This first article of a two-part series clarifies three mistaken habits that invite worry, anxiety and fearfulness. Part II explores ways to counter these habits.
Anxiety problems include stress, worry, and relationship tensions.
In my clinical practice as a Denver psychologist who specializes in relationship counseling, I often see cases in which anxiety, worrying and fearfulness block ability to enjoy comfortable relationships. Anxiety undermines a sense of confidence and personal power. What brings it on?
Anxiety can arrive mysteriously, like a sudden fog on a clear day, and can hang on far too long. The feeling can be seriously unpleasant with tightness in chest muscles and almost nauseating fearfulness. Anxiety also can impede performance, as I wrote about in an earlier PT posting. It's definitely a feeling that most people want to get rid of as soon as possible.
Yet, alas, as I wrote in another earlier PT posting, many of the measures we take to eliminate noxious nervous feelings lead to even more problematic reactions like anger, depression or addictive behaviors. Instead of staying anxious, some folks ignite in quick anger. Others, and particuilarly folks who tend to be shy, give up on what they want and find themselves experiencing a depressive collapse of their self-confidence and optimism. Still others escape from the discomfort of anxious feelings via distraction with alcohol, drugs, or obsessive-compulsive habits like over-eating, over-working, or becoming a sexaholic or sportsaholic. These ways of decreasing anxiety decrease even further the liklihood that you will get an outcome that you want.
What triggers anxiety problems?
Anxiety is like a blinking yellow light that tells you "Potential danger ahead!" In this regard, anxiety serves important purposes as an alerting mechanism.
Anxiety becomes problematic though if instead of gathering information and creating a plan of action to deal with the apparent difficulty, you stay immobilized. If shyness blocks connecting with others to find out if you want to get to know them more, anxiety about being able to form relationships will only increase over time. If you feel unable to do something that will move you forward toward resolving a difficulty, anxiety will linger and may loom ever larger.
Anxiety can undermine relationships if it blocks you for talking together about issues where you differ. Do you worry about trying to discuss sensitive relationship issues? Fortunately, the better your skills for communicating as a couple the more likely that confidence will replace your diffidence about relationship issues that need fixing.
Want to make your anxious feelings even worse?
Of course you do not. No one wants to worry or to take actions that make the problem ahead all the more threatening.
Yet do any of the following three habits patterns sound familiar to you? They are likely to foster and enlarge your fears, creating nervousness where none need be and assuring that the anxiety will continue.
Mistaken strategy #1: Guess others’ thoughts and feelings, and then believe your guesses.
Most guesses are based on worse fears. Most interpretations of others’ thoughts and feelings therefore are misinterpretations. Mind-reading most of the time comes up with wrong answers. "I know that you think I..." therefore is a needlessly anxiety-inducing habit.
This is good news. Reality is generally more benign than the worst-case scenarios that anxious and shy people assume to be true.
* * *
Jimmy was concerned that he would not get a performance-based raise this year. His boss looked uncomfortable when they’d talked the last few times, and bonus announcements were due to come out any day now. Jimmy believed his guess, and then tumbled into a deep state of depression.
* * *
Paulette believed that her husband Peter thought less of her than of his ex-wife. Why else had he been more financially generous with his ex-wife than with her? Feeling less-than in the eyes of her spouse, Paulette felt angry. Not wanting to make the situation even worse by berating Peter for treating her as a second-class citizen, Paulette withdrew emotionally from him.
The outcome? Peter felt rejected. To avoid the pain of experiencing his wife as cold and unloving, he coped by stretching out his business trips. When he traveled he tended to enjoy himself, burying his anxieties in long work days and TV in his hotel room at night. Paulette however intrepreted Peter's increasingly lengthy business trips as further signs that her husband did not love her.
Mistaken strategy #2: Avoid dealing directly with the problem and the people involved.
Anxiety arises because there's a problem ahead. Anxious tensions therefore are perpetuated if there is no attempt to discuss and resolve the difficulty.
* * *
Jimmy was afraid to discuss his concerns with his employer. Maybe, he anxiously assumed, sharing his fears with regard to his merit pay would lead his boss to see him in an even lesser light.
* * *
Paulette tried to discuss with Peter her feelings of being less-than in his eyes. Unfortunately, her skills for raising difficult topics were insufficient (see my PT posting on getting off to a good start). Instead of engaging Peter's empathy, she inadvertently sounded accusatory, inviting a defensive retort. In addition, Peter felt ashamed that because he was afraid of his ex-wife’s anger he did in fact often act in a manner that was overly solicitous and generous with her. In response to Peter's defensive counter-attack, Paulette dropped the discussion lest it lead to a fight.
Mistaken strategy #3: Jump ahead. Focusing on future potential events rather than staying focused on the present or very-next-action invites anxiety problems .
I first learned the dangers of what I refer to as “jumping ahead” working with professional tennis players as a psychological coach. If an athlete “jumps ahead” of the present, looking into the future to guess who will win a game, this focus on outcomes can totally undermine his ability to stay calmly focused in the present. Whether his jumping ahead led to anticipation of winning, which made him too excited, or to losing, which induced a grief reaction, jumping ahead into thinking about future outcomes often resulted in losing the game.
A phrase that signals jumping ahead in your thoughts is "What if...?" Another signal is worry. Worry is the generation of thoughts about potential bad things that could happen.
* * *
Jimmy woke up every morning with anxious stomach aches. Thoughts of how his boss might cut his bonus, maybe decrease his next year’s salary as well, and maybe even terminate his job, perpetually preoccupied him.
* * *
Paulette looked ahead at her future with Peter and saw no hope for resolution of her distress. She became increasingly certain that Peter did not love her now and never would be able to become the kind of supportive and generous husband she had hoped that she had married. With these thoughts, her anxiety mounted, leaving her feeling increasingly stressed. Desparate for relief, she told Peter she wanted to end the marriage. That felt to her like the only route back to inner calm.
* * *
Part II of this two-part series of articles focuses on anxiety-alleviation strategies, habits.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a marriage therapist and author of From Conflict to Resolution for therapists and The Power of Two for couples. Her current project, in addition to writing her blog on PsychologyToday, is an online marriage course,PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, that teaches the skills for feeling confident instead of anxious in relationships.