The other day, I was cleaning the kitchen with my hands full, one holding the milk, the other emptying the dishwasher. Full Mom Mode, multitasking everything. I’m bustling from one end to the other, wiping the counter, putting away cutlery, simultaneously dodging my children as they break my ‘no running in the kitchen’ rule.
Actually the rule is colloquially known as ‘GET OUT OF MY KITCHEN, I SWEAR TO GOD’ in my house, but I’m not quibbling over syntax.
While I’m getting ketchup and leftovers back into the fridge, I’m also raising my voice above the Frozen 2 soundtrack and my kid’s shrieks so I can outline our childcare needs to my husband for the week. We’ve had some changes in our schedules, and I’ve got a total of four different entities involved in the act of keeping my children occupied throughout the day – a morning babysitter for the bus that is perpetually too LATE to accommodate my schedule at work, an evening babysitter to manage the pick up at the end of the day which is too EARLY to accommodate my schedule at work, plus day care for my youngest and the school itself for the eldest. Say nothing of the myriad of friends, family and relatives who have stepped in when we can’t to pick up all the slack (for which I am exceedingly grateful).
My husband and I both work full time, and a sick day or a bus cancellation (or a school strike) can leave us scrambling. It feels like a full time job itself just accommodating for the fact… that I have a full time job. So let’s just suffice to say it’s a balancing act to keep all of these people up to date, paid and planned on any given week. A herculean effort that sometimes makes me feel a bit like I have the equations from Rainman drifting around my head while I try to schedule it all out appropriately.
With my husband’s schedule shifting, and me working some nights after hours to accommodate groups I run in the evening, I was trying to explain to him exactly what my plans were. At the same time I’m balancing my attention with the 5 year old dashing by while I pick a knife out of the dishwasher, or the 2 year old heading straight for the open fridge door but too busy spinning in circles to ‘Into the Unknown’ to see it.
Hubby innocently interrupted me to clarify a point and I lost it.
I felt an absolute tsunami style wave of heat, irritation and adrenaline crash over me all at once, and it swept me right under. It felt like it came out of nowhere. One minute, I’m rinsing the washcloth, and then the switch gets flipped and I’m transforming into this Rage Monster that could put Dr. Banner and Dr. Jekyll to shame. I could taste angry words on the back of my tongue begging to pour out of my mouth, my hands wanted to clench into fists and use all this boiling tension to destroy something. I could almost hear my last thread of patience snapping.
I slammed my hands on the counter, head bowed and used every scrap of restraint I had left in my body not to storm out of the room, or scream at my bewildered family. I tried to contain the Hulk as best I could. But I still ended up snapping at my partner, hissing nastily about how I could never even finish a single sentence and maybe if he just listened and let me get to the end of my damn thought, I’d be able to answer his question. My voice raised louder and louder until I was practically snorting just to keep up the facade I had any will power at all.
Lightning flashed, thunder struck, and I could taste the sawdust in my mouth from grinding down my molars.
The room got deadly silent after that, and I think I even scared our Google Home enough that she stopped Elsa singing mid-solo.
Eventually after some deep breathing that was more enraged-bull than Buddhist-monk, I was able to carry forward, finish my thought and we moved on with our plans for the evening.
But all the while I was aware of the eyes watching me and the shame hit home later that night.
How could I be so weak? I’m trying to teach my kids how to avoid tantrums, and I’m throwing a fit in the kitchen? What is wrong with me that I lose it over such a little thing? A simple question, a small interruption made me positively erupt with emotion!
To my husband (and even myself), it came out of nowhere. One minute his wife is chattering on, tidying up and inviting him to understand what the planning process is in our lives, and the next I am biting his head off when he was correcting a misconception about his work schedule.
Isn’t that what he was supposed to do? Help me make these decisions?
But the problem is, neither of us realized we were having this conversation with a third party involved; Anxiety. And with anxiety comes anger, a hair trigger, and a nervous system that is easily overwhelmed.
Playing back that scene, I think you all can pick out the triggers. Triggers are those events in our lives that start our stress response, and like a snowball barreling down the hill, the more triggers we hit, the worse we can feel.
I look back and recognize it now; I was multitasking too many things, had too many distractions and pieces of information to process. There was music, children screaming, three tasks I was trying to complete at once. I was trying to relay information in an environment that made it difficult to hear or speak without distraction. The subject itself was loaded for me, hinting at my never ending struggle to maintain full time employment and my home life and the Mom Guilt that comes with that. My husband’s interjection, well meaning though it was, side tracked my already rapid and clamoring thought processes. It connected to a sense I wasn’t being helped, or listened to on a regular basis and triggered some transference for me.
