The news, the field of psychology, and the public square are full of stories about our anxiety epidemic. Apparently, we’ve all got it. In the face of deteriorating communities, the crumbling world around us, our profound disconnection from one another and from the environment in which we co-habitate, this epidemic is understandable.
Many of the recommendations for treating anxiety are individual, given that we live in a hyper-individualized culture that (inaccurately) holds the view that our emotional experiences and the fixes to them lie solely inside of us. So, we take a Xanax meditate, exercise, and breathe. I myself recommend these individual responses to anxiety. These interventions help tremendously, but our anxiety and our world does not transform with these fixes alone. That can only come by practicing our lives together, as givers, lovers, compassionateers (yes made up that word).
I recently reread a chapter on anxiety, panic in worry by Dr. Fred Newman, the founder of the therapy I practice, Social Therapy, in his book entitled Lets Develop: A Guide to Continuous Personal Growth. Newman offers that we live in a culture of getting. The best getter wins, and giving is seen as morally correct and nice at best, and a fool’s errand at worse. These days, language such as practicing mindfulness with others and embracing vulnerability have a family resemblance to what Dr. Newman might have been referring to, but I think he takes it further. We need to give to be cured of our emotional ales. Give what we are struggling with, give by asking for help, and give what we’ve got, emotionally speaking, to build with others.
He suggests, for example, that we give by taking someone else’s anxiety for a day, like carrying a loved one’s worries to give them a break or to be in solidarity with the person. Weird, perhaps, yet very lovely, especially in a culture that is all about individuals owning, privately, their struggles, protecting themselves, and getting their own help.
So, in honor of Dr. Newman’s radical-ahead-of-his-time offer: in the midst of our individual and collective anxiety attack, offer up to someone in your life that you will carry their anxiety for a day, but then give it back, and pass along, and move on, and breathe, and give a hug in there too. Tell me about the experience!