Dealing with Anxious People: Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Photo credit: Mikka H

I have often sat in an airplane before take-off, listening to the safety presentation. When they show parents putting on their own oxygen masks before helping a child, my first reaction is always "not likely." It goes against all my fiercely protective instincts to take care of myself before making sure a child (anyone's child, really) is safe. But the safety presentations make a good point.

This weekend, I am running a workshop on Dealing with Anxious People. Of course this means that I have been surrounded by anxious people for several weeks (it's not just confirmation bias: it's end of term at college). And here's the thing I absolutely, down to the toes, know is true about handing other people's anxiety: how well I do it depends on my own state. If I don't have my oxygen mask firmly in place, I catch anxiety faster than I catch colds from the toddlers I love.

If someone else's anxiety is driving you nuts, the first place to check in is with yourself. What is it about your state that makes this so hard to handle? For me, impatience with other people's anxiety is a sign that I am carrying too much stress on too little sleep. The answer is not to solve other people's problems: it's to get enough rest.

Occasionally, there may be something in the situation that makes other people's anxiety hard to handle. If you work for a start up, there are not many layers between you and the person who both runs the show and is accountable for making payroll. That person's anxiety is likely to get under your skin quickly. In other situations, someone you love is anxious because they are failing. That's hard.

But most of the time, if we are anxious, it's because nothing really bad has happened yet. Some people seem to believe that if they worry hard enough, they can prevent bad things from happening to them or people they love. But you don't believe that when you read it here. You can see that's delusional thinking. So when you encounter it, you can put on your oxygen mask and ride out the bumps.

When you are calm, resourceful, and able to see the big picture, you'll manage anxiety just fine (whether it is yours or someone else's). Oxygen is wonderful: it helps you find clarity and comfort. And when you have those, you can share them.


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