Anxiety is toxic and contagious — chill out!

By Caitlin Kelly


You have no excuse to bully others. None.
You have no excuse to bully others. None.


Last week brought two unprecedented experiences in my 30 years as a freelance journalist.

Two editors each apologized to me by email. One had driven me nuts with micro-managing while the other snapped my head off verbally and hung up on me for daring to (politely) argue my point.

Yes,  I could have shrugged it off. But I didn’t.

Being repeatedly subjected to others’ anxiety and unmoderated rage leaves me shaking head to toe.

When I told a third editor — also a veteran of our industry — her reaction shocked me a little, because such incivility is something we’re all just supposed to ignore and shrug off.

“You’re lucky,” she said. “Many people would not have apologized.”

Why is it our job to absorb, ignore or deflect your toxic anxiety?

People in my industry, and in many others, are running so scared that many are behaving like terrified toddlers lost in a sea of unfamiliar knees at Disneyworld.

The sexy new word for this latest debacle of American employment-at-will — (i.e. they can fire you anytime, anywhere for any reason at all. No reason, even! And the law makes it impossible for you to sue or claim redress. Yay capitalism!)precariat.

From The New York Times:

Thirty years ago, a vast majority of Americans identified as members of the middle class. But since 1988, the percentage of Americans who call themselves members of the “have-nots” has doubled. Today’s young people are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.

These pessimistic views bring to mind a concept that’s been floating around Europe: the Precariat. According to the British academic Guy Standing, the Precariat is the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and “without a narrative of occupational development.” They live with multiple forms of insecurity and are liable to join protest movements across the political spectrum.

The American Precariat seems more hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends and family but without faith in American possibilities.

Here’s a link to Standing’s 2011 book, which I want to read.

In my industry one-third have lost our jobs since 2008, most of which are not coming back. So those left employed are clutching their staff positions like a drowning man with a life-vest. They’re freaked out by anything or anyone that threatens their hold — literally — on the upper middle class.

I get it! A midlife, mid-career drop in income is deeply unpleasant.

But this widespread free-floating work-related anxiety feels toxic, whether coming from other freelancers — some of whom seem to tremble in the corner most of the time, persuaded they have zero bargaining power, too terrified to negotiate better rates or contracts — or bad-tempered staff editors.

My recent eight-day working trip to Nicaragua, even working long days in 95 degree heat, was totally different. We were treated with kindness, respect and welcome.

It made me viscerally understand that many journalists (many workers!) are becoming accustomed to being treated rudely and roughly.

That’s crazy. And I came home with a much clearer sense of this.

So people, it’s time to get a grip on your anxiety:

Meditate. Move to a cheaper place. Do whatever it takes to lower your living expenses. Work three jobs if necessary, and bulk up your savings so if you get canned or face a dry spell, you’re able to manage.

It’s time to stop flinging your anxiety (aka shit) at those around you, in some desperate attempt to offload it onto those in even more precarious situations — like unpaid interns and your army of freelancers, none of whom can even collect sick pay or unemployment benefits.

We’re already stressed, too!



We are not monkeys in the monkey house.

50 thoughts on “Anxiety is toxic and contagious — chill out!

  1. I have felt this vibe of malicious uncertainty in the past year as I transitioned from volunteer positions to p/t paid employment. It does present as territorial displays of the weak/sick. As a volunteer I was treated very well for the most part, but with the addition of money to the equation it began to feel as if undervaluing me was part of a power play. Learning about alpha dog behaviour has empowered me to begin to stand up for myself in a direct and powerful, but not aggressive way, when confronted with such undermining disrespect. The results have been good. I wonder what actually motivated the apologies? They are rare.

    1. Sorry to hear this. You’re right — it’s very much about power, and displaying it.

      The first apology was driven by…a conscience? The fact I offer true value for my skills and abusing me means I won’t offer them to him again? Who knows? The second one perhaps because the person realized they’d really been over the line? Their reason for having been so short with me was deeply personal, and very sad, so I commiserated with them.

  2. You have no idea how much I — and many others — would love to be able to just “chill out!”

    I would love to turn off the illogical, neurological disruption and chemical corruption. I would love, love, love to just be able to breathe and not feel this sickening, burning possession that comes upon me for no rhyme or reason. I would love to just take a few deep breaths and whisper away the heart palpitations, searing headaches, muscular tremors, chest pains, and silent screams that rise in my throat and choke away the rational, loving being that I really am. Yes, it’s toxic, yes, it’s horrible, and yes I know it’s not easy on anyone around me, either and it breaks my heart to know that. It’s an embarrassing and degrading infliction that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

    But, it’s real. Panic is painful for millions of us — 20% of Americans, actually. I, like many of the 20% inherited this beast from my bloodline. And like any monster, if you fight it, it’s going to fight back. I have changed my diet, I have changed my lifestyle, I have made many accommodations and adjustments to keep it from running my life. But though it may be sedated, I have to always be aware that it’s there and I have little to no idea how or when it’ll wake up and take another chunk out of my peace and my soul.

