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Anxiety and empathy

Someone recently accused me of not being empathetic to their anxiety. And upon reflection I see that they were correct: I wasn’t sufficiently compassionate to their suffering. I’ve pondered this many times since then – my failing in that situation, the nature of anxiety and also why it is so problematic in terms of empathy. As a result, I came up with some ideas for myself to be better able to respond to anxiety in the people around me…

In doing so, I operated with the definition that anxiety is stress about uncertainty … or, more specifically, anxiety is the feeling that one will not be able to cope (read: one’s future self will sustain damage) with certain possible future situations about which they have limited control and for which outcomes are unknown.

What does anxiety look like?

Perhaps the biggest barrier to my empathy is that anxiety is somewhat invisible. Other forms of suffering generally have clearly visible markers that automatically elicit compassion in most people. There are often obvious outward signs of physical injuries and sickness and emotional suffering can manifest in subtle (for example sighing) or not so subtle (crying) changes in behaviour. But generally, anxious people tend to act like shits, which, if anything, deters empathy. (I’m reminded of Marcus Aurelius’ often quoted statement, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness…”).

So perhaps the biggest challenge is that anxious people often make it hard to empathise with them. The silver lining here is that shitty behaviour could be a good indicator that empathy and compassion are needed.

Scarcity captures our minds automatically.”

(Sendhil Mullainathan, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much).

I was reminded of the saying that to really know what someone is like you should see them in a crisis. The point about that is that, for many reasons, people behave very differently to their normal and optimal self when faced with adversity.

I think that, to some extent, this is because anxiety is about scarcity – about the thought or feeling that we don’t have sufficient resources to cope. If so, it would result in a mental ‘bandwidth tax’ of the type that Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir describe in their insightful book, “Scarcity”.

The bandwidth tax results in a narrowing of focus, and “important things unrelated to it will be neglected” write Mullainathan and Shafir. As such, anxiety could allow us perform better, if our personalities and circumstances allow, by helping us focus and channel resources. But it could make a crisis worse if we don’t have the right resources, and we then fall into the loop of making poor decisions, getting people offside and neglecting other important concerns.

This trap is also pertinent if the anxious person falls back on avoidance as a defence mechanism. Jonathan Haidt suggests, in “The Happiness Hypothesis” that people have three main types of responses to a crisis: (1) active coping (which means taking action), (2) reappraisal (changing one’s perspective on the situation), or (3) avoidance coping (denial or distraction, such as through substance abuse). If we consider acute anxiety as a type of crisis, then by adopting an avoidance mechanism, the magnitude and nature of the anxiety may not be obvious to an external observer, who might only see the indulgent and destructive behaviours.

The next challenge then is that anxious people might compound their situation by making other mistakes and sub-optimal decisions. If I’m too busy laying blame and focusing on their mistakes, I won’t easily see the underlying anxiety and fail to respond (or even worse, allow ugly feelings of Schadenfreude to arise).

Anxious or just worried?

Even if an anxious person verbalises their anxiety, it’s hard to know just how pervasive their worries might be. Because anxieties aren’t always reasonable, it’s hard to know if someone’s concern is of the run-of-the-mill variety, which warrant discussion but which can be dealt with in the normal course of things, or if it is of the deep, dark type that pervades everything and compromises rational thinking.

This might be best dealt with by developing a deeper appreciation of the ubiquitousness of suffering and of anxiety. As the Buddhist Four Noble Truths have it, “Life is dukkha…”, which some people have translated to mean stressfulness or even anxiety. So in reality, we’re all anxious in varying degrees all the time, and therefore all in need of compassion.

It also brings to mind the magic gift of deep listening. A friend who volunteers for a phone counselling service says that the task is simple – the phone operators are there to listen, without judgment, and to prompt the caller to keep talking about their concerns. Sometimes, he said, the caller will come to their own realisation or perceptional realignment through the act of having talked it through (without having been given any advice by the counsellor).

Your panic is not my panic…”

Jonathan Haidt provides a compelling modern argument (in both “The Happiness Hypothesis” and “The Righteous Mind”) for the notion, prevalent in ancient wisdom (particularly Buddhism), that our mind follows our emotions. As such, an anxious mind is really a symptom of unsettled emotions.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Compassion rests on being able to imagine, and to some extent feel, what someone else is feeling. But sometimes we can’t or won’t do that. Caught up with our own concerns, we might not be inclined to or we might not have the resources to really engage with someone else’s problem. Or, safe in our rational world, we might be dismissive of the emotional severity of someone else’s anxiety. Or, if the person displays their anxiety through hostile behaviour we may retreat from that person in self-preservation. Or we simply don’t know what to say or do. Anxieties often seem irrational or disproportionate to an outside observer, so unless we’ve cultivated a strong ability to extend kindness to others without judgement we simply won’t be able to respond in anything but a superficial manner.

This, then, raises the challenge of leaving something in reserve; of keeping some emotional and mental energy available to deal with the suboptimal behaviour of the people that I care about (and, in fact, everyone I encounter) when they suffer anxiety.

This is best done, I think, by exercising some restraint and not getting too caught up in my own affairs… as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone”. The more I “let alone” the more riches I will have in reserve to deal with the needs of those around me.

And, of course, the challenge of exercising compassion will hopefully be met through the time-tested practice of cultivating loving-kindness (“metta”) through mediation: “May I be happy…”

“In metta practice we water the seeds of our good intentions. When we water wholesome intentions instead of expressing unwholesome ones, we develop those wholesome tendencies within us. If these seeds are never watered they won’t grow. When watered by regular practice they grow, sometimes in unexpected fashions. We may find that loving-kindness becomes the operating motivation in a situation that previously triggered anger or fear.” (Gil Frondsal, The Issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice)


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This entry was posted on April 25, 2017 by in Giving and tagged , , , , .
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