Learning To See and Manage Anxiety

*Reprinted with permission from “Learning To See and Manage Anxiety” by Jim Herrington, Steve Capper, and Trisha Taylor, 2016. Faithwalking 201: Removing the Obstacles to an Integrated, Missional Life, Version 3.03, p 95-105. 2016 by Faithwalking. For more info go to www.faithwalking.us

Key Points:

(1)  Unchecked anxiety drives your autopilot and prevents you from living into your true self.

(2)  You can learn to see and manage your anxiety by recognizing the four predictable postures: conflict, distancing, over/underfunctioning, and triangling.

(3)  You can choose whether you make empowering or disempowering meanings from you experiences.


The Invisible Force of Anxiety

In previous weeks, we’ve talked about our subconscious, autopilot ways of showing up in the world. You have certain ideas and beliefs about how you want to “be” in the world in order to be safe in relationships, but in the moment you get stopped and find yourself falling into patterned, predictable behaviors that don’t reflect your true self. Today we want to ask the question “why?” What is it that causes such a drastic disparity between what you say you believe and how you actually live day to day? What force could be powerful enough to drive the Apostle Paul to lament that “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out…the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:15, 18-19)?

We want to propose that lurking underneath all of these consternating surface behaviors is the invisible, yet immensely powerful force of anxiety. If your autopilot is the vehicle that takes you where you don’t want to go, anxiety is the fuel that makes the trip possible. When we use the term anxiety in this session, we are referring to the intense emotional energy that is triggered by a subconscious sense of danger. This energy is biochemical in nature and operates without consulting your thinking processes. In fact, it bypasses your thinking processes. When you feel threatened, your brain kicks off a series of chemical secretions that allow you to react instantaneously without having to stop and think. The bio-chemical reaction begins seven to nine seconds before you begin to “feel” any sense of threat. When you do begin to feel the sense of threat, you will express that in many different forms – e.g. anger, depression, elation, terror, distracting yourself, disengaging etc. — and is not limited to feelings of worry or nervousness.

In the same way that you are beginning to see behavioral patterns that were previously invisible to you, it is possible to learn to see anxiety in your everyday life. Not only is it possible, it’s an essential step in the spiritual formation process!


Two Kinds of Anxiety

There are two kinds of anxiety, and the untrained brain doesn’t distinguish between them.

Acute anxiety occurs when there is a real, time-dated threat. Your child is in the street or your house is on fire. Your brain processes the threat in a nanosecond; you leap into action and solve the problem. Your brain eventually returns to a more normal state as the threat is removed.

Chronic anxiety is more like background noise. You carry it around with you and it can be triggered by any number of events. Generally, chronic anxiety has some tie to your vows.

As a child or adolescent, you learned to deal with real threats to your physical or emotional wellbeing by vowing to be a certain way in the world. At the time, the vow helped you to manage the anxiety posed by that very real threat. However, now that you are an adult, you may find that many things may trigger the memory of that vow. Psychiatrist Roberta Gilbert explains chronic anxiety this way:

Emotions often are patterns that became established early in one’s personal history, and these patterns may or may not be relevant to the present. For example, a person who was reared by a father who beat him or her after raising his voice may be triggered into extremely intense life-and-death emotions whenever he or she is around people who raise their voices. Although this reaction is inappropriate to adult life when no abuse or threat is present, the pattern became part of the emotional repertoire of the nervous system early on.8

A person, a smell, a song, or a place can all take us back to the wounded place within. When that happens, our brains react as though the past threat is real in the present. The difference is that the threat is not real – we are not actually in danger even though we may react as though we are. It seems real. Your heart races; your palms sweat; your muscles tighten. But no actual threat exists.

When anxiety is present, whether it is acute or chronic, the brain reacts in predictable ways. The part of your brain that allows you to make a reasoned, thoughtful response begins to shut down. Then, the part of your brain that empowers you to react without thinking kicks into overdrive. That is a good thing when the anxiety is acute. Imagine if you saw your child in the street and you had to stop and think, “What’s happening here? Is there danger? How should I respond?” In that case, you need to be able to respond quickly and automatically.

However, when chronic anxiety is present, you need to be able to think through the situation and make well-reasoned choices. Chronic anxiety is not generally triggered by the possibility of actual physical danger; it is generally triggered by something that subconsciously reminds you of the painful experiences that led to your vows. Very often, it is present in your most important relationships, so it’s crucial that you learn to respond thoughtfully rather than reacting instinctively. This is no easy task! These responses have been hard-wired into your nervous system, so unlearning them takes courage and lots of practice. But if you’re willing to take on the challenge, we believe that it is actually possible to grow into the kind of person who can choose thoughtful responses based on your core beliefs and values, even in the face of anxiety.


