On Sunday evening, January 3, most of us went to bed happy and content after a great holiday season spent with our families and loved ones. The next morning, we woke up to a firestorm in the financial markets. China’s stock markets had plunged 7% and were promptly shut down as a result. Almost instantly, fear and panic spread around the globe like an epidemic, and world markets began the brand new year with what turned out to be a weeklong melee of plunging prices.
This is a textbook example of how easily anxiety can spread, and its effects are not only limited to humans. Imagine a herd of cattle, peacefully munching green grass in a field. All are calm and content. Suddenly, one cow bumps up against an electric fence and is shocked. She starts braying and jumping around, and instantly the entire herd is highly agitated and running around braying wildly. Her anxiety from the shock is transmitted in a nanosecond to the rest of the entire herd. At the same time, there is also a separate herd of cattle peacefully munching grass just across the road. They look up momentarily to see what all the fuss is about a few hundred yards away, but the anxiety hasn’t affected them and soon they return to their grass.
Both of these examples demonstrate how quickly we can catch the anxiety contagion. It travels at light speed and instantly puts us into “fight or flight” mode. We completely lose all calm, are incapable of rational thought, and the impulses and emotions we feel in those moments are very likely to lead us to make very destructive decisions, without even thinking.
Anxiety spreads in families the very same way. Imagine for a moment a 1950s style “traditional” family. Dad comes home after a very hard day at work. Without him having to say a single word, Mom instantly picks up his agitated state. She quickly rushes into the family room where the kids are peacefully watching television and waiting for dinner. She yells at the kids to clear out of the family room so Dad can have some peace and quiet, and tells them to go to their rooms and finish their homework. Within a minute of Dad walking in the door, Dad might now feel less anxious, and Mom has gotten her anxiety out on the kids, but the children have, through mom, now received the brunt of Dad’s anxiety and are sitting in their rooms, sulking, fearful and angry at the injustice of it all.
Anxiety is all around us and is being transmitted at lightning speed to us from our work environments, our families, friends, local communities, and even our global community. And we are almost completely unaware of that it is happening to us. It affects our moods, our relationships, our investment success, leads to long-term loss of health and vitality, and even affects our view of the world around us. All without us even knowing it is going on!
So what can we do about it? First and foremost, we need to be are of it. I like to tell people to imagine you have a video camera up in the corner of the room, watching yourself interact with the people around you. Notice when you are getting tense, upset, fearful, and notice when those around you are doing the same thing. Be aware of the moments when anxiety is present. “Oh, I see my husband is really upset right now!” “Man, I am really feeling tense and am just about ready to unload on my child.”
Murray Bowen, a renowned psychiatrist in Washington, DC and father of what is now known as Bowen Family Systems Theory, says just the simple act of being aware of these feelings, emotions, and anxieties will do wonders for your ability to avoid having them run your life. It will dramatically improve your self-control, help you stay calm, and perhaps best of all, when you are running at a higher level of awareness and self-control, everyone around you will too.
If you’re looking for a new year’s resolution, this one small change will enable you to reap tremendous benefits in your relationships, peace of mind, and your ability to make good investment decisions.
Happy New Year!