Recognizing and Responding to Anxiety in Ourselves and Others

Anxiety can be described as a powerful force within our bodies that can often dictate how we think, feel and act toward ourselves and others. Sometimes anxiety can be helpful to us, but at other times, it may lead to things that we say or do that we might regret later. Learning to recognize anxiety when it occurs within ourselves and others can lead to behaving in more beneficial and productive ways. This can be applied to all of our interpersonal relationships, and especially the ones that we deem most intimate and important. This seminar will be looking at anxiety from a systems perspective, which means that what will be discussed here is applicable for any setting in which you are connected to one or more individuals, whether that be your workplace, neighborhood, family, church, etc. Anxiety as a category of psychiatric disorders, with its accompanying symptoms will not be explored at this time.

First, what is the physiological basis for anxiety? When we perceive a threat in the environment to our safety, the nervous system releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, which prepares the body for “fight or flight.” In other words, we experience anxiety when we sense a threat, and our body prepares us to either “fight” or run away from that threat. The thinking part of our brain also begins to shut down to give way to the part that empowers us to react without thinking. One such part is the amygdala, which serves a significant role in anxiety as the “emotional center” of the brain and is responsible for storing memories of events with its emotions so we can recognize similar events in the future.

Anxiety can further be distinguished into two types: acute and chronic. Acute anxiety elicits an automatic and immediate reaction to an imminent and real threat to safety, such as an encounter with a dangerous animal or a car about to hit you. As mentioned before, the part of our brain that reacts without thinking takes control to try to preserve our livelihood. Once the threat that triggered the acute anxiety is removed, anxiety then de-escalates as the brain returns to a more normal state. In contrast to acute anxiety, chronic anxiety is triggered by a threat that is often tied to a formative experience. Furthermore, even though the threat might feel real, it is not real in the sense that we are not physically in danger of being harmed. Our reactions to chronic anxiety can typically be unlearned. Also unlike its acute counterpart, chronic anxiety often stays with us like “background noise” even if the threat is removed.To illustrate how chronic anxiety develops, let us imagine a child who grows up in a family in which he frequently witnesses loud arguments that consist of angry displays of body language, yelling, disagreeing and hurling of insults. As a child, who does not possess the more advanced coping capacity of an adult, the kind of hostility that he has been exposed to is a very real threat to his safety. As the child reacts in anxiety to this threat, several other things happen unconsciously and nearly simultaneously. First, he makes interpretations or meanings of the hostility he witnesses, then he may feel various emotions tied to those interpretations, and finally, his body responds in a manner to keep or get himself to safety. In this example, some possible meanings that the child might make are, “Mom and dad don’t love each other anymore… disagreement is bad… people hurt each other when they argue” among others. Accompanying these meanings may be feelings of sadness, anger, fear, etc. Lastly, to preserve his safety and livelihood, the child may go hide in his room to escape those distressing interactions. Now, imagine that this child has grown into an adult who one day, is having an unremarkable conversation with a friend, until his friend says something with which he disagrees. At this point, the amygdala of his brain instantaneously recalls the intensely emotional childhood experience of having witnessed his parents loudly argue and disagree with each other. Even though his friend’s comments are not a real threat to his safety, the adult’s brain still reacts in anxiety to the trigger of his friend’s comments with which he finds disagreement. To him, the meaning that “disagreement is bad” has unconsciously stayed with him throughout his development into an adult, and so when he considers whether to disagree with his friend, he automatically experiences anxiety, as well as the unpleasant feelings tied to it. In short, when chronic anxiety is triggered, our brain reacts as though the past threat is real in the present. As a result, the adult may respond in various ways to keep himself physically and/or emotionally safe, by disengaging from the conversation and walking away, trying to change the topic of conversation, or perhaps even agreeing with his friend even though that is not what he believes. This is just one example of the possible impact that chronic anxiety can have on our lives and relationships. However, as mentioned earlier, responses to chronic anxiety can be unlearned, so that as adults, we can choose new ways to behave that are beneficial to us and others, rather than sticking to reactions that were once helpful to us as children, but have now outlived their usefulness.

Now that we have acknowledged that anxiety is a real biochemical, neurological reaction that can have significant effects on us throughout our lives, how then do we recognize anxiety as it occurs in our relationships so that we can respond intentionally and beneficially, instead of reacting without thinking? Before we proceed to identify the physical, emotional and behavioral signs of anxiety, let us bear in mind that while anxiety may seem like an unpleasant experience, it is in itself neither good nor bad. Like gravity, anxiety just is. It is a normal part of human experience. It can be harmful or helpful, and whatever the case may be, it can always serve as an excellent teacher that leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves if we are willing to do the work. A good first step to beginning this work is learning to see all the different signs of anxiety. Physically, our bodies usually react in predictable ways while anxious. These may include muscle tension, sweating, heart pounding, trembling, shaking, shortness of breath, headache, nausea, abdominal distress, and dizziness. When it comes to emotions, researchers generally agree that all emotion within human experience can be distributed into four broad categories: sad, mad, glad and scared. Feelings of euphoria or gladness, which are usually evoked in non-threatening situations are not normally associated with anxiety. However, what we perceive to be the “unpleasant” emotions of feeling mad, sad and scared, along with their synonyms and varying intensities can often indicate that underlying anxiety is present. Regarding behavioral indications of anxiety, we will typically adopt any of four postures when we become anxious during our interpersonal interactions: Conflict, Distancing, Over and Underfunctioning, and Projecting or Triangling. Again, please keep in mind that none of these responses are good or bad, right or wrong. Any of them may be appropriate in different situations. Nevertheless, strive to notice these behaviors when they happen so that you can choose to act in ways that are most beneficial to your relationships. 

