All I did was step out of my car but that’s when the world changed from peaceful to a place where stress, fear, and anxiety swirled together like an invisible whirlwind. I’m talking about what happens when you walk into someone else’s anxiety, fear, and stress and it begins to burn in you.
Ever been there?
Maybe yours was when you were thinking clearly, feeling calm, and then THAT person came in with their stress oozing like a bad cologne. My recent experience at the gas pumps was during the so called “gas crisis” of Thursday the 30th got me thinking how we can stop fueling anxiety – in us and in others.
In my experience, I stepped out of the car, felt “it” hit me like a Texas summer and then began to speak to the woman on the other side of the gas pump who looked a little freaked out. “Hi there,” I started, “I’m so grateful for the HEB (TX grocery store chain) staff creating the calm order here! How are you?” The woman on the other side of the gas pump shared how she was also grateful because earlier she saw people literally fighting over gas pumps and then she saw another driver sideswipe a car to get to a pump before someone else. I looked at her incredulously and then said in a lower tone leaning in, “I can feel the tangible anxiety!” Her big eyes and nodding head said she could too. Then another driver horn broke into our peaceful conversation, we both laughed, and finished pumping with smiles and waves.
Why Do we Act This Way
As I drove off I recognized it’s only natural to react with the need to get mine, to get what I need, and to forget anyone else in my way so that a person fights over a resource that’s apparently slim. It’s hard-wired human neurobiochemistry. It’s instinct. Instinct says, me, mine, take, protect, now! However, this is only a portion of our humanity.
Think about the word human or the derivative, humane. What determines if something is humane, if something reveals our humanity? There is a concept of good, a context of hope that is a part of being human. It’s not all me, mine, take, protect, now. The good, the hope, comes from the inherent part of our created design, our identity if you will. So yes there is instinct within us humans, and there is also identity.
When I stepped outside my car and felt the shift from the peace within my car to the anxiety and fear around the gas pumps, I recognized the invitation to instinct. However there was a deeper invitation within me that said, “it’s ok. You’re ok. We’re ok.” And that invitation let me reach out to someone else who had “I’m freaking out a little here” written on her face.
That’s the difference between reacting to instinct and responding from our created identity. Identity allows us to act from a whole person place and to include others, not forget them. Here in Texas, we do not need to focus on getting ours, we can continue to do what we truly want to do deep within, which is get it together for each other.
How Can We Stop Another’s Anxiety From Burning In Us
This instinct also has a name, negativity bias. Negativity bias is the fancy phrase that relates to our instinct of reacting to a threat with the need to protect, to hold, to get, to react now. It comes from the survival mechanism of our biochemistry that is connected to our social or relational needs. Our brains, just like our hearts, are truly social and relational. They respond to what we need to survive our species and also they respond to how we need to connect to others. When it comes to experiences, Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness says, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
If we’ve had a negative experience, any experience that looks like it might repeat puts our brains on alert, or a bias towards expecting the negative. At the gas pumps across TX on the 30th, the bias was we will run out of gas and we will be stranded and it will be awful, so that means I must get mine now. In reality there was no actual shortage. It was a media question that was posed when Hurricane Harvey temporality closed a few refineries on the coast. It became reality when many people responded in a negativity bias and then created an actual temporary shortage until the trucks could get through the traffic on their normal runs to replenish the pumps. That’s what negativity bias can do – it hurts people and creates issues where there typically isn’t one.
You and I can stop negativity bias and anxiety in it’s tracks with this simple visual that is powerful in practice. Stopping anxiety is often more of a presence than a narrative. You can come into a space or a conversation as either a thermometer or as a thermostat. Author Tim Elmore explains the differences in his book, Habitudes:
- Thermometer – thermometers can read the current temperature and then adjust as the temp adjusts.
- Thermostat – thermostats can set the temperature and then control the temp to more comfortable settings as needed.
- You and I can either be a thermometer or a thermostat. Will you merely reflect the climate around you or will you help set it? Will you simply accept the anxiety or stress of another person or will you through your calming presence and compassionate context set the climate for peace, excitement, and comfort?
Practical Tactics for Thermostats
- Identify whatever “it” is and Share the observation – this creates a connection. Through connection you can offer and receive compassion, comfort, and create conversation.
- Get deliberately refocused –put your attention where it serves you best, what you allow your brain to focus on frames your experience. In my experience at the pump, I refocused my instinct to what my identity was telling me, from “AHHHH” to “OK, I’m ok”. Then I intentionally reached out to connect to the woman at the next-door pump.
- 20 seconds – “savor the shizzle out of positive experiences”, says MarieForleo.com, and then share it. Remember what I said about our brains? Here’s it in action for a thermostat: when you savor a positive experience it reinforces the joy and also creates a place where your brain can return to that joy. There are actual pathways that become created that help your brain to stay calm and return to joy.
- Get curious instead of furious – sure it’s super easy to get mad when something happens. I have an easy self-righteous anger button and what’s helped me is to see my anger, while appropriate because it reveals someone is not doing the right thing, actually alienates others so we can’t work together to make it “right”. So I’ve learned to get curious about what’s going on and who’s involved and to practice identifying the “it” so I can create a conversation around my curiosity. Remember, conversation gives context around an issue and context leads to compassion. All this when you get curious instead of furious.
- Connect with the context to develop compassion –to speak a little bit more into this one, when you hear more of what’s going on with the other person you understand more of why they are reacting or responding the way they are. And vice versa, when you share what’s going on and your own back-story behind your reaction, the other person has context. Context is created when we engage in conversation to understand AND be understood.
Stop Fueling Anxiety – Keep Calm and Stay Texas Strong
Whether you live in Texas or not, keep calm when anxiety starts fueling. If it starts within you, recognize the instinct towards negativity bias and adjust. If it starts around you, recognize the “it” and act as a thermostat. You and I can help not just keep a false peace or a Pollyanna false calm, but we can help to bring peace that comes from our internal peace, joy and hope set in our identity. Then as we connect with others we can remain calm together, because we are better together.
Texas strong isn’t just a phrase, we Texans are resilient people and it comes from sticking together, being set in our hearts, and having a peace that truly surpasses all challenges that come our way. I’ve learned a lot from Texans and I’m proud to be a born and bred Texan! For me peace comes from my relationship with God and with wonderful friends and family.
For all those who have been directly or indirectly impacted by the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, we are crying with you, praying with you, and continue to organize relief efforts to continue for months to come. For those reading this who have not been impacted, the devastation is real and Texans need your care. Please reach out to your choice of relief agency and donate or drop off needed items now.
What’s helped you from this blog?
Please comment below and share what’s helped you.
Keep calm and stay Texas strong dear Reader!
Liz Lawrence, MA, LPC-S is counselor, coach and creative who is passionate about people. She is based in Austin, Texas and with husband David Lawrence co-leads the non-profit Renue.Me whose mission is to invest in the dreams of leaders in underprivileged communities around the world. Connect with her at www.lizlawrencelpc.com or www.renue.me
Photo from Pexels.com, Graphic on Canva by author