Anxiety in Systems

In any collection of people (a family, a church, a work place, a missional community) both kinds of anxiety occur. Breakdowns occur, people mess
up, and promises are not kept. Invariably, acute
anxiety is everywhere. Depending on the

emotional maturity of the group, the acute anxiety is more or less easily dealt with as group members solve the problems that they face. In these same groups, chronic anxiety is also at work everywhere. The challenge is that, though its power is real, it can’t normally be “seen” the way acute anxiety can.

This gets even more complicated because, in any
collection of people, we are emotionally hard-wired together. One person’s anxiety impacts another person. Eventually, the anxiety of one person will be passed through the entire group. Consider this diagram of how anxiety moves through a system. It’s like a spider web. Individuals in a system are invisibly connected through the transfer of their anxiety to other individuals in a system. Anxiety, left to run its normal course, actually flows through the system.

The presence of anxiety is like gravity. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. Like gravity, it just is. Many leaders work to eliminate anxiety. That is not what we are suggesting because it is as futile as trying to eliminate gravity. As we’ve said, anxiety is a normal reaction that is hard- wired into our brains and can even work to your advantage. But left unexamined, unchecked chronic anxiety can undermine an individual’s and a community’s commitment to know and do the right things.

So, while you can’t eliminate anxiety, you can manage yourself in the midst of anxiety. Take your pen or pencil and draw an outer circle around one of the circles in the diagram. Imagine that the outer circle serves to insulate the inner circle from the flow of anxiety. Now imagine that, through the practice of the spiritual disciplines and with the help of a coach, you can effectively manage yourself when anxiety ripples through the system. Rather than simply passing it along to others in your community, you can contain the anxiety in a way that allows you to thoughtfully and intentionally respond on the basis of belief and principle. Now, take one further step and imagine that a growing number of people represented by the circles above had an outer circle around themselves so that they too had the capacity to interrupt the flow of anxiety.


Learning to See Anxiety

How do you learn to see anxiety? How do you learn to recognize when your family, your workplace, your church, or your Missional Community is vibrating with anxiety? (We use vibrating as a metaphor for what happens when anxiety takes control.)

When people begin to vibrate with anxiety, they tend to fall into predictable patterns or postures. We encourage you to become familiar with each of these and learn to recognize the presence of any of them as an indicator of the presence of anxiety.

  1. Conflict emerges when the desire to maintain unity collides with all-or-nothing thinking. A person with the conflict response pushes into opposition. When someone disagrees with them, they seek to aggressively change the other person’s opinion to match their own. They can’t bear to be wrong or to lose, but are unwilling to change themselves, so they instead bully or dominate others in the system. When both parties respond in conflict, the result is usually a heated argument and, if things escalate, physical violence. (Note: Persuasion is a mild form of conflict.)
  2. Distance occurs when people cannot tolerate conflict in relationships. As anxiety rises, they create distance between themselves and others. They may literally disconnect from the group by leaving the room or avoiding meetings, phone calls or emails. They may withdraw emotionally, keeping the relationships peaceful but superficial or remaining physically present but disengaged. In groups where peacekeeping is a high value, this can look like a more mature response. In reality, it has the same negative impact on the group’s functioning as conflict. Extreme expressions of distancing are called cut-off.
  3. Over-functioning/under-functioning happen when an individual in a system responds to anxiety by allowing/encouraging one or more persons to take responsibility for the whole system. When people take on more responsibility than is reasonably theirs, they are over- functioning. Likewise, when people take on less responsibility than is reasonably theirs, they are under-functioning. When over-functioning is present, under-functioning must also be present. It is a relational reciprocity. People may over-function or under-function around tasks—when 20% of the people are doing 80% of the work, for example. People also over-function and under-function around emotion. Over-functioners manage anxiety by taking responsibility for the feelings of others while under-functioners refuse to take responsibility even for their own feelings.
  4. Triangling occurs when anxiety arises between two people and one (or both) of them “triangle in” a third person to off-load some of the anxiety. This pattern takes many different forms and is so common that is generally at work alongside the three postures listed above. When two young siblings are fighting (conflict), they often triangle in one of their parents to settle the argument. When anxiety is present between a husband and wife whose autopilot is to distance, they may over-focus on one of their children and come to see the child as the source of the problem, rather than their relationship with each other. Venting to a third-party is also a form of triangling. Any time someone tries to cope with an anxious relationship by turning to a third-party instead of dealing with the problem directly, a triangle is present.

