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The Tyranny of Anxiety: How People Control Others with Anxiety and How to Stop
The snow was piling up and Maggie paced the floor. She was so anxious, she started to feel as though she were getting a heart attack. One time, she went to the E.R. thinking that she really was having some kind of cardiac episode but after a night full of tests, they told her she was “just” having a panic attack.
Harrumph. They should only have one and then see if they still have the nerve to say it’s “just” a panic attack, she thought. These things are not small potatoes. And now it was happening again. She kept looking out the window. “Where is he?” She repeated to herself almost like a mantra. “Where is he?” It started to look almost like a choreographed sequence: First, she’d look out the window; then she’d pace a little; then she’d repeat her question to no one there, and then back to the window.
When Ethan walked in the door, she shrieked. Then Maggie threw her hands over her face and burst into tears. Ethan was 1 hr. 15 min late. Given the weather conditions, that wasn’t bad. But for Maggie, the first minute he was not home on time, the worrying began.
Ethan cradled her in his arms. They’d been through this before. “It’s a good thing you married me,” he crooned, “because I understand you.”
“Yes, you do,” Maggie sobbed, “and that’s why I got frantic when you weren’t home on time.”
Ethan smiled benignly. He could afford to be relaxed. After all, he knew where he’d been. He only got equally upset when he didn’t know what was going on. Then it would be Maggie’s turn to soothe him. Because of their shared anxiety, they understood each other well.
But understanding somebody doesn’t mean you enjoy being caught up in the hysteria. Ethan had high blood pressure and the beginning of a heart condition. The doctor had already warned him about medication if he couldn’t de-stress in time. So far, Maggie didn’t have medical problems, but they were only in their 40’s. With time, the stress would catch up with Maggie, too.
Maggie and Ethan had learned some powerful coping mechanisms early in life to deal with stress. Maggie found that if she worried a lot and wrote down all the things that she had to worry about, it helped. Ethan discharged his stress by blowing up every once in a while. His blowups were quite extraordinary. One time, their middle son, Arthur, described it this way: “On a scale from 1 to 10, my mom’s anxiety is only about a 4. But it’s a constant 4. You can’t get away from it and it ruins your day to be near it. So I avoid my mom. My dad, on the other hand, is capable of a 10, an out-and-out 10. But his blowups only happen maybe once a month or even two months. So, although you don’t know when they’re coming, it’s more pleasant to be around him the rest of the time.”
Arthur added, “I’ve figured out, more or less, how to keep my dad from exploding. I’ve learned that when he gets an idea in his head, I can’t question him. I just accept it. What I do is kind of tune out because if I really listened and really thought about how I may not agree with his idea, it makes me sick. So I just don’t pay much attention to it and I agree.”
The other children had learned the same lesson. The problem was that the older ones were young, married men and women who didn’t quite know what they liked or wanted. They’d practiced for so long containing their own ideas and preferences so as to still the volcano—that they were no longer quite sure who they were.
And it wasn’t just their dad’s explosions that taught them to subdue their own opinions and preferences; their mother’s panic accomplished the same thing. After all, they certainly didn’t want to be the ones responsible for their mother having one of those near-cardiac anxiety attacks.
Needless to say, these children also picked up their parents’ anxiety over little things; growing up in a stress-filled house, how could it be otherwise? Thus, Maggie and Ethan’s love was interlaced with nervousness, fear, explosions, and periods of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Basically, the anxiety ended up tyrannizing the whole family. What’s more, the married children passed both the anxiety and the self-annihilating coping skills to their own children.
This stress-laden perception of life was something that Maggie and Ethan learned in their own families of origin; it’s how they grew up and they could not have known there is another way of viewing life.
Other problems develop when the anxiety is a way of life: Anxious people could come to think that people who do not fret and stress over things are not as responsible as they are. They could believe that their way of raising their children is healthy since it’s all they know and they could draw the conclusion that others who don’t hover over their offspring are remiss.
You see, a by-product of anxiety could be a coping mechanism whereby people are super-organized and planful. This is great, except when it goes overboard and people who are not like that are deemed wrong. Because the call to keep anxiety at bay is so strong, anyone who doesn’t operate that way will tend to be misjudged.
The tyranny of anxiety is far-reaching. If you are the victim of such tyranny, it’s never too late to let your spouse or other family member know that it is damaging and it needs to stop. The nature of anxiety, however, is such that it can’t just be stopped because you wish it would. Three very specific steps are needed to get control of automatic responses:
1. Breathing, yoga, or relaxation. When we are anxious, a cascade of responses occur in our bodies and brains including the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, increase in blood pressure, decrease in blood to the cerebral cortex area so that analytical thinking is reduced, rapid heartbeat, and sweaty palms. Along with these goes rapid breathing. All these symptoms are the result of the cortisol giving directions to the body and brain to get excited and upset. However, slow breathing is incompatible with rapid breathing so once you get your breathing under control, the body is now “told” that you are no longer under attack and you can relax. The cortisol decreases and the other symptoms subside. Thus, a small and silly thing like breathing plays a major role in learning how to prevent the symptoms from taking control.
2. Thought-stopping. Cognitive behavioral therapy is responsible for this innovation; it’s been used for nearly 50 years with great results. While you are calming yourself with the deep breathing, be sure to change your thoughts so that you don’t fight against your attempt to reduce the stress. In other words, the thoughts are the origin of the stress. The anxiety doesn’t just come out of a clear blue sky. It is a bad habit, like cigarette smoking. The way to stop the unhelpful thoughts is (a) to tell yourself to stop those thoughts, and (b) to substitute healthy thoughts instead. The healthy thoughts don’t even have to be related to the topic at hand: a nice day fishing, your grandchildren, your children when they’re delightful, accomplishments at work, the new dress, the new car, whatever puts a smile on your face.
3. Refrain from injuring those around you by expressing the unhealthy thoughts. Imagine burying those thoughts instead! Even later, when you are calm, those thoughts can come back to raise a rukus, so don’t let them into your mind and certainly don’t verbalize them. They do no one any good.