Managing Anxiety: Recognizing Your Defenses

Each of us has developed ways to defend against anxiety. The logic is very simple: being anxious, or being in an anxious situation, is uncomfortable, so we do what we can to avoid it. This is why we might turn the corner when we see someone we know walking down the street—that person might make us uncomfortable, even if we are friendly with them, so we make a little adjustment to avoid confronting them. Other times, we might avoid going into our bank account because every time we do, we become anxious about what we see.

Avoidance is not the only way to insulate ourselves from anxiety, however. A long time ago, Freud alerted us to the various ways people escape uncomfortable psychic material—things like repression (pushing down), sublimation (using the energy for constructive rather than destructive purposes), reaction formation (doing the opposite of what our impulses tell us), et cetera.

It is important to recognize your characteristic ways of defending against anxiety. There is a good chance you already know about them. Perhaps you have been told that you’re a “flake” because you cancel or no-show last minute—if so, perhaps your method is avoidance. Or you are overly nice and obsequious toward your boss, even though deep down you dislike him or her. That would be reaction formation. Maybe you go to the gym all the time and hit the punching bag after you see your partner. That would be displacement.

It’s not important to know the term, only the pattern. Recognition of the pattern can help you decide when the pattern is helpful, and when it is harmful.

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