Pathological Relationships

Dealing with a problem partner

Is it Fear or Anxiety?

PTSD is preoccupied by both the past and the future.

Women who have been in pathological relationships come away from the relationships with problems associated with fear, worry, and anxiety. This is often related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or what we call High Harm Avoidance—staying on high alert looking for ways they might be harmed now or in the future.

PTSD, by its own nature as a disorder, is preoccupied by both the past (flashbacks and intrusive thoughts of him or events) and by the future (worry about future events, trying to anticipate his behaviors, etc.). With long-term exposure to PTSD, this anxiety and worry begins to mask itself, at least in her mind, as "fear." In fact, most women lump together the sensations of anxiety, worry, and fear into one feeling and don't differientiate them.

Fear is helpful and safety-oriented whereas worry and anxiety are not helpful and related to phantom "possible" events that often don't happen. To that degree, worry and anxiety are distracting away from real fear signals that could help women.

In the classic book on predicting harmful behavior in others, The Gift of Fear, Gavin deBecker delineates the difference between what we need fear for and what we need anxiety and worry for. In some ways, the ability to use fear correctly while stopping the use of anxiety and worry may do much to curtail PTSD symptoms.

The author, who is not a therapist but a danger anaylst, has done what other therapists haven't even done—nix PTSD symptoms of anxiety and worry by focusing on true fear and it's necessity versus anxiety and it's faux meaning to us.

The term fear was used by Freud (in contrast to anxiety), to refer to the reaction to real danger. Freud emphasized the difference between fear and anxiety in terms of their relation to danger:

–Anxiety is a state characterized by the expectation and preparation for a danger—even if it's unknown.

–While fear implies a specific object to be feared in the here/now.

(Anxiety is: "He might harm me" where fear is: "He is harming me with his fist, words, actions, etc.")

If you heard there was a weapon proven to prevent most crimes before it happened, would you run out and buy it? World-renowned security expert Gavin deBecker says this weapon exists, but you already have it. He calls it "the gift of fear."

The story of a woman named Kelly begins with a simple warning sign. A man offers to help carry her groceries into her apartment—and instantly, Kelly doesn't like the sound of his voice. Kelly
goes against her gut and lets him help her—and in doing so, she lets a rapist into her home.

"We get a signal prior to violence," Gavin says. "There are preincident indicators. Things that happen before violence occurs." Gavin says that unlike any other living creature, humans will sense
danger, yet still walk right into it.

"You're in a hallway waiting for an elevator late at night. The elevator door opens, and there's a guy inside, and he makes you afraid. You don't know why, you don't know what it is. And many women will stand there and look at that guy and say, 'Oh, I don't want to think like that. I don't want to be the kind of person who lets the door close in his face. I've got to be nice. I don't want him to think I'm not nice.'

And so human beings will get into a steel soundproof chamber with someone they're afraid of, and there's not another animal in nature that would even consider it."

Gavin says that "eerie feelings" is exactly what he wants women to pay attention to. "We're trying to analyze the warning signs," he says. "And what I really want to teach today and forever is the feeling of the warning sign. All the other stuff is our explanation for the feeling. Why it was this, why it was that. The feeling itself is the warning sign."

What happens over and over again is that women dismantle their own internal safety system by ignoring it. The longer she ignores it, the more 'overrides' it receives and retrains the brain to ignore the fear signal. Once rewired women are at tremendous risks of all kinds, risks of picking the wrong men, of squelching fear signals of impending violence, shutting off alarms about potential sexual assaults, shutting down red flags about financial rip offs, squeeking out hints about poor character in other people...and the list goes on. What is left after your whole entire safety system is dismantled? Not much.

Women, subconsciously sensing they need to have "something" to fall back on, swap out true and profoundly accurate fear signals with the miserly counterfeit and highly unproductive feeling of worry/anxiety.

Ladies—wrong feeling!

Then they end up in counseling for their forth dangerous relationship and wonder if they have a target sign on their forehead. No, they don't. They have learned to dismantle, rename, minimize, justify, or deny the fear signals they get or got in the relationship. As if their ability to "take it" or "not be afraid" of very dangerous behavior is some sort of win for them. As if their ability to look danger in the face and stay means they are as tough or competitive as he is.

No—it means they have a fear signal that no longer saves them. Their barely stuttering signal means it's been overridden by her. She felt it, labeled it, and released it all the while staring eye-to-eye with what she should fear most.

Then later, or another day or week passes and she has mounting anxiety—over what she wonders? She has a chronic low grade worry, whisps of anxiety that waif through her life. She can't put two and two together to figure out that true fear will demand to be recognized by her subconscious in some way—an illegitimate way through worry and anxiety that does nothing to save her from real danger. Her real ally (her true fear) has been squelched and banished.

When coming to us for counseling she wants us to help her "feel safe" again when actually, we can't do any of that. It's all in her internal system as it's always been. Her safety is inside her and her future healing is too.

She will sit in the counselor's office denying true fear and begging for relief from the mounting anxiety she is experiencing. She doesn't trust herself, her intuition, her judgments—all she can feel is anxiety. And with good reason! True fear is her true intuition, not anxiety. But she's already canned what can save her and now on some level she must know she has nothing left that can help her feel and react.

Animals instinctively react to the danger signal—the adrenaline, flash of fear, and flood of cortisol. They don't have internal dialogue with themselves like "What did that mean? Why did he say that? I don't like that behavior—I wonder if he was abused as a child."

An animal is trained to have a natural reaction to the fear signal—they run. You don't see animals 'stuck' in abusive mating environments! In nature, as in us, we are wired with the King of Comments, which is the danger signal. When we respond to the flash of true fear, we aren't left having a commentary with ourselves.

"The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.” - John Schaar

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Gender Disclaimer: The issues The Institute writes about are mental health issues. They are not gender issues. Both females and males have the types of Cluster B disorders we often refer to in our articles. Our readership is approximately 90% female therefore we write for those most likely to seek out our materials. We highly support male victims and encourage others who want to provide support to male victims to encompass the issues we discuss only from a female perpetrator/male-victim standpoint. Cluster B Education is a mental health issue applicable to both genders.
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Sandra L. Brown, M.A., is CEO of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education.

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