These postures arise as a response to anxiety and actually represent, subconsciously, the attempt to alleviate anxiety in a system. For example, when a husband and wife disagree on an important issue, this will often introduce anxiety into the system. The unspoken, autopilot goal then becomes to eliminate the anxiety at all costs. Some couples will go into conflict mode, each spouse trying to win the other over to his/her side under the assumption that the anxiety will disappear when they come into agreement. Other couples will distance, hoping that by not talking about the issue the anxiety will go away. And still others will fall into the over/underfunctioning reciprocity, with one spouse making all the decisions and the other just going along with it. Most relationships will default to one of these three postures, with triangling being present in nearly every case.


Making Meaning

Regardless of how our anxiety is expressed—conflict, distancing, over/under functioning, or triangling—one thing that almost always happens when you get anxious is that you make up a story to help you manage your anxiety. You interpret your experiences to try to make sense of the world and the meaning that you make will determine what actions you take moving forward.

You’ll remember this conversation about “making meaning” from the Faithwalking 101 retreat, when we talked about the way vows are formed. You have an experience or a series of experiences and you make a meaning of the experience(s). That meaning becomes the reality that drives your life, even if the meaning doesn’t reflect reality. For example, a young girl is abused by her father and she makes the meaning that she is unlovable. This meaning will influence how she interacts with the world around her—what she expects from people, how she lets others treat her, etc. As an adult, she is able to see that this meaning was disempowering and not even true, so she makes a new meaning: My dad was deeply wounded and unable to manage his anger, so he took it out on me. It was not my fault and it means nothing about me being unlovable.

As you continue to go about our daily lives, even into adulthood, you continue to tell stories about the experiences you have – all people do this. Listen to how you report your experience to others—you are telling a story. (“My neighbor gave me a weird look the other day, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like me.”) You may firmly believe that the story you’re telling is an accurate reflection of reality, but the truth is, it’s just your interpretation of reality. The stories you tell have great impact on your life because they shape the way you see the world and, consequently, how you respond.

Here is an example of what we are talking about:

Event: I’m moving to a different apartment across town. I send an email to my small group asking if they’ll help me pack up my stuff and move. It’s been a week and no one has responded.

Possible meanings:

  • That was too big of a request. I shouldn’t have asked them to help me. I should just hire movers instead.
  • They must be annoyed with me about something. Maybe they are frustrated that I haven’t been very consistent in attending our meetings.
  • I bet they’re all busy that day and they feel bad telling me they can’t help. This must be their way of telling me “no”.
  • We must not be as close as I thought we were. I guess “doing life together” means something different to me than it does to them.
  • I guess they’ve all been really busy. They probably meant to respond and just forgot.
  • I wonder if the email addresses I used aren’t the ones they check regularly. They must not have seen the email yet, because I know they care about me so if they’d seen it they would’ve responded.

As you can see, identical circumstances can be interpreted in any number of different ways. The important thing to see here is that none of these meanings is inherently more correct than the others. Each of these stories represents certain judgments and assumptions being made about other people’s thoughts, motives, and intentions—things that cannot be known apart from directly asking the people involved. And yet we do this constantly! We assume we know these unknowable truths and respond from within our invented reality. We personalize other people’s behaviors and react to what we imagine they are doing to us, and they react to us in the same way. And so these stories, which we invented to help us cope with the anxiety triggered by the original event, actually create more anxiety within the system. And the more anxious we become, the more our field of vision diminishes so that we only see the few things around us that reinforce the meaning we previously made. And round and round it goes.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that it is wrong to interpret your experiences. Humans are “meaning making machines.” It’s how we make sense out of our lives. What we are suggesting is that you can begin to pay attention to the meanings you make, to consider that they might not reflect reality, and to hold them loosely. Consider this transformational truth: you are in charge of the meaning you make. For every event that happens, there is a wide range of meanings that can be made—some empowering, some disempowering. It is worth asking, “If the meaning I make disempowers me, why do I keep making that meaning?” Our stories can help us live more fully into God’s design, or they can keep us from being the people God designed us to be.

If you want to learn to manage your anxiety in a more healthy way, you must grow in your ability to be a calm observer. Rather than reacting to what you “think or feel” is happening, you should watch what is actually going on. Who is doing what, when, where and how? In other words, you need to stick to the facts. Sometimes you know the facts and at other times you don’t. There will be times, like in the story above, where you will need to gather the facts to more fully understand a situation. This will require clear, direct, honest communication.

