Anxiety over anger
March 10, 2015 10:12 PM   Subscribe

Whenever somebody is angry with me, regardless of whether they are a co-worker or a person I am dating, I tend to experience major anxiety and panic. One of my parents was emotionally/verbally abusive as a child and I am hyper-sensitive to displays of anger. What can I do about this? How can I learn to be less terrified of people being angry at me?

Here is an example to illustrate my point. Today at work, 2 coworkers were talking loudly. I voiced (for the first time since I've started the job) that I needed to concentrate on an assignment, and asked calmly and politely if they would move to another room to continue the conversation. One co-worker was visibly angry, and left, slamming the door to our office as he did. I felt very nervous after the interaction-- shaky and sick to my stomach and am now having difficulty focusing on other things and keep on replaying the interaction.

I don't want to keep on reacting this way to anger, are there any resources that might help? Or any advice you might have that could be useful in these situations? (fwiw I already have a therapist)
posted by twill to Human Relations (21 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I can't help with that as I had the same upbringing and respond the same way as you now.

But wtf with the door slamming?? That's not you, that's aggressive and reportable.
posted by taff at 10:21 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should quickly add two things.

1) In these situations I tend to become very fixated on, "how can I make the angry person not-angry with me anymore?", regardless of whether or not my actions were inappropriate or rude or whatever.

2) I would also love to hear from people who feel like they have have a positive or at least healthy relationship with angry.
posted by twill at 10:36 PM on March 10, 2015

Best answer: The anger is not actually your problem; it's merely a trigger for the actual problem, which is the state of terrified anxiety that a trigger can provoke.

Focus on improving your skill at recognizing a terror state and talking yourself down.

This will not be easy, and it won't come quickly. Childhood trauma predisposes adult brains to keeping the fight-or-flight response on a hair trigger, and you may well find that this is something you'll always carry to some extent. But as you get better at noticing it, naming it, feeling it in your body and breathing your way through it, you should eventually come around to viewing your particular triggers as something more akin to unexpected encounters with awful farty smells than actual threats to life and limb.

shaky and sick to my stomach and am now having difficulty focusing on other things and keep on replaying the interaction.

Shakiness and nausea are both direct physiological effects of a sudden dump of adrenalin. When you experience that, and notice that you're doing a thought loop on the events immediately prior to the dump, gently remind yourself that what you're feeling is just your body doing its thing and that it will pass; check your environment for actual immediate threats to life and safety; then if there are none, stop whatever else you're doing, and take the time to focus on keeping your breathing calm and regular until you can feel the adrenalin effects begin to wear off.

Feeling suddenly terrified is profoundly unpleasant. Re-experiencing the trigger moment over and over in a thought loop makes it more unpleasant. Practise steadying that runaway horse and your body will thank you.
posted by flabdablet at 10:38 PM on March 10, 2015 [25 favorites]

Best answer: When Anger Scares You: How to Overcome Your Fear of Conflict and Express Your Anger in Healthy Ways is an excellent book that address this very subject in concrete ways.
posted by jaguar at 10:40 PM on March 10, 2015 [19 favorites]

The reason I think this is your best course, by the way, is that other people's anger is not something you can control, or even actually influence much. Your own bodymind's internal processes, on the other hand, absolutely are.
posted by flabdablet at 10:40 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

(flabdablet is absolutely right, and despite the title, the book I recommended does also talk, extensively, about how to manage one's anxiety in the face of other people's anger.)
posted by jaguar at 10:42 PM on March 10, 2015

Best answer: Practise steadying that runaway horse.
Yep, awareness (that the horse is bolting) and practise at an appropriate thought and action response ("i can't control their anger but I can control my response by focusing on my breathing") is your way foward here.

