Which Do You Feed, Anxiety or Hope?

Photo by Rufus46 CC BY-SA 3.0

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside of me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Cherokee Legend, from First People

I was holding my grandson last night. He’s not even three months old. But when he’s older I will tell him this story.

The legend doesn’t mention anxiety. But I’m the anxiety guy. For me, everything comes back to whether or not something feeds anxiety or reduces it. You can’t always choose your circumstances, but you can choose which wolf you feed. One will breed anxiety. The other will breed hope.

The wolves are hungry to influence how you function in your family, work, church and the world around you. Here are some thoughts about how to feed the good wolf.

Listen without reacting.

The worst thing you can do in an anxiety-producing situation is speak. You are likely to introduce more anxiety, which creates a downward spiral. Keep your thoughts to yourself and just listen. Saying, “Thanks for sharing,” followed by phrases like, “Tell me more” or “What makes you feel this way?” is simple, shows respect and enables you to self-regulate. They feed the good wolf. Getting defensive and trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong will feed the evil wolf.

Say what you believe while giving others the freedom to disagree.

Listening doesn’t mean you have to stuff your emotions. But you need to self-regulate. The key to being a non-anxious presence is being able to say what you believe while staying emotionally connected. This is hard to do. You WILL feel anxious inside. But if you can do this calmly, even humorously, you can bring down the tension in the situation.

Here is a phrase you can practice. “Hey, I respect your opinion. I’m just saying what I believe. You don’t have to agree with me. I just feel I need to be honest because I value our relationship.”

You’ll need to practice it a lot. The higher the emotional stakes, the harder it will be to do. So if you’ve never taken an emotional stand with a parent (or fill in the blank, i.e. sibling, spouse, pastor, congregant, boss, co-worker, etc.), it will take a lot to be able to do this. And, the likely result is things will get worse before they get better. But, if you can maintain a non-anxious presence, you will feed the good wolf. For both of you.

An exception is social media.

When it comes to social media, don’t do anything. It is not a place where people can have a reasonable discussion. So, just keep your thoughts to yourself and let go of it. If you get into a “discussion (more like argument)” on social media, nobody wins. You feed the evil wolf. If you let go of what bothers you, you feed the good wolf. It might be hard at first, but it will get easier with practice.

Finally, attend to the things that matter.

Invest in your spiritual life. Here’s my post on that. Connect with your family, however it is configured. Work through the issues in your family of origin. Learn to take non-anxious, emotional stands with those who are most important to you. If you do these things, your good wolf will grow strong. You will live a life filled with hope. And the evil wolf will starve.

Intensity Is the Mother of Dissension

Photo courtesy Active Garage blog

ost of what I’ve learned in family systems is counter-intuitive. Dealing with anxiety is no exception. A big takeaway is that the anxiety I feel about a situation has more to do with me and how I function in my family of origin than it does about the content of the situation.

This is true of seriousness, as well. Seriousness presents a paradox. You have to be serious about things, but if you get too intense, it will consume you. That’s when anxiety can become uncontrollable.

It’s this sort of intensity that makes a small problem a big problem and a big problem an overwhelming one. Its main characteristic is persistence. You would think persistence is a good thing. But not when it comes in the form of trying harder and harder through serious, intense efforts. This results in greater anxiety, a lack of flexibility and, paradoxically, the greater chance that the problem will become chronic.

So what do you do?

Lighten up. Stop thinking about the problem. Stop trying to fix it. Get some perspective.

(You’re now thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, it’s not your problem!”)

Here are some things you can do.

Pray

Of course, you can pray. But don’t pray about the problem. That will make you anxious. Pray for others. Pray for world peace. Pray for your church (unless that’s what is making you anxious). The idea of this kind of prayer is to get outside of yourself and your problems and connect with God. It will make God bigger and make the problem look smaller.

Meditate

OK…this is sounding like another blog post I wrote on spiritual practices. But, the reason meditation works is it has physical affects that will help. It lowers stress levels and increases your ability to focus. This will make you feel better, but it will also help you to be intentional about thinking about things other than your problem.

Exercise (especially outside)

You don’t have to get intense about this. Especially if you don’t exercise regularly. Just increasing your activity level will help. It will be even more effective if you are able to spend some time in the beauty of Creation. There is nothing like the proverbial walk in the park.

Do Something You Enjoy

This is the thing you’re least likely to do in the face of chronic anxiety. What makes anxiety chronic is you can’t stop thinking about the problem and ways to fix it. Having fun interrupts this kind of intensity. It will help reduce anxiety and create perspective. It doesn’t matter what you do. It’s whatever gives you joy. It could be reading, playing or listening to music, playing or watching sports, cooking, ad infinitum. It’s process, not content. The process here is to get your mind off the problem, to reduce the intensity.

So, whatever your problem, get some perspective. Work to keep it from consuming you. It might not fix it, but you might just put it in its place.