What would you say is the one thing on your relationship that causes the most stress between you and your partner? I’m sure you’re ticking through the items racing through your brain, debating on which is worse. Is anxiety one of the things that came up? How much do you think it is affecting your relationship? In my experience treating anxiety disorders, anxiety can encompass most things within a relationship. Often, the couple doesn’t realize that anxiety is the culprit of the contention. It just feels normal to worry about the things you worry about, right? That is until you realize that anxiety is the problem, and is in more control than either person in the relationship.
This is the point when things get a little sticky. The stress has always been there, but now you have a label for it. This label can act as a huge relief or a burden. It is not uncommon for a partner to use the label as ammunition against the individual who does the worrying. This behavior can make sense, yet is ineffective. If something negative is happening in your relationship what is one of the most common things you do? Attack, become defensive, place blame? Unfortunately, the sufferer, or one experiencing the anxiety, will likely go into attack mode as well, or shut down, if they feel unsafe with the response they receive from their loved one.
Does this sound familiar? Are you stuck in the revolving argument about your anxiety and how you should just “stop it”? If so, or if you are just looking for more effective ways to manage the anxiety in your relationship, here are some tips.
Become educated and be engaged.
If you are dealing with anxiety, or your partner is, take the time to educate yourself about anxiety. A great question to ask yourself is, “Am I dealing with every day anxiety, or an anxiety disorder”? This can be difficult to decipher and may require the expertise of a professional. Basic questions to ask yourself are, “What is the function of my behavior when I feel anxious?” and “How rigid are my rules based around anxiety?”. If you find that your behaviors are meant to reduce the anxiety and/or are creating strict rules for you and your partner to live by, you may want to seek a professional’s opinion. If you are the partner of someone who is experiencing anxiety, encourage them to research more about it. (An excessive need to research may be an indication of clinically significant anxiety.) Offer validation for their worry and provide support in an effective way.
Direct your emotions appropriately.
It is easy to become frustrated with your loved one when they are feeling anxious. You are probably tired of being asked for reassurance, if things are going to be ok, if you think they are a bad person, etcetera. I get it; it’s hard to be patient when you are continually being questioned about things that haven’t happened or don’t make sense. It is important to take a step back and remind yourself that the one who continually asks for reassurance is probably just as annoyed that they feel like they have to ask. An individual diagnosed with an anxiety disorder can’t “just stop”. The individuals brain is literally sending a message of danger down a neural pathway that tells them they must ask for reassurance to feel relief. In short, cut them some slack. Your loved one is suffering.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) has empirically based research proving it to be an effective treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and other disorders such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). IT is important that you find a therapist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety. (A rule of thumb is that the providers practice treats approximately 80% of what they claim to be a specialist in.) Talk therapy by itself is not effective for an anxiety disorder. A behavioral approach is necessary to help with the cognitive restructuring of the brain. Also, be sure to provide support once your loved one has decided to seek help. It can be very difficult to admit to the need for help and equally difficult to follow through.
Understand that anxiety doesn’t always make sense.
In my experience working with both relationships and anxiety disorders, I have learned that anxiety does not always makes sense. Even when the individual experiencing it knows that it makes no sense, they still may feel the need to do a behavior to help neutralize the fear. It takes patience and understanding from both partners to work through this dialectic. Supporting your partner by validating them, even if it does not make sense to you, will enhance the security felt within the relationship. Remember that those who are experiencing the anxiety must also be willing to validate the efforts and emotions of their partner. Act as if you are on a team, working toward a win together.
Document your wins.
Anxiety can drag you down and steal all sense of hope you have been so dearly holding on to. Fighting to manage your anxiety takes commitment, support, and hope. A great way to maintain your optimism is to write down your wins. Wins can be both big and small, it doesn’t matter. It is difficult to remind yourself how incredible you felt last week when you are feeling an intense level of anxiety right now. Writing your wins down also be supportive for your partner. It is just as easy for your loved one to lose focus as well. Sit down with your partner and review your progress weekly (see my article on the weekly meeting). Provide verbal and physical validation to each other. Remind your partner that you love them and will always provide support. Don’t forget that protecting your relationship is just as important to you.
See a couple’s therapist who understands anxiety.
This may be one of the most important steps to maintain and build your relationship. Finding a therapist who specializes in relationships and truly understands anxiety disorders can help educate you as a couple, and provide a clarity that has been missing in your partnership. A couple’s therapist can also help you learn to communicate in a way that helps you both understand what it is like to experience or live with anxiety.
Anxiety disorders can be challenging to navigate, especially when a person you love is blindly trying to support the individual diagnosed. Take control of your anxiety. Stop letting it create boundaries and set rules for you, your partner, and your family. Contact Couples Ignite Therapy today, and begin living life the way you want to, not the way anxiety is telling you to live.
For more information about Dustin, and his experience with anxiety, read his profile listed under the Providers tab.