What is Anxiety? An Emotional Systems Lens

(This is a Part 1 in a 4-part blog series by W. Craig Gilliam about Leading Congregations Through Anxious Times. JustPeace is hosting a 2.5 day training on this subject in Atlanta, GA on Oct 22-24, 2015.  Click here to register. And, stay tuned for the next three posts) 


We are sufficient for the day,
to love, to adventure
to go on the grand tour,
into another
~~W. Craig Gilliam, Where Wild Things Grow


All congregations/organizations are profound, complex mysteries. The Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said of his wife that he knew her so well that she was completely and utterly unknown to him. Those same words describe my encounters with congregations/organizations, these living organisms, these unpredictable communities with a wonderful and frightening life of their own. The more I know any congregation/organization, the more it is completely and utterly unknown to me.

As we walk winding and wandering into the congregational mystery, deeper and deeper into its joys and pains, its challenges and opportunities, in and out, curving, stumbling, meandering on circular walk-ways, listening to the questions on the journey and hearing the emerging wisdom, we walk with awareness and sensitivity, always paying attention. The blade of each new crisis points the way and brings us closer to the bigger question the congregation lives from its center. The essence of this mystery called congregation is relationship. Leading in this labyrinth of relationships involves our full attention, our words and our presence, our walking and our standing still, our way of doing and our way of being. It involves our thinking, our spirits, our bodies and our emotions. All are part of what it means to be ourselves, of being a leader in our complex, fast-moving congregations today.

While there are no simple check-lists, formulas or “how-to” answers for leading through anxious times and situations in congregations/organizations, this essay will offer insights to help leaders lead in anxious times and settings, and do it in a way that lessens stress, increases the possibility of positive movement for the congregation and heightens awareness. I identify and give a working definition of anxiety, behaviors that are symptomatic of high anxiety and common escalators of anxiety. Then, the essay moves into some thinking about leading through anxious situations. Enjoy the journey. Like any body of relationships and life, congregations are mysteries to be embraced, not problems to be solved.

What is Anxiety?: An Emotional Systems Lens

Whether the congregation is made up of two or one hundred and two people, anxiety is always present both individually and in the system itself. It is a deep flowing powerful force. From a systems perspective, leadership involves learning to regulate and manage this hidden anxiety and its influence on oneself and the larger system. To do so, we must pay attention with a fierce attentiveness.

The word anxiety comes from a Latin root that means to strangle, to have by the throat, to choke, to cause pain by squeezing. We all know the suffocating impact of anxiety when it becomes too intense. It is like a wet wool overcoat. It stifles, it restricts, it confines and blinds us from options for creative flow and adaptation.

As you are aware, there are two kinds of anxiety, acute and chronic. When gripped by acute anxiety, we know why we are anxious. It is a response to a real, immediate threat. An example is: We are anxious because we have an audit tomorrow, and we do not have all of our numbers together or we have a board meeting and the agenda is still in the air. This anxiety can be helpful, for it can motivate us not to delay any longer.

Systemic or chronic anxiety is different. It is a deeper, lingering anxiety. We can sense it, we might even feel its effect within, but we cannot clearly identify its source or reason. It is like a deep ocean current that we cannot see, but it is flowing, stirring the sands and making the vision murky and unclear. It is more imaginal, and surfaces around the “what if” questions not necessarily grounded in reality. It is the “cry wolf” that keeps whispering and sometimes shouting. Systemic anxiety can envelop us when we walk into it. When we get caught in it and fear and panic become our modus operandi, the imagined reality we fear often constellates. Another way to say this is that when we get caught in the anxiety, we begin to create the very reality we say we are trying to avoid.

Chronic anxiety is contagious, bringing out the worse of human potential. If people are not differentiated or have a healthy sense of self-definition, it spreads like a highly infectious virus. The sign of its infection is the reactivity and resistance people display. When infected, we will often behave in ways we had never imagined.

In his latest book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in An Age
 of Quick Fix, Edwin Friedman offers an illustration of systemic anxiety. Consider a room filled with gas fumes. If you are aware of the fumes, you know to be cautious. Then someone enters the room, oblivious to the world around him or her, and strikes a match to light a cigarette. The room explodes. Someone will be heard to say, “That dumb person who struck the match.”

The truth is, we should be able to strike a match anywhere we would like, within reason, and not generate an explosion. The question is not who struck the match, but why was the environment so toxic and explosive in the first place. Instead of people blaming the person who struck the match, it is more responsible and productive to focus on dispersing the fumes that made the atmosphere toxic in the first place. In other words, the systemic anxiety was the issue, not the symptom surfacing around striking the match. The strike of the match was the issue on which the anxiety became focused rather than its real causes and ways to regulate or de-fume the environment. (Friedman 1999, p. 79)

The challenge and opportunity is how to regulate this chronic anxiety, so it will not choke, strangle, or stifle creativity or create unnecessary anxiety and conflict between and among people. How do we assist in keeping it from becoming a force that drives us apart from our knowing? How can we regulate and manage it in a manner that creates mature, resilient congregations/organizations and invites our best, most creative selves?

Anxiety is like the wind—you cannot see it, but you can feel it and observe its impact. But to observe it, one must pay attention. For example, one cannot see the wind, but if you look at a flag on a flagpole, you can tell if there is wind, and if so, you can estimate its strength. You can feel it against your skin.

The same is true for anxiety. When you are leading in congregations or facilitating groups, you cannot see the anxiety, but by observing the participants, you can tell if it is present, and if so, how strong. If you are sensitive and have developed the art of paying attention and are intuitive or discerning toward self and others, you can feel the anxiety against and under your skin as you observe its impact on the congregation.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Think of a system/congregation you entered that you would describe as anxious. What were the indicators for you?
  2. Was the anxiety more acute or chronic?
  3. How did you become aware of the anxiety in the system?
  4. What impact was the systemic anxiety having on you?
  5. Were you able to regulate the influence of the anxiety on you and/or the system? If so, what were best practices that helped you regulate the anxiety?


Print Friendly, PDF & Email