Beware the snapping turtle
March 8, 2019 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I often snap, get inappropriately angry or assume the worst intentions of people when I'm anxious and stressed. How can I do better?

I am a high-stress, high-anxiety person. I've been working at managing it for years through all the usual methods, but as someone who got stressed out in kindergarten, I have accepted that I will never be a super chill person.

The problem is that when I get stressed out, sometimes I turn into a real asshole-- snapping at people for innocuous comments that I feel add to my stress or that I interpret uncharitably. Often I'll realize it as soon as it's come out of my mouth that I said something mean or in an angry tone. Of course I immediately apologize but the damage is done and now we have two people in a bad mood.

I have a career that mostly involves not talking to people, so I mostly keep this under wraps at the office, but I can really be a jerk sometimes to my family and partner. I feel really bad about being so irritable but when I get really stressed and anxious it's hard for me to think clearly, and I get stuck in a cycle where I beat myself up for being a jerk and then get even more stressed out. How can I do better?
posted by vanitas to Human Relations (10 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The fight or flight mechanism turns up the body's need for oxygen. This is why people shout when they are angry, they need more oxygen to fuel tissues like heart muscle, and the brain. The adrenalin rush is expensive physiologically. So, the brain is liable to tell quick social stories that anger, to push you over the brink, to step up metabolism to meet higher metabolic needs created by adrenalin overdose. I think the mood / adrenalin / anger disorder is an addiction of sorts, because it poses as reality, in order to occur and becomes a lifestyle. Adrenalin junky often refers to thrill seekers, but not often enough to people who are quick to anger. So, I say you have to preempt this with breath, and actively stalk yourself through the dance. This requires catching the whole syndrome as it sets up and breathing through it, smiling at yourself, telling yourself you are OK just breathing, you are feeding your body oxygen, through your nose and there is no need to speak. Once you get into it long enough to see the pattern, then you can start to back track into the origins of this coping or self validating mechanism. It is actually fun to work through this stuff. Doing so will save your life from self induced stress which physically helps create cardiac disease, even type two diabetes. The so called Type A personality is probably a set of social habits so ingrained as to become physiological syndromes. Figuring out how it works in you, and maybe why, should give you "magic powers" to know yourself, intervene for yourself, and recognise a lot of different coping mechanisms in others. Pleasant authenticity and autonomy is a huge luxury, but it is not expensive, just time consuming up front.
posted by Oyéah at 10:29 AM on March 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

The kind of behaviour you describe is often a component of treatable anxiety disorders or depression. Treatments for those may be more helpful than you'd think, and it's easy to think you're "not anxious or depressed, just really short tempered" for a long, long time.
posted by odinsdream at 10:58 AM on March 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

So, I say you have to preempt this with breath, and actively stalk yourself through the dance.

Meditation helps with this. I recently started using an app called Headspace that has great beginner guidance for free.
posted by diogenes at 11:02 AM on March 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Like everyone currently alive, you very probably have good reason to be angry, but you're also probably right that whoever happens to be standing next to you is usually not the real reason. I can't tell from what you write here whether you've really got a Falling Down-esque problem with this or whether you're inflating a thing that happens to everybody sometimes into a bigger issue than it really is.

Trying to become a placid, self-actualized person might work. If it doesn't, maybe this will:

Learn a few lines of a violent and dramatic aria by heart and practice belting it in exigency. Do this by watching scary things on Netflix. When you start to feel the dread of an approaching jumpscare, leap up off the sofa, throw back your shoulders, and watch intently, and as soon as the [cat jumps out of the closet/dead sister looms up roaring from the back seat/crazed Jack Nicholson leaps out of the shadows to sink an axe in poor Scatman Crothers], shriek the aria at the top of your lungs, putting all your unexpressed emotions into it and really telling the director what you think of this latest cheap shot. If you practice enough, maybe next time something startles you into a rage, you'll naturally sing instead of snapping! And who could object to that? (okay, possibly everyone, in my case.)

Also, in a moment of calm before this happens again, explain to your people that you've recognized the tendency in yourself, and explain that you're working to stop doing it. But don't beat yourself up--you already know that's counterproductive. And don't allow anyone to guilt you over it because this is natural human behavior that everybody falls into occasionally.

Everybody does this sometimes. And you're not wrong to be irritable; life is hella irritating.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:09 AM on March 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

As another high-stress, high-anxiety, snappish-when-overwhelmed person, I deal with it in different ways for my roommates/friends and partner depending on their basic personalities.

My partner and I tend to set each other off when both of us are stressed and snarly, so I try to either distract myself from whatever I'm anxietying about or go do something physical to burn off the nervy energy. I also tend to announce "I am having a brain thing, I need X" ahead of time so people know what's going on. One of my roommates is more phlegmatic and has her own anxiety issues, which manifest really differently to mine--she tends to freeze up, mentally and physically--and she tends to respond by asking me: did you eat? have you drunk anything? or by explicitly reassuring me that she is ignoring me anyway, so I can be buzzing around being high-energy and high-stressy in the background. The third roommate mostly just smiles and is like "cool, I'll readjust my expectations."

