You’re Not Crazy. What Relationship Anxiety Is Trying To Tell You
Why hasn’t she called me back?
Will he ever commit?
How can I get her back?
Did I totally screw this up?
Does he love me?
AM I CRAZY?
Relationship anxiety can make you feel like Jekyll and Hyde–calm and secure one minute, then a crazy lunatic (who you don’t even recognize) the next. You can’t stand the emotional swings, but you can’t control them either. WTF is going on? And more importantly, how can you get things under control?
What is Relationship Anxiety?
Similar to general anxiety, relationship anxiety is fear about something that may or may not happen. It’s characterized by worry, doubt, uncertainty and insecurity around your relationship. Where are things going? Will he/she leave? What if he/she doesn’t change? Am I kidding myself? Will I end up alone with 14 cats?
Questioning your relationship isn’t automatically cause for alarm, but intensely anxious feelings can be debilitating and damaging to your relationship. They can lead to a downward spiral of negative thoughts, and even result in a self-fulfilling prophecy where you actually create what you fear.
While anxiety is triggered in relationships (especially new ones), it’s not usually caused by the relationship. In other words, that anxiety already lives inside you. It is attached to your negative beliefs that say you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve love, you always screw things up, etc. When your partner acts a certain way, it triggers those negative beliefs and your anxiety erupts.
Let’s look at how that can play out…
Rachel texts someone she has been dating for a few months, asking about getting together next weekend. Two hours go by without a response.
Rachel’s stomach is in knots, but she tells herself everything is fine. “He’s probably just busy with work.”
Another hour passes. Rachel has looked at her phone no less than a dozen times. She texts a friend to say “hi” just to be sure nothing is wrong with her phone. Her friend replies right away. “Why won’t he respond? What’s going on?!” Her chest feels tight and her jaw is clenched.
Then her thoughts start to spiral…
“Is he having second-thoughts about the relationship and he’s afraid to tell me?”
“Did his ex-girlfriend re-surface? He told me she hadn’t fully accepted the breakup.”
“Did he drive off the road and hit a tree?”
“Does he think we’re still in the ‘seeing other people’ stage?”
“Did I say something to drive him away?”
“Why do things always fall apart after a few months?”
“What did I do wrong?” (Replays last date in her head)
Rachel is in full-blown relationship anxiety mode. Part of her knows her thoughts aren’t rational, but she can’t stop them. Fear has taken over, fueled by her negative beliefs that she doesn’t deserve to be happy and she always drives men away.
Needing an answer to quell her anxiety she types, “Everything ok over there?” Her hands are shaking as she hits send.
Twenty minutes later he responds, “Sorry, babe, I had the blue screen of death on my computer so I’ve been going back and forth with IT all morning. It’s finally working again and I’m rushing to get a project out. I’d love to see you this weekend. Call you later tonight?”
Rachel breathes a giant sigh of relief. Oh thank god. We’re fine. Everything is fine. I’m insane.
Her stomach unclenches and she goes back to feeling secure in their relationship… until the next time she’s triggered and anxiety erupts once again.
Where Does Relationship Anxiety Come From?
Negative beliefs, which often drive this kind of anxiety, start in childhood. This is especially true of people who are insecurely attached. If your emotional needs weren’t met early on, you developed strategies to get love, and/or avoid losing it.
Attachment theory suggests the way people receive love and attention in childhood impacts how they love as adults. I focus on three attachment styles in my work:
Anxious attachment results from inconsistent parenting. Sometimes caregivers are nurturing, while other times they are overbearing, intrusive, insensitive, emotionally unavailable or critical. Children feel confused by this inconsistent behavior and don’t know who or what to trust. As a result, they cling to caregivers in an attempt at meeting their emotional needs.
In adult relationships, anxious attachment is characterized by clinging, often jumping from one unhealthy relationship to another. They put the responsibility of their happiness on their partner, which can conjure up fantasies of being rescued.
Unsurprisingly, relationship anxiety is common among the anxiously attached. But they aren’t the only ones who experience it. Avoidants and anxious-avoidants suffer from it, too.
