Displaced Anxiety

Thought for the week: Displaced Anxiety (June 22, 2015)

Ever feel an enormous amount of anxiety about something that isn’t so enormous itself? Perhaps you have dealt with the situation or something similar to it before and the amount of anxiety you’re feeling doesn’t match up. Perhaps it is a new issue, but you have talked yourself through the steps and know what your plan is. Then why do you still feel so anxious? Many people have this feeling. Freud coined the term “displacement” to describe an unconscious defense mechanism used to redirect an impulse, such as aggression, onto a powerless object or target. I am using it here in a more simple form – to say we often redirect our anxiety about a much larger issue onto a smaller more manageable issue. We don’t realize we are doing this and become puzzled by the amount of anxiety we are feeling about the smaller issue. It helps to talk through with someone to determine what else might be going on. (Usually it is quite difficult to tease out underlying issues by ourselves). Once identified, you will feel much less anxious about the smaller issue. You will, however, be aware of the undercurrent of a larger issue. The relief of knowing what it is may be enough. Or you may benefit from taking a more in depth look at the larger issue.

Another consideration is when a smaller recent incident triggers memories of a similar previous difficult experience. Again, this often happens automatically beneath the radar of our awareness. Unfortunately, we don’t get to decide what is similar – our brains do it automatically. Our amygdala takes over, impacting the levels and types of stress hormones to match the size of that previous issue – leaving us feeling more anxious then we think we should be about the current issue. The trick in dealing with this is, as above, realize what is going on. You don’t necessarily have to identify the original triggering memory here. Just knowing that you are having an overreaction is enough. Then, talk to your brain. Thank your amygdala for trying to warn you and protect you, but that you are fine and have this current issue under control. People often laugh at the idea of this but it works and works even better as you use this tool over time.