Anxiety: The Unwanted Relational Offspring

by Stana Gnatovich:

You and your partner have been together for months, possibly years.  Maybe you’re married, maybe not. You’ve made some kind of explicit or implicit commitment to each other—perhaps to be truthful, to be caring, to protect each other’s best interests, to show up for each other.  A sense of trust unfolds, and you begin to relax into the comforting slow dance of a long relationship.  

And then it happens. Something doesn’t add up.

Anxiety

A change of plans suddenly means something else.  The unanswered text, late birthday present, impatience, all of it makes sense now, when viewed as forensic evidence.  Probable cause is firmly established.

How is it that you have changed careers, seemingly overnight, and become a criminal prosecutor and your partner is about to be sweating on the witness stand?

The answer can be found in the wondrous architecture of the brain and its evolutionary history. The primitive brain was designed to sort data primarily into two categories: prey and aggressors, or simply what you can eat and what will eat you.  The discerning cave man/woman was the one who survived.  

The modern human brain continues to lobby for this kind of black and white discernment despite the fact that we are long past an existential saber-tooth threat. Threat is threat, it says—except that that is not true and therein lays the trouble. Wondrous architecture notwithstanding, it is a fact that the brain is not confined to objective truth. Rather, it has evolved as an instrument to collect and process information. It is essentially in the business of data analytics—gathering external and internal information, categorizing and assigning meaning, and coding/storing it in multiple areas of the brain, like the hippocampus and cortex.

Becoming a criminal prosecutor overnight happens because the brain is selectively identifying data from the environment that it sees asimportant and potentially threatening.  It may be deemed important because of its similarity in some way to other recorded data.  

It is helpful to think of the thoughts that come to you not as truth, but as suggestions from an often unreliable source. It is when these suggestions become beliefs that anxiety enters your couple relationship. Anxiety is simply defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an event (imminent or imagined) that has not yet happened, but is perceived as threatening in some way.

For example, you may have had a thought about whether your partner really loves you, or is cheating, or lying.  You begin to feel fearful or anxious. You may experience physiological changes—in your pulse, attention span, breathing. Emotions may intensify.

When this happens, understand that it is the effect of a thought, and not an actual threat happening in real time.  

Photo: Jeremy Bishop, via Unsplash

Photo: Jeremy Bishop, via Unsplash

Press the pause button. Tune into the present moment and what is actually there.  Breathe, and bring your attention to each in-breath and out-breath as it comes and goes. Ground yourself in your senses—focus your attention on what you are hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, touching, in the present moment.   

In this way it is possible to tune your brain to work more effectively for you.  You are training it to shift to a software program that can accommodate variations and subtleties—essentially deactivating the highly reactive “fear, flight, freeze” options generated in the amygdala, the primitive brain.  At the same time, you are activating the pre-frontal cortex, where higher order reasoning and problem-solving take place.  

Anxiety often shows up in the context of our relational life.  Trying to understand yourself and your partner is an ongoing task and the stakes are high because the outcome is important to you. Meaningful connection is not possible without vulnerability.  Anxiety, however, is optional.  And even if anxiety arrives, how long it stays is up to you. This unwanted relational offspring can be disciplined when it shows up, freeing you and your relationship to experience each other in the present moment, with only solid thinking and good decision-making in attendance.  

If you need more help, call me (Stana Gnatovich) or one of my colleagues at 617-750-0183, and we can talk more about moving anxiety out of your relationship.