Waiting for Santa Claus when you are six, waiting for your first date to arrive and meet your parents, and waiting for the bridal march to begin…..all are examples of anxiety. Sometimes just remembering a moment like this brings the same visceral response as the original moment. Anxiety is a natural state of being in that it is designed to warn us of impending danger or joy.
Should we run or keep our eyes peeled so we don’t miss a thing? Our nervous system is designed to be alert to these signals and make a snap judgment about what action to take. We are designed to seek safety.
Each person’s anxiety response is fine-tuned to its own level and that tuning began before they were even born. Babies in the womb learn to respond to the calm or anxiety they detect in their mother’s voice. My own definition of anxiety is “the energy of anticipation”. What usually triggers anxiety? Change.
Change triggers anxiety because, during a more primitive time, a change could signal danger or a potential food source. Our nervous system has us constantly scanning our environment for change. The more unruly our anxiety is, the more we seek to calm it. Sometimes the way one chooses to soothe themselves is healthy, other times not so much.
Within a system, there exists system anxiety. An entire group is alert to potential change and ready to evaluate in a flash to decide how to respond. Anxiety is contagious. If one person in a group is anxious, it can spread. Within a group of animals, if one is spooked and begins to run, the whole group joins in even before they know what they are running from. On an organizational level like a church, witness the rumor mill that quickly begins based on small pieces of information.
Like an individual, a congregation will also focus its energy on anticipation. Heighten the change potential and the energy is heightened. The higher the energy, the greater the dynamic exchanges between the members of the group. Sometimes the way the group handles the energy is healthy, other times not so much.
Being the “non-anxious” presence so many people talk about is not easy – especially if the nature of the outcome will cast shade on you as the leader. Many times, the anxiety overtakes the system and chaos breaks out. Rumors, boundary violations, misattributions – all of these can take a system apart in short order. Bringing in a consultant who has no stake in the result and can see the way your system is working because they are looking at it from the bleachers, is the best way to bring order from chaos, peace from conflict, or health from dysfunction.
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