Anxiety, getting it into perspective: The impact of the Germanwings crash – When hearing about a traumatic event is difficult to shake off.
It’s nearly 2 weeks since the murder- suicide that brought down the Germanwings flight over the Alps. News bulletins continue to report on new findings and the grim reality of the terror and helplessness that would have gripped the crew and passengers as their plane accelerated towards the mountainside. The retrieval and revelation of the contents of the 2 black box recorders and reports of a phone video of the last moments for the 150 people are chilling to hear.
What is the vicarious traumatic effect of such a repeated story of horror? I’ve been aware of how much this story has raised my own anxiety. While the horror of the Kenyan university murders is similarly, if not more complex in its horror, there is something more familiar in the 1st world of a plane going down. This is particularly the case when victims are from our own country- it brings it all closer to home. I’m due to fly overseas this Saturday and am aware of carrying more apprehension than usual about this. I think it will be harder to detach from the inevitable turbulence of my plane flying across the Pacific compared to the last time I was on a long haul flight. Mind you, I’ve always had a degree of tension about the experience of flight, where the sense of lack of control and the vulnerability of being at such elevations is not comfortable. I over-ride this with a reminder of the frequency and statistical safety of air travel. Added to this logic is the imperative of travel to faraway places to see loved ones; and to attend conferences or enjoy a special vacation. When confronting an anxiety about dying (a universal human fear), I also remind myself of my spiritual faith bearings and let go of my tight hold on the illusion of control of my own life. But this latest plane crash has unsettled my usual strategies. It challenges me to work through my fears in a healthy, proportionate way.
As I have thought this through I’ve noticed that not everyone is impacted the way I have been by this traumatic plane crash. For example, my husband, who is flying with me, is easily able to compartmentalise the news story from his own life. He has different triggers for anxiety.
This reflection reminds me that there are 2 types of anxiety (in individuals and relationship systems):
- Acute Anxiety: The anxiety of facing a real threat, where our brains trigger the chemical associated with fear (glutamate) that enables us to take swift automatic actions. Short periods of stress response activation are helpful for tackling problems and changes circumstances. This can be thought of as a “WHAT NOW?” anxiety.
- Chronic Anxiety: The anxiety of imagined threatening events that elicit the fear responses in our autonomic nervous system even when not facing a real threat or challenge. This kind of anticipatory anxiety is called CHRONIC ANXIETY. I have come to call it “WHAT IF?” anxiety. It can become a bottomless pit kind of agitation that spreads a sense of danger to many ordinary domains of life. Many debilitating symptoms can stem from this contagion of anxiety: symptoms of burnout from the effects of an overworked adrenal system and/or symptoms of obsession as one tries to create the illusion of control in one area of life.
The “what if?” chronic anxiety is the kind of response that has been triggered in me by the germanwings crash…it is not happening to me, but has triggered an imagined fear of it happening. When chronic anxiety is evident, I remind myself that a time limited anxiety only belongs in real events that I am facing; not all the possible events that can be faced by humans. I remind myself of the importance of distinguishing between the “WHAT NOW?” and the “WHAT IF?”
Bowen family systems theory makes the important distinction between acute (factual) anxiety and chronic (imagined) anxiety. The degree of imagined or chronic anxiety is linked to the propensity to life difficulties and symptoms. This reminds me of a tape I have watched of Dr Murray Bowen interviewing a troubled family where the parents remained deeply disturbed by the assassination of US president JFK some years after it occurred. Chronic anxiety has a way of attaching to events that happen outside of our own life domain. It means that our stress response is easily triggered by any perceived uncertainty. Our hypothalamus co-opts the pituitary gland, and the adrenal medulla in keeping us in a prolonged state of stress, with our immune system compromised. This kind of anxiety is infectious in relationships and can be picked up by the most vulnerable members of the group or drag down the functioning of an entire group.
Acute, short lived anxiety, as opposed to infectious chronic anxiety, is a useful part of life. As Bowen has written, anxiety itself does not kill anyone. It is an inevitable part of making progress in life by taking on new pathways and working out challenges. This quote from Bowen’s original research is particularly helpful in an ever increasingly anxious world:
Anxiety is inevitable if you solve problems. When anxiety increases, one has to decide whether to give in and retreat or carry on in spite of it. Anxiety does not harm people. It only makes them uncomfortable. It can cause you to shake, or lose sleep, or become confused or develop physical symptoms, but it will not kill you and it will subside. People can even grow and become more mature by having to face and deal with anxiety situations. *[Bowen. OFP: 119].
I reflect on the factors that have gone into igniting my own chronic anxiety at this time. In my family of origin there have been premature deaths over a number of generations that clearly adds to the sensitivity to this tension. Additionally some close friends have lost their son in a motor bike accident late last year. This will have inevitably stirred up some existing chronic anxiety in me. I accept that this is part of the legacy of my family history and patterns of coping, but that I can make some wise choices about how I deal with imagined fears. I ground myself in prayer and handing over my anxieties (Philippians 4:6). I then commit to not investing my thinking energy in any imagined or unhelpful possibilities. I will briefly and firmly remind myself of the statistically proven, increasing safety of air travel, in spite of the disproportionate amount of TV and internet time that gets focussed on the details of crashes that do occur. I will focus on the privilege of air travel when I board my plane this Saturday and of the valuable opportunities it affords me in this increasingly reachable global community I’m part of. Once on my way, I will relish the unique vista of the sun drenched boundless carpet of clouds, while considering the important decisions of the moment: which movies I will catch up on?
Questions for reflection:
- Can I distinguish the difference between a WHAT NOW anxiety and a WHAT IF anxiety? (a factual challenge Vs. an imagined one)
- How prevalent was a sense of stress in my family system growing up – what issues triggered the greatest tensions?
- When I sense tension about a real issue to be tackled, how can I use it as an opportunity to grow, rather than a trigger of regression – into ruminations and avoidance?
- What principles do I have for responding to the infectious anxiety around me?
Relevant quotes from Bowen:
(From Family Therapy in Clinical practice)
“Families in which the parents handle anxiety well, and in which they are able to stay on a predetermined course in spite of anxiety, will turn out better than the families in which the parents are more reactive and shift life courses in response to anxiety.” P 537
We have “built in mechanisms to deal with short bursts of anxiety….When anxiety increases and remains chronic for a certain period, the organism develops tension, either within itself or in the relationship system, and the tension results in symptoms or dysfunction or sickness. ..anxiety can spread rapidly through the family or through society.” P361-2
*OFP: Origins of Family Psychotherapy, Bowen, edited by Butler, 2013.
‘When an Acute Traumatic Event is Difficult to Shake Off’ – Jenny Brown