Strong, meaningful relationships are necessary for our professional success and fulfillment in our personal lives. When the possibility of a rupture in a relationship occurs, it’s normal to experience a mix of emotions. These uncomfortable experiences urge us to take meaningful action to identify the issue’s root and repair the relationship. When there’s a possibility of someone being mad at us, this can make us feel particularly vulnerable and uncertain. The worry consumes our thoughts, causing us to question our words, actions, and intentions. We may replay conversations or events, searching for signs of wrongdoing. A cascade of emotions follows—anxiety, guilt, anger, and self-doubt.
When worry becomes circular, and anxiety becomes persistent, our problem-solving ability is compromised. We can do things that move us further from our goal of repairing the possible rupture.
In this article, I’ll explore worry and anxiety, how they serve us in relationships, and how they can get in our way. I’ll also explore the practical strategies that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy offers to assist in reducing unhelpful worry and reduce anxiety.
The Brain and the Uncertainty of Someone Being Mad
Our brain’s priority is to keep us alive. It scans for possible threats and aims to resolve them immediately. Our brain’s threat detection system is also extremely quick to react and is terrible with accuracy. It’s always overreacting. It values safety far over accuracy and works on the premise: “I’d rather keep us safe than be right. Let’s panic now and figure out the details later.”
Imagine what happens when an overreactive and inaccurate system encounters uncertainty. The threat detection system goes into overdrive.
When there’s the possibility of someone being mad, all our brain knows is that there’s a possibility of danger. Without specifics, it can’t plan and, therefore, can’t do its job of protecting us. The brain urges us to find certainty now!
One way it does this is by speculating:
- Did we do something wrong and not know it?
- Is this the beginning of the end of this relationship?
- Is it the other person’s issue? If so, do we want to remain in this relationship?
- How will it impact my other relationships?
Once the brain starts to speculate, it’s susceptible to getting carried away with storytelling and filling in the gaps. And a system whose sole purpose is to seek out possible threats will fill in the gaps with only negative, catastrophizing scenarios—perfect conditions for worry and anxiety.
The brain is intelligent and powerful. At the same time, as just mentioned, it’s far from perfect and biased towards the negative and danger. It’s constantly distorting reality and sending us inaccurate thoughts. Here are some examples:
- Forecasting: Forecasting is when we convince ourselves that we know with 100% certainty that a negative outcome will occur. “I know she’s mad at me, and the relationship is over.”
- Mind Reading: Mind reading thoughts convince our brain that it knows what someone else is thinking and their intentions. “I know they think I’m a terrible person.”
- Catastrophizing: Catastrophizing thoughts convince our brain that the worst-case scenario is the most likely outcome. “They’re mad at me and will convince everyone to turn against me. Work will be intolerable. I’ll have to quit and lose my entire livelihood.”
- Personalization: Personalization is when our brain overestimates our responsibility for events or situations beyond our control or that we have little control over. “Jim didn’t even say ‘Hello’ to me this morning. He must be mad at me.”
- Black and White Thinking: Black and white thinking is when our brain puts situations into simple either/or categories and doesn’t allow for any middle ground. It’s all good or all bad, nothing in between. “I didn’t say it perfectly. They’re mad at me.”
- Should Statements: Should statements place unreasonable expectations on ourselves. “I should always be able to prevent tension in relationships.”
- Negative Filter: Imagine a filter connected to your brain that only allows negative information in and even turns positive information into negative. Imagine a good friend of 15 years of trust and a strong connection. Instead of focusing on the 15 years of positive experiences, your brain fixates only on your friend not texting back yesterday.”
- Emotional Reasoning: Emotional reasoning occurs when our brain assumes that a particular emotion we’re experiencing is an accurate reflection and assessment of a situation. “I feel guilty; therefore, I must have done something inappropriate.”
It’s important to remember that thought distortions are common and normal. It’s not a sign that you’re ‘losing it’ or delusional. It’s a sign that you’re a human being with a properly functioning brain.
Imagine how these negative, distorted possibilities influence the threat detection system. They trigger it even more, and anxiety begins to snowball.
The Anxiety Cycle
When we experience anxiety, it sets off a cycle:
- Triggering event (external, internal, or a combination).
- The feeling of anxiety hits (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating, stomachaches, etc.).
- Anxious, worried, distorted thoughts.
- Urge to avoid or protect yourself against the “danger.”
- Anxiety decreases in the short term.
- Long-term maintenance of the anxiety.