It made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough, because even in my desperation to figure it all out and keep the plates of our life spinning, I still had something wrong and I was messing everything up. Someone had to correct me. I wasn’t smart enough to manage this on my own. I was failing.
This is the group cheer that anxiety loves to lead.
Anxiety is a natural and normal feeling for all of us. It is useful: it protects us from hurting ourselves, makes us cautious in new situations, and reminds us what is important. Anxious about that job interview? Worried that person you just met doesn’t like you? Good! That’s normal! It means those things are important to you and reminds you to try your best, to watch our interactions, to make us more mindful of ourselves. It keeps us aware, and sometimes alive in dangerous predicaments. We would struggle to survive without it.
The problem is when anxiety begins to take over too many parts of our lives.
When it tries to convince us that EVERY situation is dangerous, and instead of just being cautious, we become terrified or avoidant. When it starts making us draw false conclusions about ourselves, the world or other people.
That interview didn’t just go poorly, and that person doesn’t just dislike you. Now you’re worthless, you’ll never get another job ever again, and every person you meet is secretly laughing at you.
It becomes a problem when we never challenge our anxious thoughts, or even slip into denial about where our feelings and ideas are coming from. It becomes a problem when we begin to believe that every thought and feeling we have is the absolute Gospel truth.
If I feel it, it must be true.
I have known I’ve had anxiety since I was a teenager. I even knew I had it when I was younger than that, although I could never truly express or name what this gross, clenching, all-consuming feeling was in my chest and gut until I was much older. So anxiety is not something new for me.
But in that moment, I forgot. Or I wasn’t mindful. I didn’t LISTEN, and I ended up paying the price.
Snapping a bit at my husband is not the end of the world, but as I always say to my kids: “Accidents happen, but accidents can be avoided when we pay attention.”
I wasn’t paying attention. And I believed everything my anxiety was telling me, without checking the facts or being mindful about that slippery slope.
Imagine your mood is like a thermometer and every new frustration, every irritation, every little task that takes your energy and attention makes that mercury slowly rise and rise. Eventually, if you’re not mindful of checking that rising red line, it’ll boil over and so will you. And then you’re even more susceptible to thinking negatively, to believing those anxious thoughts.
Was I a failure?
Goodness no. I was distracted and stressed and doing so many things at once, my nervous system was already strained. That thermometer was inching up slowly but surely, and one of the most misunderstood reactions to being overwhelmed is irritation.
It’s the Fight side of our Fight or Flight response – you know, that ancient threat system in your body that gives you a giant boost of energy and skill to keep you safe when it thinks you’re being attacked. I wasn’t being physically attacked, but my brain sensed that rising thermometer before I did and recognized the rest of me was being attacked – with stress and too many things at once.
Although anger in reaction to stress is actually quite normal, since your body is just trying to give you the energy and focus needed to defend yourself, it’s still my responsibility to make sure I’m attacking the right thing. I should use that energy to change my behaviours, to step back from stress, to problem solve. Not yell at my husband.
A lot of times in my work as a therapist, I’m educating people on the role of anger and anxiety. I could make a million just by cashing in a coin every time I’ve told someone ‘You don’t have anger management issues, you have anxiety’. Because ours is a society that misinterprets anger as violence, and seeks to stop us presenting with any sort of aggression by telling us to stop the behaviour by shoving the feeling away.
You’re dog doesn’t destroy your home while you’re away because he’s a bad dog. He does it because he is bored, lonely and needs mental stimulation and exercise.
You don’t fly off the handle because you are innately an angry and uncontrollable person. You feel irritation when your needs are not met, when your nervous system is overloaded and you haven’t had any chances to reduce your stress so you self-destruct.
You’re not angry; you’re overwhelmed.
So what before you jump to the conclusion you need to punish yourself for your uncontrollable temper, take a minute to check in with your thermometer. Ask yourself what you need to do to reduce the stress of the moment. Turn off the music? Take a time out in a quiet space for 15 minutes? Ask your partner to put a pause on the conversation until the mercury has some time to settle down? No one can work during emotional and mental overload. Guaranteed when you take a break from the environmental stress, your thoughts will be more kind, more organized and more logical and you can handle any task in front of you.
It’s not your fault when your anxiety rears it’s angry head, but it is your job to respond to it consciously, for your own sake as well as others.