Outsourcing Anxiety

by Dr. Thor Bergersen

Anxiety, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is from the Latin word anxietatem, which means “anguish, anxiety or solicitude.” Psychiatrists apparently began using this term in 1904, and since then it has become synonymous with stress, worry, nervousness and even fear.

When worried, we often feel compelled to share our concern with others. By giving voice to our thoughts and emotions, they can be made more tangible and perhaps more easily analyzed. A friend, upon hearing of our woes, might have words of advice, reassurance or a hug. If not a cure for anxiety, such gestures are at least a salve.

In some cases, however, anxiety is merely outsourced to the person in the role of listener. Take, for example, the teenager who, upon arriving home from school states, by text, phone or in person, “I have a ton of homework and I’m really stressed out,” and then proceeds to do everything but their homework. By sharing their anxiety in this case, they have effectively outsourced it to mom or dad. This creates a second “conscience” for the teen, because they know their parent will worry for them. Eventually, mom or dad won’t be able to take it anymore, and will nag their offspring to do the work. This results in argument, as the one who outsourced the worry resists the transition from idleness to work, their stress personified by the one to whom they outsourced the anxiety in the first place.

The outsourcing process takes two willing, if unwitting, participants. The person offering the anxiety must implicitly trust the one who is taking it on. He or she must be certain that, when the time comes, the surrogate worrier will begin to act it out and eventually embody their anxiety, demonstrating the urgency of what must be done. It’s a delicate dance, and it happens beneath the awareness of most who participate.

For most adults in mature relationships, sharing anxiety with others doesn’t mean handing it off. The worry might be diluted somewhat via dissemination, but it doesn’t go away. In fact, for those who take full responsibility for their actions, it’s impossible to outsource anxiety. The conscience won’t allow it. If the buck stops with you, then you have to keep it.

Anxiety outsourcing has a simple cure, however. The one who typically accepts the anxiety simply refuses it. In our teen with homework example, the parent replies, “Wow, that sounds stressful, but you’ll get through it. You always do.” Then, the follow through: No nagging. When it becomes clear that anxiety was been tossed but no one caught it, a sense of urgency returns. The television is turned off, the video game stops and the homework comes out. Remaining consistent is the key, as with any behavioral modification.

Worrying with each other is fine, but worrying for them isn’t.