What You Think You Are Worried About Isn’t The Problem

For people with High Functioning Anxiety, denying stress is a way of life. We pride ourselves on being able to handle stressful situations. The reason I talk about “soldiering on” and “suck it up, buttercup” is whenever I have a stressful event, those are my default phrases. Pretending as if everything is fine is a way of life for me. Sometimes, it is hard for me to directly address a stressful situation because I am so good at creating smokescreens rather than dealing with the actual problem.

Let me give an example.

I have been dealing with an emotional situation I will call it problem A, and if you asked me about it, my response would be, “I am fine” or “it is what it is.” Last week I came downstairs after a workday and was obsessing about a work situation. When I say obsessing, I mean it was all I would talk about. My Monger was loud. I was beating the problem to death, analyzing and analyzing what to do. It was consuming me, and my anxiety was through the roof. That is the first clue it was a smokescreen. Smokescreens tend to be relatively benign problems without an easy solution. Ironically THIS was the problem where the trite saying of “it is what it is” would have been useful. Instead, all I could think about was how can I fix this obsess, obsess, obsess.

Later that night, I couldn’t relax, and I immediately thought, I bet it is this work problem. But then my loving husband said, “Really?” Don’t you think it is the emotional fall out from problem A, not the work problem?” Oh no, I thought I am ok with that—it is what it is blah blah blah. And then I stopped and thought, right, that is the problem. And I realized I was creating a smokescreen to not deal with problem A because problem A was messy. Problem A had lots of emotions, and what am I supposed to do with that??

The idea of smokescreens is a psychological defense mechanism called displacement—where you take your emotion out on something ‘safe.’ I call it smokescreens because it gives me a visual of what I am doing. I am telling myself ‘look over here’ it is safer.

So now you might be thinking, ok, so what do you do about it?

A few years ago, I would give the very therapisty answer of dive deep into all the feelings problem A brings up. Dive deep and Deal with what is happening rather than creating a smokescreen.

But now I recognize diving deep isn’t always possible and isn’t always healthy. Obviously, the feelings associated with problem A are so big I don’t know how to dive into them, and is it beneficial to dive into something so big? As they say, it is like eating an elephant in one bite.

When I noticed the smokescreen was happening:

  • I give myself permission to have the smokescreen. I said to myself, “Oh Sweetpea, wow, you didn’t realize how big problem A is. I get that it is overwhelming. Smokescreens are ok as long as you know it is a smokescreen.”
  • When I notice the smokescreen taking over, I give myself permission to practice A.S.K.
  • Acknowledging the feelings from problem A. I look at the feelings sheet and name all the feelings coming up. I challenge myself to name 6-8 feelings and acknowledge they are there. If I want to express those feelings, I let myself do that with tears or screaming, or hitting a pillow.
  • Slowing down and getting into my body, doing a full-body movement, touching my toes, going for a walk, or dancing to my favorite song.
  • Kindly pulling back to see the big picture, recognizing problem A won’t take me down. It is an elephant I can eat one step at a time.
  • I don’t always do it in that order; sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I just acknowledge my feelings, sometimes I see a bigger picture.
  • I give myself permission to tap in and tap out of problem A and use the smokescreen if necessary.

Not all defense mechanisms are bad. They are there for a reason, to help us deal with problems and ideas that are too big. But unchecked defense mechanisms can increase our anxiety and make the problem bigger. Through practicing self-loyalty, we can see the defense mechanisms, be kind about it, and have our own back as we deal with hard situations.