top of page

Dealing Effectively with Living in a Time of Conflict, Fear and Stress - Anxiety vs. Agency

I’m taking a little different course here with my post today. I’m doing that partly because it feels necessary to acknowledge the last few months of 2020, and the impact those months have had on all of us. And I’m doing it partly because I want to make an argument for what I think is going on, behind and underneath the fear, worry and anger that seems to be all around us.

I want to, briefly, make some points about how we can all feel less stressed, less reactive and more in command in the teeth of what we’re dealing with at the moment.

Anger and Anxiety

I argued back in March in this blog that anger is one face of anxiety (see my post HERE for more detail). I can’t think of a better time to be aware of that simple truth. We don’t always move to anger from anxiety, but biologically we always start with anxiety/worry/stress about the future (immediate or long-range), before we go to anger. Anxiety says holy crap, something bad is about to happen, I better run! Anger says holy crap, something bad is about to happen and I can’t, in this moment, run. Anger is always the second reaction.

We don’t have to be conscious of the progression either. That’s important to keep in mind. So much of our thinking is semi- or unconscious. So much of our thinking is habitual, automatic. We can have a thought, especially a habitual thought (like a worry, or old concern, or gnawing long-term problem) run through our brain and be reacting to it before we have any conscious awareness of what we’re reacting TO.

This is as old as human biology – older, really. Anxiety/worry is what gets us moving in the face of real, physical danger – the “Flight” in Fight or Flight. Anger is what we do when we can’t, immediately, get away from the danger we’re confronted with at the moment – the “Fight” of Flight or Fight. Humans, however, make it different because we can be anxious/stressed about so many more things than housecats or zebras can. More about that in a minute.

So when we’re mad, and we want to understand our anger (let alone do anything constructive about it) we need to understand where, first, we’re anxiety/stressed/worried. We can’t really deal effectively deal with our anger until we understand what we’re worried about in the first place.

What are some modern issues that might morph from anxiety to anger? Well, how about all the fear around that thing we call Covid-19? Or people looting stores in downtowns as we watch the evening news? Or an economy that seems to be facing an uncertain future? Any or all of these could quickly move from anxiety (how do I get away from this?) to anger (damn, I can’t get away, how I can fight this?)

Anxiety and Agency

If anger is about anxiety, and we need to get to our anxious thinking to deal with both our anxiety and our anger, what do we do when we identify that anxious thinking, effectively? To answer that I have to give you a new word, or at least one that you may not usually hear in a discussion about anxiety. That word is agency. As a guy who has studied anxiety for the last 25 years I can say this: the opposite of anxiety isn’t fearlessness. The opposite of anxiety is agency.

Agency is that sense that we can manage the thing in front of us. Agency tells us that we can try different things, and eventually figure out what will work best. Agency says hey, I’ve got this, one way or another. Everybody knows that feeling. Anxiety is just the opposite. Anxiety says what if I can’t manage this, no matter what I do? What if this thing overwhelms me, messes up my life? What if I never figure this out? (You see the “what if?” motif here?)

Everybody has agency in some part of their lives. Everybody carries some anxiety in some part of their lives. I, for example, have agency in dealing with conflict. I didn’t always. I used to be scared to death of people arguing and fighting. I felt hopeless, awkward, scared, and when I couldn’t get away from conflict I could get pretty angry.

But I learned, over time, that I had way more agency with conflict than I ever understood. I first learned a little agency with conflict situations when I learned that listening seemed to go a long ways to defusing another person’s anger – and my own, when I was really heard. I learned a little more when I began to just have my anger, hurt, whatever I was feeling, without trying to shut it down or punish myself for having those feelings.

I learned still more agency when I began to actually consider what made conflict workable for me – i.e., I began to negotiate some ground rules with the people I needed to fight with. That took a little time – it was very new and felt risky – but it worked, again and again. (There were some magnificent failures too – but that was part of learning agency as well.)

And suddenly (not really, but it surprised me when it happened) I had the real sense that I could deal with conflict with some skill and grace. Not perfectly. Not without making yet more mistakes. And of course it takes two to tango when it comes to conflict! Nevertheless I had developed a sense of ability, of agility and skill, when it came to conflict.

Where Do YOU Have Agency – and Where Don’t You?

So I leave you today with these questions:

  1. Where do you have a sense of agency when it comes to conflict? What do you already think you do well, feel semi-skillful about?

  2. Where don’t you feel like you have a sense of agency when it comes to conflict?

  3. What is one simple thing you could do to increase your sense of agency when it comes to conflict? One small move, one simple practice?

Of course this isn’t limited to conflict. It can be applied to anything in human experience. I, myself, have determined that I’m going to get a sense of agency when it comes to learning Spanish. 35 years of trying the textbook-and-classroom approach has left me almost entirely without a sense of agency for learning Spanish! So I’m going to try some new approaches, and come at agency for this goal from some different directions…

And if you’d like to have some discussion about this subject of anxiety vs. agency hit me up – I’d love to talk about this more with you. Agency is something we can learn. About anything. I'm going to discuss examples of gaining agency with conflict in my next post -


bottom of page