How to Engage Effectively with an Anxious or Angry Person
Respond the right way, at the right time.
Posted May 20, 2020
We become “stressed out” for many different reasons and in many different ways. Escalating behavior is integrally related to the internal experience of anxiety. Understanding this is the fundamental key to responding well to these behaviors.
Ideally, we learn to self-soothe in constructive ways that mitigate emotional distancing or self-destructive behavior. Because we are not always able to self-soothe, sometimes we need others to offer support.
Perhaps we regularly experienced aggression or isolation from caregivers as a young child. Perhaps we have experienced a particularly traumatic event in our lives that we have yet to grieve or experience some form of resolution. Or perhaps we are presently in the midst of an extraordinarily tumultuous time or relationship. We may simply have learned or in some way be predisposed toward a wide emotional range.
The most effective approaches to offering support to an emotionally distressed or behaviorally volatile person are sensitive to their degree of anxiousness. Let’s start with “typical anxiety.” If there were an “anxiety meter” from 1-10, then “typical” is a 1, maybe sometimes a 2. We all have low levels of neurochemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine flowing in our brains and low levels of hormones like cortisol and oxytocin in our blood that help us function by feeling things that aid us in our social-relational world. It is critical to understand that both what is being felt and experienced as well as what is being observed has neurophysiological and hormonal undercurrents.
When we notice someone showing signs of frustration, the most effective approach is supportive and nonreactive. Behavior may begin showing some slight deviations from what is acceptable or normal. If we can notice feeling nervous, antsy, or irritated at a two, three, or four on the proverbial anxiety meter, then we may likely be able to independently self-soothe.
With others, including kids, our best hope approach at this point is to notice their anxiety and to offer support without being too rigid, directive, or physical, with minimal intervention and provided alongside expressions of empathy and availability.
When anxiety has reached a 5 or 6, we begin to lose our ability to reason and be clear-headed to the same extent that we are feeling this nervous energy inside of us. If we are half-way up the anxiety scale, we have also moved half-way down the scale of reason.
Here it may be helpful to offer a bit of clear-headed perspective, which a defensive individual may not otherwise be able to come to very well themselves at this point. If this is done, it is best done while remaining in a nonreactive, nonjudgmental posture. During this time it may also be helpful to become more directive. Directing includes communicating clear limits, offering clear choices, and clarifying consequences.
Sometimes we witness in others a significant loss in rationality. This is when we may see physical acting out in its varying forms. I would call this a seven, eight, or nine on the anxiety meter. Remember, then, the level of reason, likewise, may be down to a 2 or 3! The most effective approach to this behavior requires remaining firm but non-aggressive.
When a person reaches an emotional pinnacle, they begin to decompress and experience some downer emotions. Now that the flood has dissipated, there may be crying and other compensatory behaviors. After such flooding, our neurophysiological system responds in ways that help us cool back down. We may experience a kind of catharsis, or release of tension.
Here, it is not unusual to try desperately to reason things out in ways that justify whatever behavior we have just engaged in. This is because our reason meter is slowly and steadily rising as our anxiety is reaching back down to a safe level. Because of the way our brains work, it is likely at this point that an individual is going to continue in this direction, from volatility toward vulnerability, although perhaps with a few small aftershocks.
It is important and most effective at this point to proceed with empathy and active listening. In addition, especially with our own children, whether young or teen-aged, it may be helpful to engage in a review of what just happened or even provide a firm challenge to the irrational reasoning that aided and abetted their behavior along the way.
It is helpful to be proportionately responsive to someone aggressing, panicking, or disengaging according to their stage of emotional distress. Understanding our own underlying emotions during such moments increases our capacity for empathy and resilience.