Anxiety can sometimes seem like a skillful actor – or maybe disguise artist. Sometimes it is crystal clear to us that we are in the grip of anxiety/fearful thinking. But sometimes anxiety wears other masks, and in doing so can muddy the water, confusing us as to why we’re feeling what we are feeling, and what we should or can do about it.

Today’s blog post mission is to clear up some confusion around the origins of and the connections between three seemingly distinct emotional states – anxiety, anger and depression. Despite the wealth of information and discussion around these topics I, your humble blog writer, will contend today that the last two, anger and depression, are simply different expressions of the cause of all three of these – our ancient ally (and now turned enemy) Flight or Flight.

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How it All Gets Started

In talking about anxiety and the road out of chronic anxiety suffering it is useful to understand that anxiety is really two things – it is the thinking that scares us in the first place AND the emotional reaction that we label “anxiety.” The root cause is that thinking – pure and simple. We cannot and will not break the hold of anxiety in our lives until our thinking changes – end of story.

But anxious thinking doesn’t constitute the entire problem. Flight or Fight, firing up in our brains and bodies in response to that anxious thinking, is what sends us running for the hills and experiencing all the emotional and physical drama that too often travels with anxious thinking. (Read my blog post HERE for a detailed discussion of Flight or Fight.)

A little review here: remember that Flight or Fight ALWAYS starts with an effort to GET AWAY from the danger we are experiencing (if we’re actually in a real, life-or-death crisis) or if we THINK we’re in a crisis (i.e., doing anxious thinking.) It’s invariably better (in the non-conscious thought, natural world) to run away from danger – because if we succeed then hey, no injury, no damage, and we live to run away another day. Running makes sense in the natural world when real danger shows up, and it is carved into our very genes, into the alarm system called Flight or Fight.

THAT running away feeling is what we call anxiety. Anxiety says “holy crap, this is scary as hell, I’d better get my frightened self OUTTA HERE.” This is why your cats jumps 8 feet in the air when you surprise him or her. This is why you get that ants-in-your-pants feeling when you get anxious, that restless, let’s get moving urge whenever you are confronted by one of your fearful thoughts (or when you are troubled by sensations or feelings from Flight or Fight when you’re not even necessarily conscious of your anxious thinking.)

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Of course the vital thing to be clear about is the difference between REAL, life-or-death danger and the perceived, in-our-thinking nature of our fear from anxious thinking. They are not the same and can’t be treated the same. One of our challenges in this work to break the power of anxiety is that Flight or Fight doesn’t really know the difference. All Flight or Fight needs is us saying in our thinking “holy crap, this is scary as hell” and it’s off and running – literally.

Anxiety = running. Great. Except in the natural world we sometimes CAN’T get away from the thing or experience that is threatening us. Sometimes we have no choice but to fight.

Anger – Anxiety’s Cousin

When we are trapped (physically or mentally) and can’t exercise the option of running (at least not yet) we escalate to anger. This again makes a hell of a lot of sense in the natural world. ANY creature will fight if cornered – because if it’s really life-or-death then fighting is the only option.

This can take a couple of forms in the natural world. This is can full-out confrontation – i.e., a fight between predator and prey, a fight between natural enemies, etc. – but it can also be anytime a creature feels threatened and assumes that there is NO other way to get what they need – i.e., they can’t run from that situation without threatening their survival. That might be competition for food supplies or defending their young.

This is why when you go to get that piece of steak that fell on the floor away from your dog or cat that they might growl or hiss at you – you’re threatening their survival, after all. This is why every creature (including even us advanced, big-brained humans) get angry, defensive, even growl when we think someone is threatening our survival (i.e., can’t get what we need another way, or can’t run away.)

We can feel every bit as trapped by our anxious thinking as well. Here’s an example: let’s say we avoid thinking about managing our money. (I know that probably doesn’t apply to YOU – for sure I NEVER had this fear…OK, actually I was terrified for years and years of dealing directly with my money/finances.)

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So maybe your direct deposit goes straight to your checking account, and you only even get close to seeing your balance when you go to the ATM to grab some cash. Otherwise you artfully glance away from the bottom-line total in your account (and so you in essence run away from the “danger” of the anxious thinking around money/finances.)

So far so good – at least as far as not dealing with your anxiety. But then you get a note from the bank that says “hey, knucklehead, your account is overdrawn! Give us some money!” Now you HAVE to deal with your dang bank account and the whole money issue. Ugh! NO! Now you get pissed off. Maybe you stomp around the house. Maybe you yell at your kids. Maybe you start crying from sheer frustration. But whatever you do you’re MAD. You’re angry because you feel threatened but you can’t run away – you have to fight this fight until the threat stops for you.