    You’re a smart, sassy lady with a lot of talent. I love your posts and I genuinely respect you — I really do! But, to say “chill out” to those who have anxiety is like saying to a schizophrenic, “Well, just tell those voices to shut up!” or “Get over it!” to someone with depression. Trust me…we’d all love to! Though we can take some control, for sure, unfortunately, the physiological glitches in our brains make don’t make it so easy.

    There’s some great information available from NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), ADAA (Anxiety Disorders Association of America), and Mayo Clinic, all reputable resources. Believe me, I understand how hard it is to be on the other end of an an anxiety or panic attack. But, though it’s louder and uglier, it’s no different than witnessing someone having a seizure. It’s not your fault and there’s nothing you can do except to please understand that it’s not your fault and there’s nothing you can do.

    Most respectfully,

    1. Ray, thanks. I appreciate your insight and explanation — my post was NOT aimed at anyone with a chronic condition or an illness like yours, and I should have thought of that.

      What I am describing is something different — a deliberate sort of abuse of others. I’m also, I admit, hyper-sensitive to being shouted at after years of mental illness and other issues within my own family. I simply have no patience for it, even if some do.

      1. Ooh! I see. Well, in that case, yes, there is definitely, DEFINITELY a difference between anxious and a***ole! I was raised the same as you describe and I still have a very hard time when someone raises their voice to me. Took me years to make the distinction, though it’s never easy in either circumstance…

        Thank you so much for clarifying. You’re a class act!

      2. I hope you don’t think I was yelling at you. There were times I felt so horrible while being yelled at that I wished they’d hit me, instead. I know I’m…”passionate” (to put it mildly) and being of New York Greek/Italian descent doesn’t help, but, I do my best to “do one to others.” Print is great majick. It has the ability to transcend all elements of time and space, while clarifying and lending itself open for misinterpretation at the same time.

  3. rude treatment of others is never acceptable. to get an apology is not lucky, it is what should happen without question. great points here.

  4. Preach it sista! Now imagine what it is like for a student whose teacher suffers from uncontrolled bouts of anger. I have seen it too many times. Good teachers, overwhelmed by life, lose it on the ones they are working so hard to reach.

    We all need a little meditation and mindfulness training. 😉

    1. Thanks, Kathleen. I’ll be teaching three classes starting this fall — including freshman! — so it will be my own test of temperament and self-control.

      The eight-day silent Buddhist retreat I did in July 2011 did not (I wish!) tame my temper, but it did made me far more aware that anger/rudeness is a choice, and not one that people get to make automatically, expecting the rest of us to smile, shrug and pretend it didn’t ruin our own day.

  5. I am Not a writer, but à Psychotherapist in the medical field. For several years insurance companies have ben lowerring their reimbursement rates. I am offended that Im expected to accept less than my auto-mechanic for an hour Of WORK!
    You inspire me!

    1. How depressing for you — and your patients!

      Therapy is so helpful for people with anger issues. Sadly, I see many people who have probably never gone to therapy or even considered addressing WHY they are so nasty. I started again last fall and it’s been painful (as good therapy often is) but helpful.

    2. It sounds like you think you are better than your auto mechanic. Do you have any idea how much responsibility rides on the shoulders of a mechanic? Do you know how much training he has been through and must continue to have? I spent a good piece of a lifetime in that profession, even running my own shop, so your comment was a jab in the differential. With that said, I understand your frustration but it happens in any profession. Change is constant and the older one gets the harder it is to adapt. Not much consolation there is there?

      1. lol. No ” jab in the differential” intended! But I was speaking about my profession, not anyone else’s. I apologize if it sounded more like disrespect then about “anxiety” in the work force.

      2. Thank you, Jane, your apology is welcome. I was going to ask if you have hugged your mechanic lately but that wouldn’t be a good idea because his hands might be greasy..

  6. These issues are all familiar to me as a historian because they have all happened before. Precarious piecework by people so poor they had to accept anything they got or starve was how the industrial revolution was chharacterised at its beginning. One would hope the intervening 250 years had changed things, but apparently not. The worst of it is the contempt delivered to the vulnerable. The experience of writers caught on the down side of a fast changing environment is typical. Alas.

  7. So true, Caitlin! No excuse at all. .. and yet. My work for government clients has yielded some of the worst behavior toward others, the worst working conditions, and the most irrational expectations of any I have experienced in my working life.
    I know everyone is being pressed to the limits, but at some point, someone has to stand up and say, “Not today. It stops with me. I won’t treat my co-workers rudely, I won’t be nasty to my contract help. I won’t push $#!t down hill just because I think I can. ”
    Morale is low, stress is high. We are precariates. It only takes once to go abroad or to a place less fortunate where you are appreciated to see how absurd things are today.

