I recently saw the movie “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” about a man dealing with some serious anger toward someone he cared about. The movie featured Tom Hanks as the beloved Mr. Rogers and his diligent work teaching kids how to deal with ‘big feelings’.
Since anger is one of the most destructive feelings, Mr. Rogers felt it was important to teach kids how to deal with it from a very young age. He felt, rightly so, that if children could be taught to deal with anger and the underlying feelings that drive anger, the world would be a better place.
It was kind of funny because when I saw the movie, I was actively dealing with my own anger toward a situation where someone was justifiably angry with me. I was trying to understand why we were both so angry, and why my attempts to make it better were making things worse.
Although all feelings are complex, there is a hidden component to anger that makes it much harder for us to work out.
That hidden component: fear/anxiety. Fear of the unknown, loss of control, being powerless, being misunderstood, being hurt. The list goes on and on. Most people don’t want to admit to being afraid or anxious, let alone be so vulnerable as to reveal their deepest darkest fears.
If you happen to be dealing with some serious anxiety to begin with, and a challenging situation comes up, maybe it’s an argument with a co-worker, friend or spouse, that anxiety will creep in and hijack your prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that makes decisions, determines threats, and controls impulse), and you will to react, say, think and do things impulsively leaving an emotional mess behind you, and to make matters worse, now you have pissed off your co-worker, friend or spouse.
How does this happen?
An overly anxious brain does not process information in a logical manner. It loses the connections that help us to see the big picture, manage emotions, and walk through both conscious and unconscious decisions.
To make things worse, when the prefrontal cortex goes offline because of that high anxiety and we go to the primal brain, we are in ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’. We are in survival mode, so things happen very quickly.
Fight, Flight or Freeze is pure instinct, with little conscious thought. People with anxiety, especially severe chronic anxiety (very common in the Neurodiverse and those with PTSD/trauma) tend to go to the ‘Fight’ reaction first. Although ‘Flight’ and ‘Freeze’ are also, common, I will discuss those reactions in a future post as they present their own set of unique problems.
In the movie, an important point is made that often times anger is manifestation of fear. A fact that many of us are not only not aware of, but find it hard to admit to or see clearly.
This is how anxiety leads us down the path to anger:
Then… and this is the kicker, to make things worse, we often feel bad about our over reaction. We may try to fix it, but because we are still fueled by anxiety, the prefrontal cortex is not engaged and we continue to make poor decisions and say all the wrong things.
Once we peak, usually after relational damage has been done and we are standing in the wreckage, we begin to spin. We go over and over what we said, what they said, what we did and what we should have or could have said or done differently. Or we just spin around in the blame game. A game everyone loses.
This is often where the ‘Flight’ or ‘Freeze’ part of the survival cycle kick in and we either bury the hurt or hide from it hoping it won’t sneak up on us unexpectedly sometime in the future.
Everyone is different, but with anxiety, ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ are the road map for how people react to things that trigger fear. It’s just how our brains are wired.
Some people will freeze first, some will run first, but it’s all there and it’s especially horrible when you add in the guilt because you know you made it worse by something you said or did.
During the credits of the movie, there is a voiceover where Mr. Rogers says “Sometimes good people do bad things.”
This is a good message for all of us (deeply flawed humans) to remember, but especially for those who suffer from anxiety and for those who have relationships with anxious people.
The heartbreaking truth is that people with chronic or severe anxiety are often people who are Neurodiverse or have suffered from trauma or abuse (too often both) and this cycle of anxiety/conflict/anxiety causes even more pain because it damages relationships and trust, often in the very relationships that are most important to the person with trauma.
If you are struggling with intimate relationships or building trust, I recommend you read this.
Impulsive reactions do ruin friendships and piss people off. But there is hope, and over time skills can be learned and we can and do (with a little wise effort) get much better at accessing the logical non reactive part of the brain during times of duress, and that’s when anxiety can be reduced and managed. Relationships can be repaired.
If you live with anxiety, it’s important to know that you are not a bad person, but sometimes, when your anxiety gets out of control, you might make bad decisions simply because you haven’t learned to connect with that part of your brain yet.
It’s also important to know that you can do things to prevent getting into those situations in the first place. Some of this may require a good therapist who can teach you the skills to deal with and manage your anxiety, create healthy boundaries or be more clear about what your feelings and needs are.
Here are some of the best ways to prevent an anxiety crisis from causing permanent damage to relationships:
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Hi! I’m Yvette Marie a Thought Wrangler (an intellectual nomad looking for understanding and hope in all things). I created this blog space because I believe Flexibility and Flow in Neurodiversity is not only possible, but necessary for living a full life of health and wellness.