You must also learn to be attentive in observing what’s going on inside of you. As you start to feel anxious, notice yourself starting to make up a story. Why do you think you are telling that particular story? Rather than accepting it as reality, manage your own anxiety and stick to the facts. With discipline and practice, you can learn to see the stories you’re telling and to determine for yourself whether they empower or disempower you.


How to Minimize the Impact of Anxiety

As stated earlier, anxiety is. Sometimes it works to our advantage—like when you are in physical danger and can react quickly, or when it gives you the energy to complete a task. However, left unchecked, it is a miserable companion and can have a devastating effect on your health and well-being. Recognizing that it can be both helpful and harmful, and recognizing that it is all around you all the time, you want to learn to manage anxiety as it comes rather than to prevent or eliminate it. As you learn to see anxiety in yourself and others, you can begin to take steps that diminish its intensity so that clear, thoughtful, value-driven responses can be given. This minimizes the negative impact of anxiety on you and the systems in which you participate. This requires a lifetime of learning, but here is a primer that can help you get started.

  1. Learn to see your own anxiety. Pay attention to what’s happening in your body. Heart racing? Palms sweating? Knot in the pit of your stomach? Face flushed? Sensation of needing to get away or escape? What are you feeling – mad, sad, glad or scared? Notice it. Name it. Step back and examine it.
  2. Release your anxiety by venting with a safe person (usually outside of the system). Say what there is to say—don’t judge yourself in the venting process. Journaling, prayer, and meditation are other practices that help alleviate anxiety. A regular exercise program is also helpful in keeping it from building up.
  3. When you are calm (or calmer) ask yourself, “What do I believe is the right thing to do in this circumstance? What are my core convictions and guiding principles? What do I value? Is there any place that my guiding principles are in conflict?” (And don’t worry too much right now if your guiding principles are not clear. We will try to clarify them in 201.9) 
When you are anxious, you’ll be caught up in making up a story about the situation, about the motives of others, about what it all means. The more anxious you are, the less realistic this story will be. When you calm down, however, you can look for the facts and begin to think about your beliefs and values. For instance, imagine that your friend lied to you about something and you discover the lie in a casual conversation with another person. At first, you may be tempted to obsess about the lie, to make it mean something, to place most of your attention on your friend and what he has done. As you calm yourself, however, you will draw your attention back to yourself and focus on your own ability to respond consistently with your beliefs and values. You will ask yourself, “What do I believe is the right thing to do in this circumstance?” Getting to this question is crucial, so stay with it until you get clarity.
  4. Once your core convictions and guiding principles are more clear, imagine what it would look like to live these principles with integrity. (Or even better, talk through this vision with your coach.) Rehearse this in your thinking several times and then go back to the setting that triggered the anxiety and practice living out of your principles.
  5. Share this process with others in your system. As anxiety becomes less intense and less likely to become transmitted throughout the group, the processes of thinking, believing and valuing become clearer. Eventually, the emotional maturity of the whole group increases.

If you are not highly practiced at seeing and managing anxiety, you will have to be very intentional and systematic in following this process. Over time you will develop an unconscious competence that will flow out of you in a wide variety of settings. When you take action to calm yourself, anxiety will have less capacity to cause you to live out of your vows and you will have more capacity to live into your true self. Over time, you will increasingly be able to experience the peace that Jesus extends to us.

Jesus declared, “I am leaving you with a gift— peace of mind and heart. 
And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” – John 14:27


*Reprinted with permission from “Learning To See and Manage Anxiety” by Jim Herrington, Steve Capper, and Trisha Taylor, 2016. Faithwalking 201: Removing the Obstacles to an Integrated, Missional Life, Version 3.03, p 95-105. 2016 by Faithwalking. For more info go to www.faithwalking.us

Author: Scott Hescht

I serve as the lead Pastor of the Haven Community Church. My wife Courtney and I have two children, Zane and Daxton. I love reading, writing, graphic design, and pretty much all things creative. Bring up the topic of sports and you’ve got a friend for life. I also love to teach and preach God’s Word to anyone who will listen. I strive to be a constant learner as well, understanding that education isn’t something that we receive, but rather a lifelong journey. Above all, I strive to be a friend to those around me, seeking to be a light for Christ despite my own shortcomings.
I have a BFA at Stephen F. Austin State University and a MA in Christian Leadership at Luther Rice Seminary. Prior to establishing The Haven in 2012, I have served as a pastor at Life Spring Church and an elder at Freedom Fellowship Church. In addition to pastoring the Haven, I serve on the board for Relationships for Christ Ministries, a missions organization working in Africa and Latin America.

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