My personal favourite quote about this is:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Viktor E. Frankl
Find that space between the stimulus to your anxiety, and your response to it, and you will find the space to control it.
posted by Kerasia at 12:58 AM on March 11, 2015 [12 favorites]

I find taking a step back, mentally speaking, to be really helpful. When you're having a really strong emotional reaction, it seems to cover your mental sky like a gigantic cloud. But the cloud is up in the sky, not down on the ground where you are. There's a gap, which you can find by drawing your attention away from the sky and onto the buildings around you. When you're really scared, name (out loud if possible) 5 distinct things you can see, 5 you can smell, 5 you can hear, 5 you can taste and 5 you can touch. Doing this will help you root back into the ground. The clouds are still there, you're just not giving yourself neck ache staring up at them. The more you do this, the more you'll become aware of what's going on in the outside world, which will help you relax.

You might find the word "desensitisation" a useful one to google. Wikipedia link. It's a process through which people expose themselves to the stimulating [thing], but in a very small and controlled way. So, if someone is scared of spiders, they might look at a picture of a spider. Then they sit until their fear reaction passes away. It's key to sit with the picture until after the point at which you're no longer scared by it. This teaches your brain that there's another option than the adrenaline response. When the individual is no longer bothered by the picture, they might watch a video of a moving spider, again sitting with the fear until it's gone. They work their way up, small step at a time, until they're no longer scared of spiders at all.

You might also benefit from reading up on the Buddhist concept of acceptance, re #1. You can't control another person's emotions. Acceptance is about seeing things as they actually are, and losing the aspect of "this is how I want them to be".
posted by Solomon at 3:31 AM on March 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

For the record: the person who became visibly angry and slammed the door is in the wrong, and owes you an apology.

And speaking of apologies, don't give in to any urge to apologize to the angry person. Part of dealing with your issue is going to be standing up for yourself and not falling into some easy 'quick fix' that involves you accepting the blame for someone else's bad behavior.

(If the door-slammer comes by and apologizes to you, I'd advise being gracious and accepting it - but also let them know that that kind of behavior doesn't sit well with you. The idea isn't to start an argument and trigger a new round of behavior - just let them know these kinds of displays make you upset).
posted by doctor tough love at 5:30 AM on March 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You need to internalize that other people's anger is not your responsibility. You control your own feelings and reactions, but you can't control theirs. There are lots of ways you can do this, like:
- Read helpful books and articles like those listed in the comments here
- Therapy
- Study meditation or relaxation techniques that will allow you to recognize and calm the signs of anxiety in your own body (such as rapid breathing, tensing of muscles, feeling like you have a lump in your throat)
- Practice breathing deeply and taking a mental time-out after someone expresses anger
- Read or learn about loving-kindness and compassion for others, including the concept that when someone expresses anger they are in pain, and you can give them compassion rather than reacting with fear
- Think about someone you know who lets anger roll off their back; what would they do?
- Try to let go of other people's anger without dwelling on it; don't ask the door slammer for an apology, just move on, acknowledging that we all sometimes do things that are not appropriate or polite even though we generally have good intentions.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:09 AM on March 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

Progressive exposure - maybe watch tv or a movie with an anger-prone character. Make yourself look at their face and remain calm as they act angry. Get used to seeing anger and not taking it personally.

It sounds like somewhere along the line you've learned "they are angry" = "I get hurt." You need to break that association.

For example at work. If a coworker so much as lays a finger on you out of anger, you get to go to HR or call the police. Sit in that. Marinade in it. Feel it to be true. If they harm you, you get put an assault charge on his or her ass. So instead of "no don't hurt me" it's "yeah? go ahead and try it buddy. I'll have your ass up in HR so quick it'll make your head spin."

Like you I've had a knee-jerk reaction to anger but I've mostly made peace with it now. By allowing myself to feel angry, and accepting others are sometimes angry, and like I said above, deeply realizing that other people's anger does not threaten the safety of my person.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:16 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is me. I grew up in a house with a lot of yelling and a parent who would sort of "sic" the other parent on me and (try to) keep me in line by implying that the other parent might hurt me. I only got smacked a few times, but it was enough to keep me sort of constantly terrified. It was no way to live. I grew up and made my peace with my parents (forgave but did not forget) and now I am a grown up woman who is sort of lizard-brain afraid that someone might hurt me when there are people who get visibly and somewhat out-of-control angry around me. I'm hypervigilant, easily spooked. I'm also in therapy and it's been really helpful.

