How to Defend Against Anxiety the Healthy Way
If all human action is a defense against anxiety, pick your defenses wisely.
Posted May 03, 2018
It’s not an exaggeration to say that all human action is a defense against anxiety of one kind or another.
If you go to work every day you’re likely defending against status, social, existential, or death anxiety, or some combination thereof.
Some people find this a depressing way of looking at the world. The same people, I expect, who find Buddhism a gloomy religion because it focuses on suffering.
In both cases, I couldn’t disagree more. Accepting that all human action is a defense against anxiety empowers you to engage in more purposeful action, just as accepting that "life is suffering" empowers you to suffer less.
Better and Worse Defenses Against Anxiety
If you accept that defenses against anxiety are inevitable, the question then becomes, "Are some defenses better than others?"
And the answer is a resounding yes.
Existential anxiety, or a sense of meaninglessness, for instance, is often defended against by hitting the bottle every night. But it’s fairly obvious that this defense is at best temporary, and, in the long term, highly destructive (not to mention that it will likely create more of the very anxiety it is intended to reduce). But that doesn’t stop millions of people from doing it every day.
So why do we routinely defend against anxiety in suboptimal ways?
Because the anxieties our defenses are designed to keep at bay are mostly unconscious, so we rarely see our defenses as defenses.
Anger as a Defense Against Anxiety
Take anger as an example.
On the surface anger doesn’t seem like a defense against anxiety at all. Someone insults you; you become angry. That’s normal.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that the anger is likely a defense against a more vulnerable emotion–insecurity, perhaps.
Insecurity is a more vulnerable emotion because it says something about you–that you want to be a seen as a particular kind of person and, in this instance at least, are failing to be seen as that person (thus the insult). That’s an uncomfortable fact, one you may be loath to admit, even to yourself. Much easier to get angry, because getting angry says less about you and more about the other person. That they’re rude, perhaps.
A while back the Gottman Institute produced an infographic called The Anger Iceberg, highlighting the "primary" emotions, like shame, fear, and overwhelm, that lie beneath the "secondary" emotion of anger. You can download the graphic here.
What the Anger Iceberg illustrates is how many different kinds of anxiety anger is used to defend against.
An Example of Anger as a Defense Against Anxiety
Take John, a senior manager in a large financial company, as an example.
John was recently passed over for a promotion that he had long sought and he had a mix of difficult emotions as a result. He was ashamed of how he had presented himself in the interview, hated himself for not preparing better, and was confused as to why he was not moving up in the organization like many of his peers.
He desperately wanted to reach out to his wife for emotional support but, like many men his age, he felt compelled to maintain an aura of invincibility. Real men aren’t weak and vulnerable, they’re strong and powerful, he believed. So instead of asking his wife for support when he got home at the end of the day, he angrily told her about the idiots who ran the company and the even bigger idiots who made the hiring decision, before retreating to his man cave to watch some TV.
In this example John is using anger to defend against the anxiety prompted by the more vulnerable emotions of shame, self-loathing, and confusion.
Unfortunately, neither John, nor his wife, nor his workplace wins when John defends against his anxiety in this way. His wife is left with only two choices. She can agree with him that the people who run his company are idiots, and get angry right along with him, a strategy which is unlikely to support John’s long-term career development. Alternately, she can attempt to console him, leaving herself vulnerable to John’s anger when he concludes that it is she who is making him feel weak and vulnerable (when really he already feels weak and vulnerable and she's just bringing it into conscious awareness).
So What’s the Solution?
In the example above, had John been less constrained by gender stereotypes, he could have expressed what he was really feeling to his wife, and she could have offered him emotional support. He would still be defending against anxiety, with the relationship serving as a means of assuaging the shame, self-loathing, and confusion brought on by his disappointment, but this time in a way that supports his long-term career development and the long-term growth of his relationship.
It’s unrealistic to think that we don’t have anxieties and that we don’t need to defend against them. There are, however, better and worse defenses, and the more open and accepting we are about what’s really going on with us, the more likely it is that we will find healthy defenses that contribute in sustainable ways to our own and others’ long-term growth and development.