Conflict occurs when one or more individuals in a system takes on an oppositional and aggressive stance. Some characteristics of an individual engaged in conflict include trying to force agreement upon those who disagree, an inability to be wrong or “lose”, an unwillingness to change self, bullying or dominating, and blaming others. Conflict may lead to heated arguments and escalate into physical violence. Persuasion can also be considered a mild form of conflict. Individuals who distance themselves when anxious will take on a position of avoidance and passivity, which may be expressed as a physical or emotional separation. They are unable to tolerate interpersonal conflict. Consequently, such relationships are often peaceful but also superficial. “Cut off” is an extreme form of distancing in which individuals cease to have any kind of contact with one another. Overfunctioning and underfunctioning demonstrate a concept known as “relational reciprocity”, which means that they always exist together; when one individual overfunctions, then the other necessarily underfunctions. Overfunctioning can be described as taking on more responsibility than is reasonably yours, be it physical tasks or emotional processes, while underfunctioning, conversely, is taking on less. The phrase, “20% of the people doing 80% of the work” illustrates this concept in one sense. “People pleasing” is another example that illustrates taking responsibility for the feelings of others or refusing to take responsibility of one’s own. When two individuals become anxious and one or both try to offload their anxiety on a third person or entity, this is known as projecting or triangling. Triangling can take on many different forms. Some examples include having others resolve arguments, children caught in the middle of parental anxiety, venting to others, and gossiping. As indicated in these examples, triangling is extremely common and may work in combination with conflict, distancing and over/underfunctioning.

As we grow in awareness of anxiety by learning to see all the aforementioned signs, we can then learn to manage it if it becomes a detriment to ourselves and the systems of which we are a part. We can not prevent or eliminate anxiety, but we can aim to minimize its negative impact. This starts with the personal acknowledgement that “I can only control myself” and as we lower our own anxiety, we can try to contain its spread and keep it from escalating in the system. It is also important to remember that doing this work will consist of many successes and failures, and will take a lifetime of learning and repeated practice.

One approach to managing anxiety involves changing or enhancing lifestyle choices. Some of these include consistent physical exercise, good sleep hygiene, healthy eating habits, engaging in hobbies, and limiting consumption of alcohol and stimulants. A body that is well maintained and nourished is generally more effective at handling various challenges. To address anxiety in relationships as it occurs in the moment, there are specific practices that can serve to de-escalate the situation. These include:

  • Noticing bodily sensations, such as muscle tension, rapid heart rate, etc,
  • Controlling breathing by inhaling and exhaling slowly (5 seconds each)
  • Identifying and naming feelings, such as frustration, sadness, confusion, etc.
  • Asking for a timeout and resuming dialogue when calmer
  • Using effective communication skills, such as active listening and “I” language.               

You may recall from earlier that when we are faced with a threat and the nervous system prepares the body for “fight or flight”, the thinking part of the brain begins to shut down. Engaging in the practices above calms our body and restores thinking functions so we can make intentional instead of reactive decisions. Of course, the assumption that underlies the practice of any of these anxiety management strategies is that we “want” to change ourselves and our significant relationships for the better.

In order to facilitate lasting progress in our ability to effectively manage chronic anxiety, we would greatly benefit from routinely practicing times of reflection and posing specific questions to identify and clarify our values or convictions. During such times of reflection, we can journal, meditate, pray or talk to a confidant about recently experienced anxiety. One method to process the anxiety provoking situation is to replay the experience and ask ourselves this series of questions:

  1. What did I experience that triggered my anxiety? (For example, “My friend said something disagreeable.”)
  2. What meaning(s) did I make of the experience when I was anxious? (For example, “My friend will not like me if I disagree with him… My friend and I will get into a bad argument if I disagree with him.”)
  3. What are some feelings I felt? (For example, “I felt mad that my friend would say something like that… I felt scared that I might lose a friend.”)
  4. How did I behave in response to my anxiety? (For example, “I decided not to say anything because I did not want to upset my friend.”)

Answering these questions may not come easily at first, but with repeated practice, we can eventually get a clearer picture of our behavioral patterns when faced with chronic anxiety. The next question that arises is whether our responses have been helping or harming our relationships. If we decide that improving our relationships is of utmost importance, then we must determine the values that we want to guide our behaviors rather than have anxiety dictate our reactions. Some simple questions we can start with are:

  • What do I value? What are my core convictions or guiding principles? (For example, “I believe in speaking the truth in love… I believe in loving my neighbors.”)
  • What quality of relationships do I want? (For example, “I want my wife and children to feel safe talking to me” which would indicate value for vulnerability and intimacy.)
  • How do I want to be in relationships? (For example, “I want to be patient, accepting, non-judgmental, etc.”) 
  • What do I believe is the right thing to do in this circumstance? (For example, “Even though my friend said something hurtful, I will not respond with retribution, but will tell him how I feel in a calm voice.”)

As we increasingly become clear on the values that we want to guide our actions in the face of anxiety, we can use this newfound self awareness and understanding to enhance the times of reflection introduced earlier. By rehearsing past experiences through the lens of our clarified values, we can make meaning and decisions that more closely reflect those values when confronted with anxiety provoking situations in the future.