Paula Schneider

When I worked in hospice, I became acutely aware of the fact that when families and caregivers are highly anxious, as when their loved one is beginning the process of letting go of this life, they can act and react in extremely bizarre ways. One of the mechanisms they use to rid themselves of excess negative energy is to project their unwanted feelings onto others, in some instances, the nurse. However, that is a subject for an entirely different discussion. Suffice it to say that when people are anxious, they show their fear or nervousness is various ways. Medical professionals, of all people, should be aware of this phenomenon, but I recently became aware of a situation where the supposed professionals were anything but compassionate when confronted with an anxious individual.

            A friend brought to my attention a situation where a man went in for a colonoscopy and seemed to be quite uneasy about the procedure. This is understandable. Prior to being anesthetized, he turned on his smart phone and recorded everything the team said while he was in an altered state and unable to speak. Unfortunately, especially for the team, they engaged in some dialogue that was extremely unflattering (along with unprofessional) to the patient, and they got caught. In my mind, it is likely that the patient’s behaviors might have set off some nervous anxieties in the medical team and they in turn behaved unprofessionally and less than skillfully. At any rate, the man sued for defamation and won. Perhaps if the team had been better prepared to deal with differences in human behavior, none of this would have happened.

            It is important for all of us to be aware of the fact that when we are anxious, nervous, afraid, unsure of ourselves , etc., we frequently do not process information correctly. The person speaking to the anxious person thinks he or she is receiving the incoming data correctly but it may not be going in correctly. Many times I’ve had to remind myself of this as I’m speaking with someone in a hospice situation and the person has his or her face turned to me and it appears correct listening is occurring. These are not always accurate signals that my information is being conveyed as the way I want it to. Just because their eyes are open and they are looking at me is no assurance they are listening!

            In hospice, this is exactly the reason why we all knew we had to repeat instructions over and over with each visit – because families, and sometimes patients too, were anxious and didn’t hear and remember well.

            It’s good to keep this little tidbit in mind, because according to the latest brain science findings, people are anxious much of the time. We are unable to turn off the little warning signs that reside in our brain and we extrapolate fears onto a present situation that served us well in the past, perhaps even saving us from being eaten by the lion! But these little signals are no longer appropriate to the situation at hand. We think they are, and hence we live in a state of low-level, constant anxiety. It’s the background noise that Eckhart Tolle refers to in A New Earth. We live with it. It’s our constant companion and consequently we are unable to recognize it anymore.

            There are a few excellent medications available today for anxiety, and if used in low doses and appropriately prescribed and monitored by a physician, can be extremely helpful to those who need them. Alternative techniques for monitoring low levels of anxiety include prayer, meditation, breath work, listening to peaceful melodies, etc. If it were me, I’d try the alternative techniques first and then move on to medication, as the situation calls for it. And, using both together might even be more beneficial!