I used to have back problems. Ever since I was a teenager my lower back would occasionally hurt for days on end. Nothing seemed to help. My wife is a doctor of physical therapy and after we had been dating for a few months my back went out. It only took her a minute or two to diagnose it was an issue with my sacroiliac joint and gave me a simple exercise to try. I was skeptical it would be so easily tamed after all these years but I was eager to give it a shot. Five minutes later, I was pain free. I was also outraged. How had I not known about this exercise before!? I had told doctors about this pain a half dozen times before. I have met dozens of people for whom this exercise would have been game changing. It should be taught in schools!
I learned a term of similar value from Sheryl Sandberg. I don’t recall the exact context but I know I was having a tough time at work. Something had happened that made me upset and the more I thought about it the more upset I became. I came to Sheryl to vent and it took her roughly as long to diagnose me as it had taken my wife. She told me I was experiencing second order anxiety. Whatever triggered my reaction was relatively minor, we agreed. But I was years into my personal development with a goal of managing my emotions better. So I wasn’t angry at the event anymore. I was angry with myself for getting angry at the event. And the angrier I got at myself, well, the angrier I got in general. As soon as emotions loop back on themselves like this they just go to infinity. Our flight reflex kicks in and we become susceptible to runaway thinking.
Having been introduced to the concept of second order emotions I must admit I see them all over the place, both in myself and in others. I see them with guilt, sadness, fear, shame, and more. Thankfully, the prescription was just as straightforward as the exercises were to fix my back. (Well, at least just as easy to describe.) You have to accept your emotions. Say their names out loud. Acknowledge that they exist and that it is okay for them to be there. And trust that they will move on in their due time.
One thing I love about this exercise is that just knowing it exists is already helpful. When I’m experiencing anxiety or depression one of the factors driving my second order emotion is that I feel a sense of urgency to be better. But knowing that such urgency is in conflict with actually recovering immediately improves my chances of recovering quickly. Just knowing about second order anxiety is halfway to managing it.