Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Be the least anxious person in the (virtual) room

Rev. Margaret Marcuson

April 2, 2020

However fast COVID-19 may be spreading, the anxiety about it has spread faster and to far more people. I’m sure literally billions of people have caught the anxiety. Over a billion children have seen their schools close, and those children have parents. People of all ages are anxious about this virus.

It’s impossible to be in a climate like this and not be affected by the anxiety swirling around. What’s a leader to do? You can’t manage other people’s anxiety for them, but you can work on your own. The good news is that right now you can still be anxious and still be “the least anxious person in the room,” as Dr. Murray Bowen used to say. The room may be a virtual room right now, but the work is the same.

It’s impossible to be in a climate like this and not be affected by the anxiety swirling around. What’s a leader to do? You can’t manage other people’s anxiety for them, but you can work on your own.

Like anxiety, calm is contagious. It may not spread as fast, but it does spread, especially in a small group like a congregation. If you are a leader, you are well positioned to influence others when you share your conviction that your community can handle this challenge.

Here are some recommendations:

  1. Have compassion for yourself and others at this time of high anxiety. It’s going to be harder to think, sleep, and focus for a while. Accept that. You don’t need to get anxious about your anxiety. You may avoid the virus, but you won’t completely avoid the anxiety. You have to be a lot more than six feet away (maybe six planets away) to do so.
  1. Focus on ways to keep yourself calm(er). Consider what has worked for you in the past and how you might adapt that to your current situation: maybe you can’t go to the gym, but you can do body-weight strength exercises in your living room.
  1. Create a routine for yourself. One pastor said he had created a routine for the church by posting prayer and worship resources three times a week, but he knew he needed one for himself. B. J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, has been offering some terrific free trainings on creating tiny habits for working at home and other current challenges. I’ve attended several, and they have been excellent.
  1. Breathe. Literally. One technique is to breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, and breathe out for four counts. I’ve been doing that when I wake up in the night, and it helps.
  1. Manage your exposure to news sources. Seth Godin, in a recent post called “Calm also has a coefficient,” suggests “Being up-to-date on the news is a trap and a scam. Five minutes a day is all you need.” Use a timer.
  1. Celebrate and appreciate what you can about our current situation. For example, you can celebrate finally figuring out how to stream worship. One pastor said his church has talked about streaming services for ten years, before he even arrived, and they worked it out in 48 hours!

Here are a few more things to celebrate:

Prayer does not require people to be in person with each other (or even online with each other).

New technologies make connection possible.

Scientists are researching even as you read this. (Check out this site from Harvard Medical School for the latest.)

We still have safe water.

Make your own list!

What ideas do you have to lower your own anxiety by a little (1%? 5%?) A little goes a long way in the current environment. It’s the best contribution you can make to those around you and to our anxious world.

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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