“Due to a signal malfunction, we are experiencing extensive delays in F train service. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Who would have thought that this one announcement would lead to an eruption of several different reactions across the train car?
Some people continued to read their books, scroll through their news feeds, talk to their travel companions. Some even continued to nap, completely unphased by this delay. Others, however, were much less calm about their commute being delayed. Many stood with their fists clenched, damning the MTA for yet another screw up. Some appeared frantic, most likely experiencing anxiety about being late to work, an appointment, some obligation.
From time to time, I also fall into the anxious group of commuters. Hopelessly searching for a wifi signal so that I can send my boss a text to inform her of my lateness. Falling down the rabbit hole of anxiety - I’m going to be late, no one likes a late employee, my boss will think less of me, I should’ve left earlier.
How can the same event lead to such different emotions and behaviors?
It must be that each individual experienced this one announcement differently due to what they told themselves about the possibility of being late.
People who experience anxiety often ruminate about the possibility of failure and the idea that they aren’t “good enough”. They might also exaggerate in their mind the perceived negative consequences of their situation and make negative predictions based on anxiety. Thus, impending lateness to any obligation is often seen as a reflection of the self; those with anxiety can usually believe that by being late, they will be perceived as a bad employee, bad partner, bad friend, and that ‘bad’ consequences might follow that they wouldn’t be able to tolerate. To them, tardiness means that they have failed to achieve a standard that they’ve set for themselves: always be punctual. For individuals with high anxiety, this standard typically leads to an even more unrealistic one: don’t make a mistake. They might also exaggerate in their mind the perceived negative consequences of their situation and make negative predictions based on anxiety.
With these thoughts speeding through our minds, it’s no wonder that commutes become stressful and unpleasant when we are delayed! How, then, can we be more like the person who appears concerned rather than anxious in the face of lateness?
One step we can take toward having a more pleasant commute is to employ the use of our rational minds. Overcoming our anxiety about lateness will require some reality checking; ask yourself about the severity of the situation, Is this as serious as I am anticipating it being?, Will the world end if I’m late?, Is being late the absolute worst thing that can happen? Once the rational mind has kicked in and starts to question the plethora of terrible outcomes we have imagined, we are in a better position to experience a more productive emotion.
This, of course, is not to suggest that chronic tardiness is what one should aim for, nor am I suggesting that one should remain completely calm in the face of obviously stressful situations. However, during the times when we are running late and experiencing anxiety, perhaps we can be kinder to ourselves and not add insult to injury - falling down the rabbit hole of anxious thoughts will not make you any earlier!
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy has taught me that while there are many things in life I can’t control, what I can control is myself. If my goal is to have an anxiety-free ride despite MTA delays, it is in my best interest to begin utilizing my rational mind to help me achieve that. Once we are able to move past our anxieties, we are better able to think and behave in ways that will help us achieve our goals.