Decreasing Anxiety by Putting Away Your Crystal Ball

Like with all of the topics I discuss, there are so many ways to think about anxiety that I couldn't possibly cover them all in one blog.  Today I've decided to focus on the predictive nature of anxiety, since it comes up a lot in my practice.  Predictive anxiety comes from imagining a future scenario that we want to avoid.  For example, I have some social anxiety.  When I am around people I don't know well, I feel anxious and uncomfortable.  This anxiety can manifest itself in dreading social events. When I break my thoughts down, I'm predicting feeling awkward and uncomfortable, not knowing what to say. I'm also imagining that people will not like me, and no one likes rejection. So, if I'm predicting rejection from the start, why wouldn't I feel anxious, which leads to feeling awkward, which then reinforces the negative spiral. 

Given that anxiety creates the hell that we're trying to avoid, why do we have it?  In this example, my anxiety is a protective strategy I learned long ago.  By predicting the future based on events from the past, I'm trying to protect myself from getting hurt.  Unfortunately, it's a strategy that's outlived it's usefulness.  Since most of us don't own crystal balls, and the magic eight ball is only accurate about 50% of the time, we should probably stay out of the predicting business.  Most predicting is based on past trauma and, as I've mentioned, recreates the hell we're trying to avoid.  So how can we begin to have different conversations with ourselves?

A few years ago, mainstream psychology started to embrace the Buddhist notion of mindfulness and the importance of meditation. The idea is that living in the present moment keeps life manageable.  We have no control over the future or the past, all we have is the now.  What are you thinking, feeling, experiencing right now? What thoughts are running through your head? What sensations do you notice in your body? What are you picking up from your environment? Noticing these experiences, without attaching judgement or meaning is what this practice is about.  

Another approach involves becoming "friends" with your anxiety, being curious and trying to understand it better. As I mentioned before, your anxiety may be trying to protect you from getting hurt again.  It's like flashing lights warning of the danger ahead.  Instead of avoiding the possible danger, treading lightly might be more useful.  Extend a little self-compassion and understanding your way:  "Of course I feel anxious, this experience reminds me of times I felt rejected."  At appropriate times, maybe in journal or with a therapist, allow yourself to explore your painful memories and grieve the old wounds, so you can heal.  If you heal the past, you'll be less triggered in the present.

The Positive Power of Anger

Anger gets such a bad rap.  When we think about anger, we think of its extreme negative expression:  of anger acted out destructively or inappropriately.  Anger is a powerful emotion, and when acknowledged, understood, and channeled correctly, can be very positive.

First of all, anger just is.  As humans, we're all going to feel angry from time to time. Avoiding it, or pretending it doesn't exist, is destructive. The best way to handle anger is to feel it, and to try to understand where it's coming from.  Anger is our way of protecting ourselves.  It's the big red light that goes off in your head when someone hurts you or violates a personal boundary. Acknowledging your feelings and trying to understand what happened allows you to decide on the best course of action (after you calm down, of course).

So what happens when anger is repressed or ignored?  

Psychologists like to say that depression is anger turned inward.  In this instance, the person may not want to or is afraid to feel angry, so they redirect the anger towards themselves.  They may say things like, "I should have known better."  "That person is clearly better than me, that's why they got the promotion."  "I'm having trouble learning this, I must be stupid."  "He rejected me for someone else, what's wrong with me?"  All of this negative self talk leads to shame and depression.  I think it's always useful to look at your contribution to a situation, to learn from your experience, but if you're angry with the other person, it's important to be truthful with yourself.

Another consequence of repressed anger is fear and anxiety.  We may project out what we don't acknowledge. For example, if I was teased or abused as a child and still have a lot of unprocessed rage about that, which is totally understandable, I may not be willing to trust others. instead, I may project my anger onto them and see them as potential bullies.  It may impact the quality of my relationships and my ability to get close to people.

Because anger is such a powerful emotion, it can come out indirectly and in destructive ways if not acknowledged.  People often use the phrase passive-aggressive to refer to statements or behavior that are indirect and undermining.  All of us have experience with this dynamic.  It's the person who is very nice on the surface, but their comments or behaviors might have an undercurrent of meanness that betrays their true feelings or intent. You really don't want to be that person.  

So what do you do with anger?

  • Acknowledge.  Tell yourself you're angry, and that it's OK to feel angry.  It's just an emotion.
  • Understanding.  Understand why you're angry.  What's happening?  
  • Self-Compassion.  Be kind to yourself.  You may want to say things like, "Of course I'm angry.  Anyone in this situation would be angry.  I feel hurt (betrayed, violated, slighted,...).  I'm trying to protect myself."
  • Calm Down.  Think about what would feel soothing.  Would it help to talk to someone, journal, take a long walk, write a letter that you don't send, listen to music?
  • Action.  What, if anything, do you want to do about it?  Often, an honest, diplomatic, but direct conversation can clear the air and make you feel heard and understood.  Sometimes that's not an option. This is where an honest, emotional letter can be very powerful.  Pour your feelings out in a letter (and it may take several), but don't mail it.   This allows you to process the experience, acknowledge the feelings, and then let them go.  

So what are the positive aspects of anger?

We already discussed how anger is a protective emotion.  It lets us know when we are not being treated well.  It also helps us see when others are not being treated well.  Anger is an energizing emotion--it calls people to action.  When channeled correctly, it is the fuel needed for change.  It fuels assertiveness, problem-solving, and activism.  It can be the energy and motivation required to change what isn't working.