So for a long time I worked on my own anxiety which was helpful. The less anxious I am generally, the more I can manage my feelings generally, whatever they are. Because, yeah, most people's anger responses are outside of my control and there isn't a lot I can do about that. Normal anxiety advice applies: lower stress levels through exercise, eating better, getting sleep, maybe medication.

Then I worked on my responses to other people's anger. This varied depending on whether they were angry at me, or just acting out in my space (and I further divided "angry at me" into "with a good reason" and "with no good reason"). Tips are ones you probably know: acknowledging my feelings without having to act on them ("Wow that person was a jerk and that was scary.... okay moving on...."), supporting myself with rational thoughts ("I know that felt bad but you are not in danger") and getting support from other people which is more helpful than you might think, to have someone else say "What? That guy at the office was shouting and slammed a door, that's super not okay. I'm sorry you had to deal with that" I did not know when I was a kid what anger was maybe okay and what was bullshit. I just had to deal with all of it and be frightened all the time. I feel so sorry for that poor kid me but I am not that kid anymore.

And now I'm working on actually trying to limit the anger/frightened feeling to begin with. With limited success. I try to notice when I'm having that adrenaline-dump feeling and see if there's a way I can redirect it. Move into a "The way that person acted was not okay" and not some frightened "I AM IN DANGER" feeling. Get to a "shake it off" place earlier. Try to not meet anger with anger not because I'm holding it in--I can be a very angry person because I have a lot of righteous indignation at people who "put me" in these positions--but because I'm learning to let my anger leak out my ears more. I give people the secret finger in my car and then move on and don't hold my anger at other bad drivers close to me. It's hard because it's a familiar and almost comforting feeling but it's corrosive and worse for me than any other not-me person.

As a side effect, I'm also better at standing up for myself in difficult situations like the one you describe where I have to deal with someone's uncool anger. I can be more "Hey man not cool" and less "AAAAAAAAA" about it. It gives me a bigger and better toolkit.

tl;dr a lot of it for me has to do with acknowledging the root of some of these feelings and trying to be kind to Kid Me who didn't have any better options and did the best she could, and then moving on to grown-up me who has more and better options.
posted by jessamyn at 7:16 AM on March 11, 2015 [22 favorites]

sort of lizard-brain afraid

sort of exactly lizard-brain afraid.
posted by flabdablet at 7:42 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's basically PTSD. EMDR helped me with this, in about 3 sessions. It's magic for the people it works for but some people it doesn't work on, plus some EMDR therapists suck, so there's that. I lucked out and got a good one first try. I would guess most PTSD focused therapies would help though.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:13 AM on March 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

For something really practical, make sure you breathe through the fear/anxiety (meaning, don't supress it). Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts. Breathe out for four counts, hold for four counts. Repeat. Do this for a while until you recover your equilibrium.

Make friends (or at least acquaintances) with your own anger (is it possible that one reason we are so afraid of other people's anger is that we are not comfortable with our own anger? I think women especially tend to imagine that being angry at someone is a violence toward that person). I've practiced this by laying in bed at night and letting myself be angry. No one is getting hurt, you're just laying there with your eyes closed and letting yourself feel, really feel, some anger/hatred. It's ok too to picture a person you're angry with and direct those feelings towards them. These are 'ugly' feelings that we as women are not supposed to feel. Prove to yourself that feeling them does neither you nor anyone else any harm.

Sort-of CBT - Ask yourself, 'So what if this person is angry at me? What's the worst that can happen here? They can't hurt me, so is it really so bad if they don't like me and think bad things about me?'
posted by kitcat at 10:22 AM on March 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am the same way. When someone gets angry at me I go into shock for a few moments and then burst into tears.
If I see people physically fight I pretty much have a panic attack.
posted by shesbenevolent at 10:25 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First, I'm sorry you're feeling this way.

I grew up with a verbally abusive parent too. When I was a teenager, I wanted everyone to like me, even if I didn't like them. The thought of someone hating me for God knows what reason was a constant assault. Perhaps a typical teenage reaction. But, as I got older, I would spend a good deal of time after an interaction such as you described trying to tell if it was "them" or "me," that is, was I to blame? What a waste of my energy.