Why does decreasing anxiety in the short-term reinforce it long-term?
The threat detection system learns by watching how we react when it sends us danger signals. Suppose it sees us acting in a way consistent with danger. In that case, the threat detection system learns, “This must be dangerous. I’ll continue sending danger signals in this situation in the future.” As a result, our threat detection system will activate the next time we approach the same situation (or a similar situation).
This is the anxiety cycle. It’s a reinforcing, circular trap.
There are many ways our threat detection urges us to seek safety. In the world of anxiety, we call these “safety” behaviors. These behaviors seem helpful but reinforce the anxiety cycle if there isn’t an actual or imminent danger.
Here are some examples:
- Reassurance seeking: Anxiety might urge us to excessively ask a person if they’re mad. Or encourage us to talk to other friends and excessively ask for their opinions.
- Apologizing excessively: Anxiety might tempt us to apologize repeatedly, even for minor things.
- Avoidance: We may avoid the situation and person altogether.
- Continuously Monitoring: Anxiety might urge us to closely monitor the other person’s demeanor and what they say—scanning for any possible signs of a rupture in the relationship. We might also closely monitor our behaviors and intentions with others.
- Overanalyzing and Post-processing: We may continuously replay a recent interaction, trying to remember what we said and how the person responded. Though technically, this isn’t a behavior, this mental process is aiming for certainty, which will reinforce the anxiety cycle.
- Hypervigilance: We may notice being on guard with our interactions, watching for signs that others might be mad at us.
- People-pleasing: We may start to sacrifice our own needs and overly focus on the needs and wants of others.
Now that we have an idea of how the cycle of anxiety is created and maintained let’s cover how to break the cycle.
Teaching your brain a new lesson
Before we get into specific strategies, it’s crucial to understand how the threat detection system learns.
Ultimately, you can’t control if or how your threat detection system reacts to a situation. However, there are things you can do to teach it new lessons and increase the chances that it will respond differently in the future.
Imagine going to a haunted house at a Halloween carnival. Before entering, a carnival worker pulls you aside and gives you an hour PowerPoint presentation on how safe the haunted house is: “We’ve been in business for 30 years, and not one person has ever been injured. Not even a stubbed toe!” The carnival worker intends to comfort you, hoping your “fight or flight” response won’t be triggered. However, no matter how convincing the presentation is, your “fight or flight” response will get triggered at some point inside the haunted house. Why? The threat detection system doesn’t understand language. Instead, it speaks the language of experience.
If you say to yourself, “I’m not going back in there. That was too scary,” and avoid the haunted house, you reinforce the anxiety long-term. Why? Remember, your brain is watching how you react.
By not going back in, you’re telling your brain, “The signals you sent me were accurate. I was in danger. Keep sending me the same signals in these types of situations.”
If you want to teach your brain not to react, you do the opposite: you go back inside the haunted house.
When you go back in again, your threat detection system will likely send you the same signals (and maybe even more intense signals), but it’s watching how you react. As you walk back inside the haunted house, while your brain screams, “Don’t!” you’re teaching it a new lesson. You’re saying, through your actions: “You’re wrong about this. This is a perfectly safe situation, so I’m returning, regardless of what you tell me.”
The way to step out of the anxiety cycle is to do the opposite of what it urges you to do. It’s a paradox. The more you seek “safety,” the more you reinforce anxiety long-term. The more you seek “danger,” anxiety will decrease long-term.
This concept is simple: as long as we’re not in real danger (99% of the time, we’re not), do the exact opposite of what the anxiety urges. It’s easier said than done, though.
Doing the opposite urge is scary. There’s no difference in the feeling between a false alarm and a true danger alarm. It’s just as intense and just as real.
So, it takes quite a bit of courage. Examining your automatic worry thoughts can help with this.
Make Your Worry Get Specific
When anxiety hits, automatic worry thoughts are there to follow:
- “What if I said something inappropriate?”
- “What if he tells everyone, and everyone gets mad at me?”
- “What if she shows up unexpectedly? How should I respond?”
Most of the time, we fuse with our automatic thoughts. We believe them and almost become one with the thoughts. As a result, they take us for a wild ride.
Automatic thoughts also love to stay vague. As long as they remain vague, they will remain unexamined, and we will remain fused with them. Here is an example of worry thoughts staying vague:
- Worry: “We might have said something inappropriate. Maybe he’s mad, so he’s not responding.”
- Response: “Oh no. That would be bad.”