Avoidant attachment results from parents who are emotionally absent, unresponsive or neglectful. Children learn that expressed emotions aren’t useful in getting love and attention from their caregivers (and may even result in losing love and attention), so they hide them.
In adult relationships, avoidant attachment is characterized by pulling back and running away. Because feelings are not to be trusted, and can result in rejection, avoidants fear intimacy with others. If an avoidant senses someone getting close to them, they will create distance to feel safe again.
The third attachment type combines characteristics of both.
Anxious-avoidants cling AND avoid, saying “come here… now go away!” They are inconsistent with their words and actions, and are attracted to others who are inconsistent because it’s what they know (even though it provokes anxiety). Happiness is elusive because they believe something terrible will eventually take it all away.
If you see parts of yourself in all of these descriptions, you’re not alone. Attachment styles exist on a continuum rather than being black-or-white opposites. Most insecurely attached people lean more heavily to one side (avoidant attachment or anxious attachment), but still exhibit some qualities of the other style. Those who fall more squarely in the middle are anxious-avoidants.
Want to know your attachment style? Take this quiz.
Signs of Relationship Anxiety
A small amount of anxiety is normal, especially early on. So how do you know if your brand of anxiety is excessive or unhealthy? How do you know if it’s actually ruining your relationship? Below are signs your anxiety needs deeper examination:
- You jump to worst-case scenarios based on very little evidence.
- You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially if things are going well.
- You keep questioning your status: Are we in a relationship, or just dating?
- Your anxiety impacts your physical health (nervous stomach, heart palpitations, back/neck pain, clenched jaw, etc.).
- You go into panic mode when you feel judged or misunderstood.
- Your relationship is an emotional roller coaster with intense highs and lows.
- You spend most of your time in reactive mode, responding to cues from your partner (rather than taking action based on what you want).
- You hide your true self for fear of being rejected or abandoned.
- You and your partner live on the Drama Triangle, playing out the victim, persecutor and/or rescuer roles.
- Your self-esteem and emotional wellbeing are dependent on your partner, causing you to constantly worry about how he/she feels about you.
- You have “out-of-body” experiences where you watch yourself acting crazy, yet can’t stop it.
- You resist the reality of your situation, creating fantasies to support what you want to be true (i.e. walking down the aisle with your mate even if he/she doesn’t want to get married).
- You replay situations and conversations over and over in your head, trying to figure out where things went off the rails.
- You’re ashamed of your feelings and actions–if your family and friends knew what was going on, they might think less of you.
- You hide your anxiety from your partner for fear of appearing crazy and driving him/her away.
If any of these ring true, it’s time to dig below the anxiety to see what’s really going on.
What Does Anxiety Cover Up?
The common thread between relationship anxiety and insecure attachment is the avoidance of your feelings. If you were punished or ridiculed for expressing your feelings as a child, you learned to hide them. Or if you were afraid that showing emotion would lead to rejection or abandonment, you put on a brave face. Basically, if emotions felt risky as a kid, you built an emotional shell to protect yourself.
You may say, “I don’t suppress my emotions. I feel anxious ALL THE TIME!” But anxiety is a surface emotion. It’s where you go when you don’t want to feel shame, disappointment, sadness, regret, fear, guilt, etc. The irony is, anxiety is painful! In your effort to avoid negative emotions, you end up trading them for something just as painful… and a lot more damaging.
How to Deal with Relationship Anxiety
The first step to overcoming relationship anxiety is acknowledging it. Accept it. Listen to it. Learn to love your anxiety. Why? Because ignoring it is what got you here in the first place. It’s a clue that something needs your attention. More specifically, it’s a clue that you’re avoiding your deeper feelings.
The #1 way to reduce anxiety is to feel your feelings. It’s a simple concept, but it’s hard to do if you have spent your life avoiding, numbing and shoving them down. So where do you start?
First of all, know that feelings won’t kill you. You will not be engulfed or fall down a hole so deep you will never emerge. I know it feels that way because your childhood brain believes it’s true. It’s not true. I have spent the last 12+ years feeling my feelings and I’m still here. Not only am I here, but my anxiety is virtually non-existent. If it starts to creep up, I know there is something I need to look at more closely.