    We rally against sweat shops in Asia, while we ignore our own version of poor work conditions. Each is inhumane in its own way.

    Good post, tough subject.

    1. Jonelle, thanks so much for this…It’s really helpful (if depressing!) to see and hear how widespread this behavior has become.

      I have no doubt my 8 days in Nicaragua helped shift my thinking. To be treated gently by our fellow team members and hosts, to laugh while working, to actually enjoy hard work meant the work wasn’t hard at all. That was an eye-opener. And people were living in a kind of poverty that was head-spinning.

      The added dramas here make work nasty, toxic and tiring. But it isn’t the work — it’s the industrial mindset that we are all machines that can be speeded up uncomplainingly to exhaustion.

      My writing work is dead simple in some ways but the emotional management — of editors, sources and others — is killing me. I don’t wish to spend my life nurse-maiding others’ BS. And when everyone else thinks this is “normal”, pushing back makes us the outliers…

  8. I am becoming more aware of articles reflecting on the decline of the American middle class. The term “Precariat” seems fitting since the continuing recession does indeed make the job market a precarious one. I have a difficult time selling the former American dream of HS, college, career, suburbia, family, pension, retirement to my students. It has morphed into the landscape of yesteryear.

    1. “Selling” is an interesting word choice. I look at the classic progression you describe and think…really?

      Pensions are now almost impossible to get and retirement (which I have been writing about quite a bit recently) an elusive dream for too many. It is frightening.

    2. Yes, this discussion has come up more and more. I read an article about a year ago in the Toronto Post detailing the recent phenomenon of contract work in the GTA. It claimed that 50% of all workers in the Toronto area are in uncertain work situations. As the situation has grown, the type of worker has broadened, too–no longer lower income groups but also middle and upper middle income groups are facing this issue of uncertainty.

      I read this right before we closed our own struggling retail shop, and while my husband was going from contract to contract with the provincial government. He has definitely encountered the nastiness that grows out of this kind of anxiety, but he has done very well (and landed a permanent) position) by working hard and working well with others. Getting a competitive edge doesn’t mean treating others like crap. While I can appreciate where the nastiness comes from, it accomplishes nothing.

      But, it’s definitely tough out there. The “American Dream” narrative needs a serious rewrite.

      1. Thanks for a detailed Canadian perspective on this. So sorry that your retail shop did not work out. Disappointing!

        As you know (?) I am Canadian and worked in Toronto to the age of 30 before moving to NY. The employment situation here is brutal — people are fired after decades with no notice, no severance and no realistic chance of legal redress.

        It’s challenging to hold one’s tongue, esp. when working freelance/contract, and not feel like an abused doormat — and when you do fire a client if so many people are (and many are) behaving so badly?

        It’s much worse now than a few years ago and I don’t see any chance of things getting better any time soon. The have’s have FT jobs (this week) and the have-nots are kow-towing to them.

        I am all for teamwork, cooperation and collaboration. That has a very different flavor.

      2. My own kiddos passed up college and its debt and went right to work. They are earning the same as the college grads–a diploma isn’t a guarantee anymore.

  9. Hi Caitlin,
    You have just described “crony capitalism”. In Canada the Federal Government has established a “Foreign Workers Program”. Their was an exposee on the CBC about it. People working at the Royal Bank were being forced to train people that the bank had brought in from off shore to take over their skilled computer jobs. One guy from Israel was brought over to work (I’m not sure were or for whom in Canada) He wasn’t paid for his work, was held hostage and threatened bodily harm if he went to the authorities to complain. Profits soar when you can utilize slave labour. We have been “Sold Out”. Take a stand and speak your mind while you still can.

  10. Pingback: [LINK] “Anxiety is toxic and contagious — chill out!” | A Bit More Detail

  11. Wow, this is powerful…so well-said! I have been out of the real work-force for awhile, until just recently so haven’t seen this behavior but like you, would not put up with it. I have family members with anxiety, and my son who is only 9 appears to have it coming…and I’m determined to figure out a way to teach it’s not acceptable to take your angst out on others. With work. With personal problems. People like you are out there showing others the right way and I hope they take notice.

    1. Thanks much…

      I grew up in a family whose primary expression of emotion was often, sadly, anger. It was exhausting and really bad for my mental health. It’s taken me a long time to set boundaries and say ENOUGH! or simply withdraw from people who think this is normal, acceptable behavior. It’s becoming widespread which makes it appear “normal” — but it’s a nasty and unhealthy way to handle or process your own issues.

      American social culture also likes to “let it all hang out” which encourages it. Better we should all button up and find a good therapist! 🙂

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