Saturday, February 13, 2010

Anxiety and relationships

Anxiety and relationships

In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I run into
anxiety in all forms, in all venues. For many, anxiety pops
up as panic, or phobia or obsessiveness, compulsiveness, or worse.
If there is a partner, guess who also bears the brunt of the
Well, to back track a little, obviously the person suffering
from anxiety bears the biggest burden. This person is suffering
from a painful condition that may be situation-specific
(fear of certain objects) or global; meaning pervasive.
The partner has to adjust to such a state and may find her/himself
in quite a bind when the anxious one "decompensates."
The biggest complaint I hear is that anxiety limits
functionality. That means sometimes performing even the most
basic of tasks is difficult. Going to the store may be
impossible for the anxious, but it can be a real pain in the neck
for the partner. The partner may have to do all the shopping,
or wait until just the right moment when the anxious one can leave
the house (late at night, when crowds are thin, etc.).
If we have a fear of enclosed places, driving can be a problem.
That means when we get into a car, anxiety, not us, takes over.
We may have to pull over a few times to "catch our breaths."
This does not work if we happen to be in a hurry. It may be even
worse if we are surrounded by traffic and cannot "escape." If the
anxiety is intense, we may find ourselves heading back home without
shopping. If we are the partner of such a sufferer, what do we do
and how do we cope?
It takes a unique blend of patience and understanding, coupled
with acceptance of self to cope with a partner who is impaired.
This applies to depression and other psychological states, and as
well to physical disabilities. The first quality the partner
needs to master is empathy. It is imperative that the partner
knows the condition afflicting the sufferer. Nowadays, the usual
way to find out about such matters is the Internet. Specifically,
the partner should know everything there is to know about anxiety
disorders. In whatever form, education is necessary because empathy
will not last without a thorough understanding of what causes a
Patience evolves from understanding and empathy. It is a lot
easier to cope when we "get" what our partner experiences.
It is important to note that anxiety has a purpose, a dynamic
purpose beyond just escaping pain. It serves to avoid feelings,
associated thoughts and situations that are perceived to be
But, there are more experiences and skills the partner needs
to cope in the long run. Having a support group, a good
self esteem and some alone time all help. Stress relieving
techniques for the partner is a good idea. However, the focus
of this article is on anxiety and relationships, not so much on
the external coping methods of the partner.
Anxiety can spread in relationships. If the sufferer has
intense anxiety, soon the partner will start thinking differently
about the things that elicit the sufferer's symptoms. Usually,
is it the sufferer that avoids certain anxiety-generating
situations. But, just by exposure, the partner will also start
doing the same, but with a different motivation. The sufferer
will act to avoid anxiety. The partner will act to avoid
confrontation or frustration. The partner's version of
frustration may be in the form of fatigue, ennui, boredom,
lack of novelty and spontaneity, etc.
Unless recognized, this dynamic soon will generate a
negative loop. This is my term for what one person does that
makes the other act badly, which is the very thing that causes
the first person to do more of the same, thus making the second
person respond poorly, this time with more negativity.
Thus, each person plays off one another negatively, escalating
the frustration after each "go round" because each fails to get
what each wants. This all potentially starts because the
sufferer has pain and tries to avoid suffering. Soon the
partner may do the same unless these interventions are undertaken.

Dr. Griggs

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