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  • Writer's pictureFiona Owen

Anxiety and Relationships

Many of us human beings hold the belief that our aim is to be happy most of the time. No wonder so many people are anxious.

I suggest in reality we need to experience the range of emotions in order to be fully alive. For without having experienced adversity, how will we know when we are content or happy. Realistically happiness is a state of being that we visit from time to time. Most of the time however we are getting on with the business of living, which doesn't always include being happy. I suggest this is partly the reason so many relationships get into tough places, as when the relationship gets really difficult, significant numbers of couples give up the challenge of pushing through the tough patches.

Certainly if neither partner is willing to look at their contributing part to the problem and is blaming the other partner, then no change will occur. If conflict is sustained over a certain amount of time, the damage created can be so deep, that recovery becomes increasingly difficult. I liken couples counselling to getting your car serviced. If you don't wait until the car is broken, then repairs are not so complex and expensive.

Anxiety within a relationship is related to individual anxiety and so I would like to explain a little bit about this complex condition.

Anxiety is a part of our human condition and serves an important role to alert the body to potential harm or danger from the environment. Emotion is energy going out into the environment. As individuals we must regulate our selves in conjunction with the environment around us. So for example if there are unidentified loud noises, we want to make sense of them so we do not become unduly anxious. If the noises sound like gun fire, this may be highly dangerous, once we figure out the noise comes from fireworks then the fear is reduced and the anxiety levels reduce as the danger level has been reduced.

Emotions give a dynamic fuel thrust that feeds the anxiety or calms the anxiety.

The four main emotion groups are mad, sad, glad and scared these are what initiate movement;

Anger is a secondary emotion that directs itself back at the environment when things are not going well. Rage is an extreme form of anger and represents an unacknowledged impotence.

Fear is a healthy response to withdrawing from a perceived hostile environment.

Sadness is a healthy response to loss, a surrendering down to a loss.

Enjoyment is the opposite direction to sadness, surrendering up towards gain. We frequently squeeze the joy. By this I mean, that joy is not often allowed to linger.

Anxiety is related to fear and manifests as the same physiological response. The cortex becomes flooded with cortisol and adrenalin, thus causing it to flood. The primitive brain then takes over and this brain part does not use reason. This part of our primitive brain is responsible for the freeze, fight/flight response. In a healthy situation the function is beneficial. When anxiety regulation is not within usual ranges then the individual responds prematurely or inappropriately to the fear stimulus and the individual becomes unnecessarily anxious.

Fear is a healthy response to what is happening, if the perception meets the reality.

Anxiety is the same response to something that might happen. The anxious self has to have one foot in the future, scanning for danger.

Anxiety creates an energetic charge that is left with no where to go because it is not really responding to something tangible. Piling up levels of anxiety lead to immobilisation of the body due to overload. This can result in a panic attack.

Energy comes up to charge the individual into mobilisation when they need to perform. Anxiety is interrupting the energy flow either up down in or out. I will use the analogy of making a film to try and further explain anxiety. Within the head, a film of what might happen creates a physiological response producing energy, but it has nowhere to go, so the energy gets squeezed. This results in the individual having nothing to respond to, but all the energy is present.

When you identify you are creating the film, rather than being in the film then anxiety can be addressed, because you are not caught.

In anxiety you are pulled in and captured by your film and not involved in the process of the film making.

Ok, so hopefully that helps a little in understanding anxiety. Within couple relationships, not only is there our film, there is also the partners film, unless you are both co stars in the same film ( I'll talk about that later).

Good communication is vital in order to go towards understanding the experience of the other, as we are not able to know what another is experiencing and only have our own frame of reference to work with to try and figure out what might be happening for someone else. In order for relationships to function well there needs to be trust, respect, honesty and kindness. The individuals in the relationship also need to feel safe in order to be open to each other. Anxiety prevents the establishment of the necessary level of vulnerability due to fear of getting hurt, thus preventing the development of intimate connection.This in turns fuels more anxiety as the fear increases of being hurt. The vicious spiral continues and the relationship becomes more fragile with every cycle.

Senses evoke reactions and an individual can't always identify what the trigger has been.

When an individual is able to see that they are contributing to the situation, they can activate change. Exposure is required to see how individuals create the anxiety and so they can reconsider and change their process.

Shame is often a part of the process as when there is a rupturing of connection to the faulty thinking, awareness grows that time has been wasted in living with unnecessary anxiety and fear. Once an individual can get a clear film of what they do, then they are empowered.

Anxiety prevents individuals from knowing what the film is and the work is to discover what the film truly is.

Being co stars in the same film sounds like a good idea. However as we can never fully understand the experience of another in reality this notion is fraught with danger. There would have to be a certain amount of assumption and this opens up the possibility of misunderstanding. Existentially we are alone and as we are social beings we crave contact. Somewhere along the line most people will have to compromise in order to be in relationship with another.

Good communication skills are essential for healthy relating. The process of couples therapy allows a safe neutral space for couples to experiment with showing up and how best to explore navigating through differences in order not to heighten friction and fuel anxiety.

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