Basically, letting people know when I'm really wound up and marching out and doing something about whatever is winding me up is my strategy. (If it's a totally unreasonable worry, doing something else I can be proud of and which will distract me is fine.) That helps to undercut the shame spiral you mention. Oh, and I try to reduce whatever is overwhelming me. I have a hard time with multiple streams of auditory input, so I have carefully practiced going "hang on, wait" and pausing if someone tries to talk to me when I'm focused on a different topic.

(I am also seeing a therapist/on meds/working on the anxiety shit; if you are like me, I encourage you to go get yourself evaluated because anxiety and stress makes all this shit so much harder.)
posted by sciatrix at 11:21 AM on March 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Meditation works for me, but what's made the biggest difference is a daily commitment to exercise. I think any exercise will do, as long as it's getting your heart rate up and making you temporarily check out of your brain. I do Crossfit and banging heavy weights around every day makes a huge difference in my mood. I notice the edginess coming back after 4-5 days in a row of not going, so I try to go 5 days per week.
posted by katypickle at 11:53 AM on March 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

I grew up with a snapping parent and it is SO hard to unlearn as an adult, because I was taught that... this is how you unload your stress and anger! And it feels good to unload!

Although I have not done intense work on this specific issue in therapy, I find that therapy for my other stress/anxiety issues has helped me feel in control of the ideas that:
1- I can choose how to react when I'm stressed (I'm not doomed to do what my parent did)

2- I can acknowledge that this feels good to me but hurts everyone else, so I choose not to

3-I can accept that feeling stressed and anxious are passing states and not emergencies that must be solved by immediate lashing out

4-I accept that I am responsible for my feelings and reactions to stress (sounds silly, but a lot of us, like me, grew up learning that if you were mad or stressed, it was someone or something's fault - and counter-intuitively, it's easier to control your anger when you realize you're in charge of it)

I find that verbally admitting "I'm feeling really frustrated and stressed" relieves 90% of the tension that makes me want to snap at people.

I have not done this myself, but even something like a rubber band around your wrist that you wear for a week and gently snap when you feel the urge coming on might help physically refocus your feelings.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:57 PM on March 8, 2019 [14 favorites]

I mostly keep this under wraps at the office, but I can really be a jerk sometimes to my family and partner. I feel really bad about being so irritable but when I get really stressed and anxious it's hard for me to think clearly, and I get stuck in a cycle where I beat myself up for being a jerk and then get even more stressed out. How can I do better?

I am a similar sort of person. For me a few things, in addition to working on my general anxiety issues, were helpful

- "Gee jessamyn you can avoid snapping at the mailman but not at your partner. What is that about and shouldn't that be a red flag that you are not handling things?"
- "You can't handle how you feel but sometimes you can just note how you are feeling and give yourself some space to feel that, but where you don't need to act on it"
- "Being angry and acting out of anger are two separate but linked issues. You don't need to work on not being angry but you have to work twice as hard to not act on it."

More to the point, acknowledge that this is a YOU issue and not a WE issue with your family. Say you're sorry to them for how you've been behaving in general, say you are working on it, work on your own accountability for working on it. Do not make them help you be accountable, you do this for you.

It's easy to feel like something is not within your control "This is just how I am" but it's a lot tougher to take responsibility for your actions and work towards changing them. I don't know your gender but for me when I had a partner who was snappish (now I am more likely to be the snappish partner) it wasn't a "Now there are two people in a bad mood" situation it was a "Now I am afraid" situation an d when I had a snappish parent... I literally felt that parent was going to snap (hey he coulnd't help it! that was the line I was always fed.) and kill me. It sucked. Remembering what the felt like to kid-me has made me double-down on working on my own issues as adult-me. Meditation and learning how to observe my thoughts without being dominated by them has helped a lot.
posted by jessamyn at 2:38 PM on March 8, 2019 [10 favorites]

When I’m snappy it’s because I am thinking bad thoughts about myself (that I presume the other person is thinking, eg.: why is she so slow to complete this task, she doesn’t know the technical details etc) and my snapping is a pre-emptive attempt to get ahead of their (imagined) negativity towards me.

So, I find myself less snappy when I’m kind to myself, and don’t apply additional internal pressure and self-judgement that makes my situation worse. I’m ok as I am, doing my level best.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:26 PM on March 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

I am like this. My moods are completely out of my control, and sometimes my actions feel like they are. A small dose of an antidepressant helped cut the anxiety and make me feel like my behavior is in my control, even when I'm having very strong feelings.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:42 AM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

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