Did you know we can make ourselves anxious about being anxious? We can also have anxiety about depression, anxiety about anger, or even anxiety about embarrassment. This phenomenon when we have a negative emotion about a negative emotion is called a meta-emotion. The meta-emotion is the secondary emotion. I’m going to focus on explaining anxiety about anxiety, however, we can have a meta-emotion about any emotion. Some other examples of meta-emotions are depression about anxiety, shame about anger, and guilt about jealousy to name a few. They can happen in any combination.
As I’m sure you already know, having a meta-emotion makes a negative situation doubly unpleasant. The good news is that there are clues to look out for to know when you’re giving yourself the double whammy, and it’s a fixable problem. The first step toward change is to be mindful of how you’re feeling from day to day. When the focus of your attention is anxiety about anxiety, then you know you’re “going meta.”
Tip number one is to remind yourself of all the countless times you’ve experienced difficult emotions before, and how you’ve always come out on the other side unscathed. You can ask yourself what would be so bad about being anxious? Yes, it’s unpleasant and no one wants to feel this way, but anxiety never lasts forever— but rather only minutes. Emotions come and go like the seasons and we’re equipped to handle all of them, even when they come in doubles! Sometimes we cope better than other times, but that never means we can’t tolerate them. Remind yourself of this. Then bring to your awareness of past instances when you’ve coped well with your unpleasant feelings. Reflect on what you did to get through them and on how you can use those same coping skills again in the future.
Tip number two is to use distraction techniques. When feeling anxious about feeling anxious, look around the room and count how many objects in the room are the color green etc. You can also imagine a stop sign every time you start making yourself anxious and immediately try to visualize something more pleasant instead. Another great distraction technique you can do with your hands. Try to tap your thumb to each individual fingertip in a row (thumb to pointer finger, thumb to middle finger, thumb to ring finger, and thumb to pinky finger). Then do it in the reverse order. Try to do this as quickly as possible in sequence without skipping a finger. This can help grab your attention and bring it to the present moment, thus lowering your anxiety in the short term. Our anxious thoughts are always future-based in nature. When all else fails booking an appointment with a skilled cognitive behavioral therapist is the most effective way to arrest the meta-emotional cycle. Sometimes our innermost thoughts are too close to us, and we need a trained professional to help us dig them out so we can begin the process of healing.