- Worry: “Right? How will we be certain if he’s mad or not?”
- Response: “I have no idea. We could call and ask my friend who was there.”
- Worry: “Yea, but what if they’ve already been talking about it?”
- Response: “True. Let me think back. What exactly did we say?”
- Worry: “I can’t remember! This is awful. We can’t even remember what we said.”
A helpful exercise is to force the thoughts to get specific. Here’s an example of how to do that:
- Worry: “We might have said something inappropriate. Maybe he’s mad, so he’s not responding.”
- Response: “What do you mean by inappropriate?”
- Worry: “You know, something that’s not socially normal or rude.”
- Response: “If that were true, then what would happen?”
- Worry: “What do you mean? That’s a ridiculous question. Everyone knows that would be awful, and he’d be mad.”
- Response: “Ok, but why? How would it be awful if he’s mad?”
- Worry: “Well, he would cut me off completely.”
- Response: “That’s possible. And what would happen if that happened?”
- Worry: “Well, he would tell other people and talk behind our back.”
- Response: “Ok, then what would happen?”
- Worry: “I wouldn’t be able to explain myself, and everyone would turn against me.”
- Response: “Ok. Then?”
- Worry: “Well, we would lose out on potential friends and all our good existing friends.”
- Response: “And?”
- Worry: “Then we’ll live a lonely life forever.”
The more we drill down and force worry to get specific, the more we expose its flawed assumptions. It becomes less scary, and often, when we reach the bottom, we realize that we don’t want that thing to happen but that it’s improbable, and if the worst does happen, we’ll be able to handle it.
Remember, engaging in this exercise doesn’t stop the threat detection system from sending us anxiety. Instead, it gives us access to logic, which gives us more control over our behavior and urges. It gives us a greater ability to do the opposite of what anxiety urges, setting us up to teach the brain a new lesson.
Build Your Tolerance for Uncertainty
At its core, anxiety is an intolerance for uncertainty, demanding from us the impossible: certainty. Acknowledging this the moment you first notice anxiety is one of the best things you can do. By doing so, you switch off the autopilot. You move away from out of control, completely susceptible to the urges of anxiety, and move into a place where you have more power and more ability to make a conscious choice.
Building your tolerance for uncertainty is like building muscle. You already have the tolerance muscle, but anxiety has its way of convincing us not to use it. Like a muscle, you can strengthen and see results relatively quickly by intentionally and consistently exercising it.
Focusing on what you have control over
When anxiety sends us false alarms, it urges us to keep our focus on things we don’t have control over:
- Making sure our friend doesn’t get mad
- What we already said
- Others’ judgments and opinions
One of the best things you can do is to remind yourself what you have control over and focus your energy there:
- How or if I reach out to this person
- How I respond to my worry
- How I respond to my urges
- How I respond to anxiety
- What I say in the future
Don’t Engage with Automatic Worry Thoughts
Worry is a cognitive process. It’s a process of mentally engaging with thoughts about future undesirable events. You can think of worry as a two-step process:
- An automatic worry thought appears
- You engage with the thought
For example, imagine walking past a friendly coworker, and they avoid eye contact with you: “She always says ‘Hi.’ What if she’s mad at me?”
This isn’t necessarily a worry just yet. Worry occurs when we engage and put energy into these automatic thoughts:
- Trying to answer the question of whether your friend is mad or not.
- Trying to stop the thoughts.
- Judging the thoughts, “I shouldn’t be worrying about this.”
- Trying to inject other thoughts into your head, but it keeps popping back.
Instead of these things, treat automatic thoughts like background noise in a busy city. As we walk through the streets, there are sounds of construction, people talking, and horns honking. We don’t try to block out the noise or convince the construction workers to take a break. Instead, we acknowledge the sounds without getting entangled or trying to control them. We focus on our goal, letting the noise fade into the background.
All this is easier said than done, but with practice and repetition, you may notice more and more that thoughts do not determine our destiny. Thoughts are just thoughts; they are random, with no meaning or value, and completely distorted.
When hit with worry about someone being mad at us, anxiety convinces us that certainty is possible, and when we obtain it, we’ll be free from anxiety. It convinces us that we have control over the situation and must act fast. In reality, we have no control over how others react, and certainty is just an idea, not an achievable reality. By acknowledging this, we take the first and hardest step of breaking out of the anxiety cycle. The task is to accept anxiety and accept uncertainty. As we take this paradoxical attitude, we may notice anxiety loosens its grip.
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