Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


5 Faces of Anxiety That You May Not Recognize

Anxiety shows up as more than just worry.

Key points

  • We commonly think of anxiety as being worried. But anxiety has other faces that are easy to misinterpret.
  • The most common forms of anxiety are rigidity, anger, control, passivity, and being self-centered.
  • Rather than focusing on the other person, focus on your anxiety and learning better ways to manage it.
Source: TheDigitalArtist/pixabay

When we think of anxiety, we usually think of constant worrying, imagining worst-case scenarios about the future, or panic attacks that come out of seemingly nowhere but leave you feeling that you just had a near-death experience. But anxiety has other faces, other ways in which it is actually the underlying driver for another’s behavior that scares us, annoys us, or frustrates us. Here are some of the common other forms of anxiety that you may not recognize:

#1: Routinized schedules; excessive planning

Yes, you probably have some classic images from TV and movies of those folks who are struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder: They’re afraid to touch doorknobs or have to fold their clothes in a certain way. But there are milder forms that are still anxiety-driven but can slip under the radar. One of the common ones is folks who seem too rigid in their routines. Overall, routines support good mental health, but here, routines govern life—they wake up late and panic because they are off course and the day is shot; the gym is closed, and there’s a scramble to find other forms of emergency exercise.

Another is excessive planning—mapping out in detail what to pack for a trip three weeks away and obsessing a bit too much about what to bring in case of some catastrophic emergency—or obsessing about not having enough food for Thanksgiving. Is this just being prepared, or maybe too excessive? Usually, this is in the eyes of the beholder, but regardless, the underlying driver often isn’t simple prudence but anxiety.

#2: Control

One of the most common complaints I hear in couples therapy is that one partner is feeling constantly micromanaged: their partner is always looking over their shoulder, directing or complaining about what they do; they feel they can’t do anything right and that trivial things are always turning into major issues. They feel criticized and nagged to death.

While it’s easy to think of control as being driven by a lack of empathy and a need for power (think sociopathy or extreme narcissism), for most of us, it’s about anxiety. Your partner sees the glass left on the counter, albeit a first-world problem, but it nonetheless creates anxiety—something is out of place. Their micromanaging—telling you to put that glass in the dishwasher—is their attempt to get you to do what they feel you need to do so they don’t feel anxious. If you do, it works, and their anxiety goes down, but repeating this over and over again turns what should be a partnership into a master-servant relationship.

#3: Anger

Anger flares are certainly about emotional regulation, but like control, they are often associated with power and bullying behavior. But, once again, often the underlying driver, as with control, is anxiety. Many of those who are quick to anger are hypervigilant. They typically grew up in chaos or abuse. As a child, their only coping tool was to be constantly hyperalert, i.e., anxious—so they knew when to hunker down and stay in their room or go into fight mode. What worked as a child remains within the adult. They are still looking around corners, easily triggered to attack when frightened.

#4: Passivity

On the other side of the pole is those who learned to cope, not by going offense but by learning to be passive—going along and playing dead in hopes that it doesn’t feed the emotional fire—and, like those with anger, they carry this forward into their adult lives. If you fear others getting upset with your behavior or idea, you might take the low road, go along, and let them do what they want.

#5: Bragging, self-centered

People who always talk about themselves and their accomplishments seem self-centered and praise-seeking. While undoubtedly many are, there are some for whom it’s not all about ego and trolling for compliments but coping when they feel insecure and are seeking reassurance: Did you like my birthday present? The dish I made for Christmas? Their anxiety is driving them to make sure the other person is happy; they are looking for some validation that they did the right thing.

Changing your perspective: Seeing anxiety

If you are the receiver of these behaviors, it is easy and understandable to feel annoyed or frustrated—by seemingly obsessive behaviors, micromanaging, anger flares, passivity, and seeming self-centeredness. But the key to managing your emotions and navigating the relationship is often about stepping back to view the other’s behavior differently. By redefining them as struggling with anxiety rather than being out to get you with control or dismissing you with passivity, you can feel less like a victim and hopefully more empathic. That said, you still need to speak up, but rather than saying, “Get off my back,” or “Damn it, tell me what you want,” instead say, “What are you worried about?’

And if you are the one who is being too obsessive, controlling, passive, angry, and self-centered, maybe it’s time to step back and look at what’s driving you. Rather than focusing on the other person—what they’re not doing, how they feel-- focus on you: What’s going on when you slip into your default mode and get more rigid, angry, passive, controlling, or self-centered. See these as red flags, letting you know what your anxiety is bubbling up, and see if you can drill down to the underlying fear. Work on living more in the present and less in the uncontrollable future, get help and the support you need to manage your emotions better, and replace those old coping skills that no longer work. Anxiety is the feeling that the world isn’t safe. The challenge is changing your behavior in order to change your perspective. And realizing that you can only control yourself.


Taibbi, R. (2016). Boot camp therapy: Action-oriented approaches to anxiety, anger, & depression. New York: Norton.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today