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Anxiety and Intimacy - Part 1 - Brien Cole

By Brien Cole

Anxiety and Intimacy - Part One

You may be an anxious person struggling with relationship problems exacerbated by anxiety, or a parent or partner of an anxious person struggling to understand what they are feeling, and how best you can approach them. You may be feeling frustrated, annoyed, disappointed or just about to give up. This series of health tips is for you. I am not going to pretend that I have all the answers, I don’t know if anyone actually does.  All I am going to say is that I think this is too important a subject to wait until I have all the answers to talk about it.

Intimate relationships are difficult enough for “normal” people. Add anxiety to the mix and the problem is amplified. So what is it about anxiety which makes this all harder? At it’s most primitive level anxiety is about our “fear” response. The “Fight-flight-freeze” response, the way we defend ourselves, while relationships are about opening up, sharing our dreams, our hopes and our vulnerability. Nothing could be more opposite, anxiety and intimacy. And nothing is as    important for our sense of well-being and resilience than the ability to maintain intimate long-term relationships. The anxious person is forever in a state of tension between the desire for a stable relationship and the desire to self protect.

We want relationships for a myriad of reasons, some of these reasons are normal and reasonable and others less so and often the reasons are very mixed. We want companionship, we desire closeness and sex, but we also want to hide our vulnerability within others and to ask of others that they provide us with the comforting and soothing we cannot provide ourselves.

Let us consider four scenarios

We may be a social phobic who finds themselves attracted to the out-going, socially competent in others with a hidden presumption that I will be able to ride on the coat-tails of someone else’s life. Assuming there is enough attractiveness there for the relationship to get to first base the inherent problem in the relationship is that I, the social phobic, lives my life through someone else and when (not if) that someone else gets sick and tired of my bringing nothing to the collective social life the relationship slips into crisis. And, of course, I do not do crisis well, crisis makes me anxious. When I am anxious I retreat into myself and this exacerbates the situation.

Perhaps I suffer from panic attacks every time I fly and my partner’s parents have just moved to Queensland.  Therefore, I must either force myself to fly, not accompany my partner when she visits her parents or force everyone to drive. None of which are good choices and all of them will have created additional tension in the relationship.

Perhaps my child suffers from anxiety, which is mostly expressed during school assessments, particularly exams. Even though my child works hard during the year and knows his or her work when not assessed, the minute he or she is assessed they go to pieces. This has created enormous stresses in the family.

Alternatively my partner suffers from anxiety which affects our life together but whenever I bring it up to him/her, he/she clams up completely and stays clammed up for days. It is driving me crazy.

What can we do?

What can I do if I am the anxious person?

What can I do if my partner is anxious?

What can I do if my child is anxious?

And just for good measure what do I do if my parent is anxious?Let us begin with the anxious person. It is absolutely obvious from the way people try to help us that people just don’t understand us, including the people we are closest to. They find it difficult to understand why we cannot do this or that? Why traffic makes us panic, why we cannot breath in supermarkets, why we’d rather die than go to a party where we don’t know anyone. They don’t know how it feels? From the partners point of view they just wish we would snap out of it, after all, what is so difficult about sitting in a picture theatre. And we cannot explain that it is not the sitting in the picture theatre that is the problem but sitting in our own racing thoughts and those thoughts just happen to be at their worst in a picture theatre or on a plane, or at a party, or doing exams.

I think this topic is very, very important and I am not going to rush it.

So lets look at the basics, just to take the edge of the worst of this stuff.

Tip One;

Try not to personalize this, this is about how I react when I am feeling stressed; it is not about you and me. It will be very useful for both of you to reach an understanding of what may help and what doesn’t help. “When I get anxious the worst thing you can do is back away from me. The best thing you can do is tell me it’s going to be alright. When I get anxious and you get scared (of my anxiety) or frustrated (with my anxiety) it makes things worse.” Articulate it, bring it out into the open and discuss it. I know this will make you more anxious in the short term but I can assure you it will also make you far less anxious in the long term.

In return appreciate your partners feelings.  This is difficult for both of you but acknowledge it. The best time to do something about your anxiety is when things are okay, do not wait for a crisis to seek help.

Tip Two;

Have strategies in place which you both understand, a little like a fire drill, this will allow you to back away for a moment rather than react in the old anxious way. Defusing rather than escalating the situation. A strategy can be as simple as recognizing that I am getting anxious and taking myself out of the situation for a few minutes to breath and calm. Recognize when you are starting to get into an anxious pattern and put your strategies in place sooner rather than latter. “A stitch in time saves Nine”, is certainly true of anxiety management.

Tip Three;

Do not hide how you are feeling behind statements like “I am fine” , “It is nothing” “don’t worry about me”. It is not fine, it is not nothing, and your partner will worry about you. Come clean, tell them and yourself the truth. Bring it out into the open and deal with it together, otherwise it will never get better and never go away. Relationships are about connection, how connected is it to hide this stuff?

Tip Four;

Try not to “catastrophize” your relationship; to “all or nothing” your relationship. Recognize the resilience within your relationship and acknowledge it. Ask yourself, “is this actually about my relationship or is it about my anxiety”. If the answer is “this is about my feeling better” rather than “us being better,” then you are operating from your anxiety. If you do nothing else, recognize the difference.Relationships are difficult and anxiety makes them doubly so. But there are skills, tricks and things to be aware of. In the next few health tips I am going to try and cover this topic as best I can. It is a difficult and important topic and I would like to ask all of you for feedback. If you have a suggestion, something which has helped you through relationship “problems”, email me your suggestions to brienlcole@hotmail.com and lets collect our experience.

Relationships are difficult and anxiety makes them doubly so. But there are skills, tricks and things to be aware of. In the next few health tips I am going to try and cover this topic as best I can. It is a difficult and important topic and I would like to ask all of you for feedback. If you have a suggestion, something which has helped you through relationship “problems”, email me your suggestions to brienlcole@hotmail.com and lets collect our experience.


Brien Cole suffered from anxiety for most of his life. Until three years ago when he attended Bev Aisbett’s anxiety recovery program (an Anxiety Disorders Association of Victoria) and began a journey of recovery.

He can be contacted on:

Email brienLcole@hotmail.com

 

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