In other words anger is “holy crap, I’m being threatened and I CAN’T run. I HAVE to fight, at least until I win the fight or an avenue for running opens up.” With me so far? Anger = fighting (until the threat ends or you CAN run.)

Some of us have learned to see anger as this uncontrollable, out-of-nowhere monster that can ruin our days and mess up our relationships and lives. Some of us think anger is its own creature, a wild animal that we have to cage away and control. Not true. Anger is anxiety feeling like it can’t escape but that fighting WILL bring relief/freedom from risk. It doesn’t HAVE to be conscious. These are deeply embedded reactions.

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But the thinking that lies behind those anxious and angry response – those CAN be addressed, cleaned up, and set to rights.

There is one more member of the anxiety family – depression.

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I have a longer discussion of the nature of depression HERE and HERE. For this conversation here’s the summary: depression is essentially “holy crap, I’m feeling threatened but I can’t run and I can’t fight – I’m trapped.”

Depression is in one sense an outcome of long-term anxiety. But that explanation misses the other half of depression – the conviction that there is no hope, no future, that all options have been closed off and THIS, whatever this is, will never change, and this is BAD.

Nevertheless we have to see the connection between anxiety and depression. Depression for most of us springs from a long history of being anxious. As long as we think there is SOME way out – even through avoidance – then anxiety stays anxiety. Anxiety tips to depression when the sense of being trapped begins…

This is a MENTAL thing – a thinking thing. It is strongly amplified by Flight or Fight, but make no mistake, if we are not actually trapped in a cage then WE ARE NOT TRAPPED. Our beliefs, fears, rules, faiths, assumptions may leave us believing we are trapped – but we’re not.

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One more thing to get clear on: depression is a transient state most of the time. Much of our depression is a thing of the afternoon, or 20 minutes, or two days, or constant dipping into depression and then back out to chronic anxiety. Why do I mention this? Because, again, we are NOT trapped, and we are not doomed – not unless we can’t see through to the anxious thinking that is making us depressed in the first place…

In the blog post I mentioned above a guy named Seligman and his research homies did some experiments that would horrify a lot of people – but which taught us some crucial things about anxiety and depression. He and his cohort put some dogs in cages and then repeatedly shocked those dogs through their feet with an electrified cage bottom.

The dogs initially tried desperately to escape. No surprises there. The dogs then essentially gave up (because they had tried to escape and couldn’t) and so they just lay down and continued to endure the shocks. No surprises here either, yes?

But the big news came when the researchers opened the cage doors and continued to deliver the shocks, fully expecting the dogs to now leap out of the cages. Instead the dogs CONTINUED TO LIE THERE AND BE SHOCKED. They had become so sure they couldn’t get away from the shocks that even with a clear escape route they continued suffering… and so they had to be literally enticed out of those cages, retaught to see escape where it was possible, before they would leave the cage and the electric shocks.

Depression isn’t a mysterious thing. It doesn’t come out of nowhere and it isn’t a force by itself. It is an outcome – an outcome of thinking that we are failing, or unable to help ourselves, or doomed – and not seeing the ways out of that thinking. It is anxiety with no hope of escaping the “danger” we have talked ourselves, unintentionally of course, into…

So What’s The Answer to this Crap?

Amazingly it’s pretty straightforward. We HAVE to identify the thinking that’s scaring us. We HAVE to see where we have learned to turn problems, issues, challenges into life-or-death crises in our thinking. (Look at my next blog post to see a LOT of examples.) We HAVE to rethink Flight or Fight, to see it NOT as the enemy we’ve learned to believe that it is, but instead as a well-meaning but misfiring alarm system responding to our thinking – and that it, itself, doesn’t signal doom or is dangerous in itself.

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We HAVE to convert all those crises in our thinking BACK into what they are – problems, to be dealt with AS problems. And we have to, quite possibly for the first time in our lives, start taking decent, honest, compassionate care of ourselves.

Those last two paragraphs are what this blog is all about.

Anxiety. Anger. Depression. Three close cousins, but anxiety is the root of them all. We are not dealing with mysterious monsters when we deal with these three kinds of reactions to danger, real or (for most of our experience) simply perceived in our thinking. We do NOT have to be trapped by them, owned by them, or have our lives ruined by them. And they all get dealt with by tackling what is scaring us, in our thinking, in the first place.