Not All Emotional Reactions Are Valid

To lesson your anxiety, ground your emotions in reality

A person wearing a face mask, using their phone. They seem to have an optimistic expression.
A person wearing a face mask, using their phone. They seem to have an optimistic expression.

As a therapist, I can’t tell you how much I dislike the platitude, “Your emotions are valid.” Sometimes, they aren’t. When rioters stormed the Capitol this month, they demonstrated how dangerous emotions can be when they aren’t rooted in reality.

The relationship between conspiracy-fueled narratives and emotions is a two-way street. As I tell my clients, when you feel anxious or angry, you’re more likely to believe statements that confirm those feelings. And the greater your exposure to emotion-filled propaganda, the more likely you are to absorb those emotions.

So what do you do when it feels like a significant chunk of the population is operating in a different reality than you are — about election fraud, Covid-19 precautions, systemic racism, the future of the planet?

You make sure that your own emotions are rooted in reality.

You might not be sharing conspiracy theories on the internet, but it’s only human to let the anxiety of others influence our behavior. Anxiety spreads quickly for a reason — it helps us act when there’s danger. If someone shouts, “Fire!” we tend to trust them enough to exit the building first and ask questions later.

But the internet allows humans to broadcast their fears whether there’s a fire or not. And the more anxious we are, the more automatically we absorb and act on these emotions without due diligence. As our country learned earlier this month, when you take a divided country and a very reactive leader, and add a global pandemic, you have a recipe for increased paranoia and violence.

But when you ground yourself in the facts and the challenges of your community and country, you get clearer about what you really should fear, what should make you angry, and where you should put your energy.

Grounding yourself in reality can look like:

  • Recognizing how your fears affect how you consume media.
  • Not supporting a policy just because you admire a politician.
  • Not rejecting a policy just because you dislike a politician.
  • Considering your own thinking before asking others what they think.

I don’t know how to quell the proliferation of conspiracy-driven fear in our country. But I do know that calm can be as contagious as anxiety. When one person gets calmer and clearer about their own thinking, everyone around them benefits. Strive to be that person in your family, in your friend group, in this very anxious country.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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