Credit: George Danby

Sometimes we escalate instead of communicate. I call this “emergency mind.” When responding to a situation as though it were an emergency when it isn’t, we convey anxiety instead of information. In “emergency mind,” we create a sense of separation with ourselves and those around us.

A young woman I know recently got a job in an advertising agency. Her boss would cry out “fire drill, fire drill” every time he received a request from one of their clients. This response caused everyone on the team to become very stressed. The young woman did not want to stress her boss more by asking questions and therefore felt she was not able to do her job. She changed jobs.

The work in an office can be important, but it is rarely, if ever, an emergency. When we are in “emergency mind,” we risk not being heard at all because we are communicating fear. This boss was communicating anxiety instead of information.

When we are in “emergency mind” and conveying anxiety, we may also be making poor decisions. Evidence from neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh finds anxiety disengages the prefrontal cortex, a brain region critical for flexible decision-making, as well as attention and higher order thinking.

Often people blame “emergency mind” on inherited family anxiety. It is true that anxiety often runs in families, but that’s because of learned behavior, not necessarily genes. Genes are turned on and off by the way we react to our environment. So our destiny is not hardwired. Quite the contrary, our behaviors have great influence over our genes, as researchers like Dr. John Krystal, a Yale professor and editor of the journal Biological Psychiatry, and Dr. Steven J. Heine, author of “ DNA Is Not Destiny,” have found.

Fortunately, there are great treatments for anxiety. I practice a form of psychotherapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy that is highly effective at learning to understand how thoughts contribute to our behaviors and anxiety symptoms. Each of us has a stream of automatic thoughts running through our minds. These thoughts are often undetected yet powerful nonetheless in creating “emergency mind.” We first need to know what they are and there is no better way to learn about our thought processes than to write them down.

Many people believe they are simply anxious, so they struggle to identify specific trigger thoughts. This was the case with Joe, a college student with whom I worked on a situation where he found himself in “emergency mind” without realizing how he got there.

One day, as Joe walked through the library doors, he felt an overwhelming sense of dread. His heart raced and he became so dizzy he thought he might faint. But because he wasn’t paying attention to his thoughts, Joe said, “When I walked into the library, I just needed to check out books for a paper that was due in a week.”

Examining the situation more closely, Joe remembered he’d seen a group of students from the same class walking out of the library. “It crossed my mind that I should speak to them, but I looked away, pretending not to notice them,” he said.

As we talked about the incident, Joe recalled several thoughts that had flashed through his mind: “They are probably all smarter than I am. I bet they are already done with the paper. I better finish mine tonight. If I don’t, I’ll fail the class! I could get kicked out of college.” Joe quickly rushed to his room to work on the paper and completely forgot to get the books he needed.

Joe was amazed he could have all these thoughts running through his mind without noticing them. Once he did, he could see why he felt so anxious. He picked up right away how one negative thought led to another, more devastating than the first, and how this made him feel anxious.

Since anxiety comes from inside and not the outside world, this means we have the power to do something about it. Writing is the first step in cognitive-behavioral therapy to bringing stressful thoughts into consciousness. Only when we are conscious of our thoughts do we gain the power to question them.

This is also the first step in having a good relationship with our mind. Instead of using “emergency mind,” we may begin to use presence of mind. We may feel more connected to ourselves and therefore others. So instead of escalating, we are communicating, and we find ourselves much happier.

Robin Barstow is a clinical social worker in southern Maine.

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