Do you ever question your relationship? Do you wonder if you really love him/her? Wonder if maybe there’s something more – someone out there that you would be happier with? Do you ever ask yourself ever questions like “is this how I am supposed to be feeling? Do other people feel differently about their partners? I should be feeling more, shouldn’t I?”
Romantic love tells us things like love conquers all, and true love will find a way.
It tells us things like:
So if you are having doubts that probably means there’s *something* wrong with the relationship, right? There must be, or these doubts wouldn’t be there.
Add to this the fact that we are often told to follow our instincts, or trust our gut. If you are having doubts, then at least at some level your brain is giving you a warning.
But what if you can’t trust your brain?
What if you can’t trust your own thoughts?
To most, the prospect of not being able to trust our own brains seems ridiculous. But it’s something that millions of anxiety sufferers around the world live with every single day.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is something that we all experience it at some level. And in small doses, it is probably even healthy. But it can become debilitating, and it can destroy lives and relationships.
So what is it?
One good description I found is:
Anxiety is a normal emotional response to perceived danger, and most of us experience moments of it on a regular basis. However, when anxiety becomes chronic and leads to a decline in a person’s function or quality of life, it is classified as an anxiety syndrome or disorder. Individuals with anxiety syndromes experience a wide range of excessive and uncontrollable feelings of nervousness, panic, and fear. These feelings often develop into a number of diverse behaviors and problems, including obsessive-compulsive rituals, irrational fears and phobias, social isolation and avoidance
Anxiety becomes a disorder when it is chronic, and negatively impacts a persons life. There are different variations of anxiety disorders, but they share many traits.
Some of these traits are physiological, and in fact anxiety is sometimes referred to as a state of fight or flight arousal.
With this state of arousal (no, not THAT type of arousal) the body is in a heightened state of awareness. It’s constantly alert for signs of “danger”, and when it finds them the body prepares itself accordingly.
The heart starts beating faster, the body tenses up, and breathing becomes faster and more shallow.
You are ready to either run, or fight and defend yourself.
This sort of physiological response would likely have been helpful in an older era, when life literally was a fight for survival. In a world that involved foraging for food and being chased by bears, hypersensitivity to the world around you could mean the difference between life and death.
Today though? It’s a bit less useful. It still has moments that it’s helpful, but those are outweighed by the drawbacks.
(if you’re interested in a pretty good overview of the fight or flight response check out this article)
For chronic anxiety sufferers, these physiological impacts can take a considerable toll. Sore muscles, tension headaches, irritability, problems with concentration, and difficulty sleeping (leading to chronic fatigue) are among the problems.
Catastrophizing and Rumination
Although the physiological impacts of anxiety can be difficult, perhaps the most insidious effect is what it does to your thinking.
The anxiety response is designed to protect you from danger, and keeps you in a state of alert. Well, when you are looking for danger (consciously or subconsciously) you can always find it – even when it wasn’t initially there (with anxiety it’s common to read too much into things, and misinterpret things). And over a period of time this perception of danger comes to represent threat itself.
The anxious mind will Catastrophize. Catastrophizing is an irrational thinking pattern where the mind will both imagine and come to expect the worst case scenario in a situation, leading to a constant state of stress and fear. It also commonly results in an anxious person not even trying something, because they “know” they will fail.
Catastrophizing goes hand in hand with another cognitive disorder known as Rumination.
Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes bad decisions or screws up sometimes. That’s just life. Most people pick themselves up, hopefully try to understand what went wrong, and try to do better next time.
For an anxiety sufferer, rumination can short circuit this. Rumination is a broken thinking pattern where people get caught up in the past. They have a hard time letting go of things, and get caught up in guilt over things they may have done, or could have done differently.
“If I had only…”, or “things would be better if…” are common thoughts for someone trapped in rumination.
Rumination prevents you from moving forward in a healthy way. You are so caught up in what “could” or “should” have been that you fail to act on what ACTUALLY IS.
Rumination combined with Catastrophizing also causes people to misinterpret things. Someone may make a simple innocuous comment, and an anxiety sufferer will look for meanings, and sometimes imagine negative meanings that were never there in the first place.
The World Turns Inward
With a heightened sensitivity to the outside world, anxiety puts the body and mind in a constant state of stress. And stress has a way of turning the world inward.
Think about the fight or flight arousal. What is “fight or flight”? It’s a mode of self-preservation. What do “I” need to do in order to escape this situation?
The focus is on “self”.
The anxious mind sees the world in how it affects them, and their needs (though in true evolutionary fashion, and anxious person can also be fiercely protective of their kids).
Daniel Smith has written on anxiety, and he talked about this inward focus in an article he wrote for CNN:
An anxiety sufferer can feel as if he too is imprisoned in his own mind, but with the demonic twist that his mind can think of nothing but itself. Anxious thoughts are radically personal thoughts. Their central concern is what affects you, what threatens you, what you need, you regret, you dread, you fear.
Anxiety is a condition of near-total self-absorption, made only worse by the fact that the sufferer typically realizes that he is being self-absorbed and grieves over his sad inability to see past himself.
I wanted to become: a good husband, a good father, a good brother, a good friend. How could I become these things when, in my towering distress, I could pay heed to no one’s existence or needs but my own?
My buddy Gandalf also experienced this sense of self-absorption in his struggles with anxiety:
I just cannot say enough times how anxiety, stress, and depression short circuit the empathy part of the brain and causes the person to only think about themselves. I know what it’s like to only think about yourself and how destructive this is in a relationship. Yet, it’s completely and totally logical for the person to be selfish at that time and in fact, I couldn’t make myself think of others.
I had to get my anxiety down significantly before I was able to empathize with other people. Now after over half a year of being more or less relaxed, my brain has gone under significant rewiring to be more empathetic towards others. It’s now becoming the natural and default state of my mind.
With a chronic state of stress, a focus on “self” and a breakdown of empathy, anxiety makes relationships (and especially romantic relationships) difficult. But it also damages relationships in additional ways, that aren’t always apparent.
In my next post I will be focusing on these issues.