Feelings can be incredibly painful, but connecting with that part of yourself is how to ease anxiety’s grip on you. There are a few different techniques for feeling your feelings, and I’ll share two with you here:
Body Scan Exercise
I like to take five minutes each morning to do this before getting out of bed. You can do it lying down in a relaxed position, while on a walk, waiting for your coffee to brew, etc. Even 60 seconds is enough to see some benefits:
- Scan your body from head to toe.
- Focus on an area of discomfort. Emotions usually manifest physically in your body: your stomach, chest, throat, shoulders, jaw. Just focus, don’t judge.
- Is any emotion there? If so, stay with any/all feelings and don’t judge. Allow whatever is happening. If not, keep focusing, but don’t force. Just observe.
- Are you getting any flashes from your past? Any clues about what this feeling is, or where this feeling originates? If not, that’s ok.
- If you don’t feel anything, don’t worry. Keep practicing by focusing your attention on your physical body. Eventually something will come up.
In Reaction Exercise
Another technique to feel your feelings is to sit with them when you’re triggered. Even if you have only a few minutes to connect to yourself, it will be worth it. This is something Rachel could have done when her thoughts were spiraling out of control.
This exercise is best done when you’re alone. If you’re with someone, excuse yourself for a few minutes to use the bathroom or go somewhere you’ll have privacy. If you can’t remove yourself from the triggering situation, come back to this exercise when you’re able to get some time alone. Thinking back on what happened will usually conjure up the emotions pretty quickly.
- When you feel triggered, notice what you are reacting to. Is it a text? Something your partner said?
- Take a deep breath and close your eyes.
- Focus on the physical discomfort. Just focus, don’t judge.
- When the emotions build, STAY WITH IT. You will want to get up and leave or distract yourself by thinking of something else. That’s fear. Remember, they won’t kill you so stay right where you are.
- Allow whatever feelings to come without judgment. If tears flow, let them. If shame envelops you, ride that wave. Whatever it is, just ALLOW. Sit with the emotions until you feel lighter. If you’re not sure if you’re “done,” think about the triggering moment again. If feelings emerge again, stay there until they’re gone.
The first time you do this you may experience an explosion of emotions, or you might feel nothing at all. If you don’t feel anything, you’re in resistance. That’s ok. Keep trying these exercises and eventually something will come up. Most of all, be patient and kind to yourself.
Obstacles to Feeling your Feelings
Your emotions and intellect live in different parts of the brain. Do not fool yourself into thinking you can analyze your feelings instead of feeling them. Deconstructing why you feel a certain way, or telling yourself how you should or shouldn’t feel is a sign that your head is in the way. Thinking about your feelings is much safer, so it’s an easy trap to fall into. There is no substitute for actually feeling them.
Another mistake I see people make all the time is thinking they’re feeling their feelings when they’re actually ruminating. Rehashing stories in your head and the meaning you assign to them is ruminating. It’s like a cheap high because you think you’re processing your emotions, but really you’re just looking to solve a problem. It’s similar to analyzing–you’re stuck in your head rather than connecting with your actual feelings.
Be Kind to Yourself
Relationship anxiety can give you a reason to berate yourself. Why do I feel this way? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just be normal like everyone else? No one wants to be in a relationship with a lunatic!
You are not crazy. You are not unworthy of love. You are not broken. You do not deserve to be punished for your thoughts and fears. Relationship anxiety happens more often than you think, especially among the insecurely attached. People just don’t talk about it because it feels shameful. But lying to yourself about your anxiety will keep it alive.
Remember, anxiety isn’t caused by your relationships. But it can lead to sabotage and emotional roller coasters, keeping healthy relationships at arm’s length.
To reduce relationship anxiety, start by acknowledging you have it. Then feel the feelings your anxiety is covering up. Keep doing it, day by day.
One day you’ll notice the pit in your stomach has disappeared.
Need some help to feel your feelings? My 30-Day Insecure Attachment course is a great place to start. It includes exercises for feeling your feelings, plus other tools for improving your relationships.