectively stop the infection transfer both in himself or herself and in the group. We spent weeks in lockdown, many of us isolating with loved ones to keep COVID-19s contagion to a manageable level, but we have done little to keep anxiety from running rampant among us.

The Power of Noticing Process

Two tools to help address the viral nature of anxiety is that we 1) notice process versus content and 2) practice differentiation of self. People pay attention to content (what is said) but they react to process (the way in which people relate). The reason anxiety spreads in groups has less to do with what is said and more to do with the way people relate. If leaders can learn to notice process as much as content, they can stop the anxiety contagion. It takes practice, but over time leaders can discern the way people are acting and reacting and begin to intervene when they see the anxiety spreading.

One simple way to notice process as much as content is to look for recurring, predictable relational patterns between people or between you and another person. Over time, most groups develop recurring, predictable patterns. The same person always speaks up or always has the final word. The same person speaks declaratively, shutting down dialogue. The same people stay silent in a meeting but then have their own meeting after the meeting. Once you’re onto it, you can map out the pattern like a chess game and then begin the difficult but essential practice of naming your own complicity in the dynamic. When we’re anxious, we look to hide or blame, but noticing recurring process patterns is an essential step in both taking responsibility and then breaking a pattern. When I was a younger leader, I would often perceive myself as the victim of others’ behaviors, but as I studied process, I noticed how often my own behavior, action, or inaction would be part of the problem. The reason anxiety spreads in groups has less to do with what is said and more to do with the way people relate. Click To Tweet

I remember a time when I was meeting with our children’s ministry team, trying to crack the nut on Saturday night volunteers who would cancel. The problem was complex, but as we looked at the recurring, predictable patterns and then examined our complicity, one staff member said, “When people call to cancel, I tell them it is no problem. I actually send the message that it makes no difference at all.” She understandably wanted to relieve the caller of their guilt, but naming that helped de-escalate her anxiety about volunteer cancelation. One reason naming your complicity works is because you are taking responsibility for something about which you previously felt helpless. Nothing will escalate anxiety like feeling out of control, but naming your complicity gives you options to flip the power dynamic.

The Need for Differentiation

So, you’ve noticed process, mapped out a pattern, and named your complicity. How do you actually stop the anxiety infection from spreading? You practice differentiation of self.

Differentiation is the learned skill of noticing when your anxiety is spreading to others, when theirs is spreading to you, and stopping the infection. It is the goal of staying connected to others without catching their anxiety, and working on your own reactivity. It is the ability to be fully yourself while staying fully connected to others. The differentiated self is a curious, calm, and non-reactive presence, who keeps anxiety from spreading and stays connected to others.

This is easier said than practiced, but it’s well worth the effort. If you want to keep anxiety from spreading, you can notice the pattern and then work on your own response. You will be amazed at what a curious, calm presence can do instead of reactive contagious behavior. Our children’s staff member made three changes to the Saturday Night Cancellation Syndrome: she stopped saying ‘no problem’ when it was a problem; she used curiosity to discover that it wasn’t the same volunteers always canceling, but was a small percentage of all volunteers who, understandably, got sick or had an issue and had to cancel, and she recognized that people were waiting until last minute to cancel, “hoping they would get better.” Their late cancellations were often an attempt at courtesy.

Prior to this exercise, the volunteer was making meaning out of the cancelations: that the volunteer wasn’t good at her job, that people didn’t appreciate her, and she was getting angry and wanting to blame. But after using curiosity to explore, she saw that people were coming from a place of courtesy, and she was able to change some dynamics to honor their courtesy but avoid Saturday Night Cancellation Syndrome. This is the power of differentiation over anxiety—it helps us see what really is true, more than the meaning we make out of a situation.

What the World Needs Now

Our society is starved for well-differentiated leaders, and it is the ideal space for a faith leader. After all, even secular systems theorists name Jesus of Nazareth the most well-differentiated person to ever live. Our society is one huge group and social media is a super spreader of anxiety. Murray Bowen, the founder of family systems theory and the first person to write extensively about anxiety in groups, coined a phrase: societal regression, which is also helpful for faith leaders to understand.

On a macro level, societies increase in anxiety when overpopulated, during the scarcity of resources, when experiencing economic swings…and in pandemics. Our society has regressed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic and is looking to well-differentiated leaders who practice calm presence to lead us through. Just as in the church’s early history, I believe this can be the church’s finest hour because we can offer a true refuge from the rabid anxiety that is plaguing our culture. Our calm presence itself can be a visceral witness to the peace of Christ that passes understanding. Our society has regressed significantly during COVID, and is looking to well-differentiated leaders who practice calm presence to lead us through. Click To Tweet

Doing this work takes energy and might sound overwhelming with all that is on your plate these days as a faith leader. But if you work on it a little each day, you might be surprised at how quickly your differentiation muscle starts to build. What pattern can you notice this week? What reactivity can you halt this week?

God be with you in this endeavor.