But something happened to me when I reached a certain age. I suddenly *believed* that I was old enough and had had enough life experience to deserve some amount of respect from others. This change surprised me. I didn't think I had it in me. But it was the age thing. It happened around age 60. I hope you don't have to wait that long.

I would totally agree with the notion that anger is a trigger. What kitkat said above is important: becoming aware of your breathing is the first step. I believe what happens when that anxiety is triggered is your brain is telling you to breathe in short breaths so oxygen can be diverted to your limbs in case you have to fight or flee. You feel sick to your stomach because all the energy your body uses to digest food gets diverted to help you fight or run. Taking deep breaths can calm that process. And if you feel like you actually can control your reaction, that will help lessen the occurrences and the effects of your anxiety.

It's a process, like physically exercising.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:02 PM on March 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

I got really fantastic advice to my somewhat-related question: I was having a hard time dealing with argumentative/angry/combative patrons at the library where I work. The advice about giving myself a few minutes to take some deep breaths, maybe go get a drink of water or something, until the adrenaline wears off was really helpful. It's still tough to have someone's ire directed at me, but I can shake it off much more easily now.
posted by sarcasticah at 3:07 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was like this my whole life. Even the slightest whiff of anger sent my stomach churning and made my armpits get drenched with sweat. Honestly, even emotions that were even less intense than anger got me going this way (irritation, annoyance, criticism etc.) I felt my discomfort with other people's discomfort physically, in my body. I thought I was just sensitive and empathetic. I did get pretty good at charming people, which was sort of a necessary adaptive measure, seeing as anyone expressing ANY negative emotions towards me EVER basically made me want to die.

This winter I had a depressive episode linked to some rough stuff going on in my life and I started SSRIs. Honestly I wasn't even thinking about the anxiety. But, miraculous side effect...almost all the bad bodily sensations that I'd assumed were just the price of being alive in the world went away. Subjectively, the change feels about 20% mental and 80% physical. I still get upset about things, obviously, and I'm still empathetic (I hope) but the horrible cloud of physical discomfort that surrounded so many of my interpersonal interactions vanished. I think it's pretty clear, in retrospect, that I have an anxiety disorder. I dealt with it for 30 years with all the techniques that people above have described - mindfulness meditation, exercise, others like alcohol & avoidance. I did a good job! I coped! But the medication made a world of difference.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:07 PM on March 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

One co-worker was visibly angry, and left, slamming the door to our office as he did.


our office

The last time i saw someone act this way on the job, it was when i was a cashier and fry cook at a fast food place where most of the staff was stoned, had anger problems, and drank malt liquor almost every day.

In an office?

Someone needs to be reported to management, HR, whatever for being unprofessional. Even at the ridiculous laidback(and at times really unprofessional) office/warehouse mishmash i work at now this would NOT be tolerated. People have been fired for acting like this.

While you can control your upsetness at this behavior, this is not normal OR acceptable behavior. This person should be getting punished by your workplace. I wouldn't be shocked if someone got fired for acting that way, is what i'm saying. That's how not ok it is.

I'll also note that i feel like i have an ok relationship with anger, and no real PTSD about this kind of thing... but that behavior would upset me and make me feel that way at least for a bit, unless it was obviously just a tantrum and something i could laugh at. Your response to that kind of violent angry behavior is not as abnormal as you think. I mean i realize you listed other examples, and have a general problem with this sort of thing, but i just wanted to attack that one head on. Your compass might be pointing as far off of north as you seem to believe.
posted by emptythought at 5:01 PM on March 11, 2015

I'm also hyper-sensitive to anger. I respond with anxiety attacks (shaky voice and hands, short breaths, pounding heart, etc) and go into flight mode. Just knowing that someone doesn't like me can be enough to trigger a reaction. I grew up with an out-of-control sibling and ended up with mild PTSD. I feel for you and it's great to read this thread. There's some really helpful advice here.

I also recommend really understanding what your body is doing because that may help you to control it in the future.

I'm rooting for you and hope to get better at this, too.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 8:13 PM on March 12, 2015

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