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Overcoming Relationship Anxiety and Feeling Good About It

Learn how to cope with anxious attachment styles in yourself and others.

Based on the size of the U.S. population, there are presently more than 47 million Americans who have anxious attachment styles. That means that if you don’t have this personality style, then you are most likely in relationships with people who do. Understanding this personality style and how it impacts emotions and interpersonal behaviors can go a long way to relieving distress and conflict, avoiding unnecessary damage, and promoting healthy and mutually satisfying relationships.

Imagine the following scene: You are having an interaction with a close friend or significant other which ends with that person being rather distant and dismissing with you for no apparent reason. This person leaves without providing an explanation. You feel a slight surge of anxiety as you try to figure out why the person behaved that way. As the day goes on, you think about all of the other interactions you have had with this person. You remember other times that you have felt rejected and made to feel “less than.” You wonder if that person really likes and respects you. You might start to feel angry and misunderstood. After a while, you can’t get it out of your mind, and the discomfort becomes strong enough that you pick up the phone. You ask the person if anything is wrong and ask for a justification for his/her behavior. You try not to sound bothered but you can’t hide the upset in your voice. And, what’s worse is that the other person tells you that you are over-reacting, that nothing is up, and acts irritated. After hanging up, you feel even worse. At the end of the day, you try to address the issue again and it turns into a major argument with accusatory statements flying back and forth and you end up feeling angry and betrayed.

Similar events could happen in relation to your boss at work. Imagine that you perceive your boss to be warm and friendly to your coworkers and curt and distant with you. You send your boss an email. It isn’t essential that you get an immediate response but when you don’t hear back after a day, you start to think about it nonstop and wonder if you are in trouble. You spend a lot of time running over all of your recent interactions in your mind. Finally, you decide to confront your boss with the situation. You leave that interaction feeling even worse; like your boss looks down on you and thinks you are weak and foolish.

Now you might ask: “What the heck just happened?!” Maybe something was up with that other person. But, more often than not, it was something about them and not about you at all. And even if they were a little irritated with you about something ... so what! Most people will figure out their own stuff, get over it on their own, and re-engage with you when they are ready ... if you can back off long enough to give them the chance, that is.

So, if it wasn’t that big of a deal from a rational perspective, then what was it?

Most likely it was an emotional hijacking made likely because of the way your personality and emotional system got wired in childhood, because you have an “anxious attachment style.” If you do have an anxious attachment style, you can learn to recognize and understand it, capitalize on the strengths that it gives you, and override the parts that cause you problems. If you don’t have an anxious attachment style, then this material will help you understand those who do.

There are more than 40 years of research on attachment styles, beginning with the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth in the late 1960s. This research started with children and has developed to our present understanding of attachment processes and styles as personality variables that influence us “from the cradle to the grave.” This research tells us that if you have an anxious style (called “preoccupied” in adults), you were probably raised by one or more parents who were inconsistent in how they responded to you when you were young; especially when you were upset and needed reassurance. Sometimes the parent is warm and accepting and at other times cold and rejecting. The key is that you never know what you are going to get. Because children need to feel safe in their relationships with parents (see my February post for a description of the secure style and optimal parenting), those children will learn to closely monitor their parents so that they can tell if it is a good (hug) day or a bad (go to your room) day. This monitoring enables the child to shift his or her behavior in order to head off painful rejection. In the short term, this coping strategy works. The problem is that with consistent practice it becomes automatic.

Over the course of childhood, the anxiously attached person becomes “hypervigilant” for threat cues and “preoccupied” with his/her close relationships. Top attachment researchers Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver look at this style as reflecting a “hyper-activation” of the attachment system wherein the person’s social-threat-detection apparatus is always stuck in the on position. Modern brain imaging research confirms this statement, in finding that those brain structures that pick up on threat cues from the environment (e.g., the amygdala) are actually larger in people with anxious attachment styles.

So, if you have this style, you are likely to pick up readily on subtle emotional cues from others, experience strong emotional reactions, take a long time to come down from those reactions, and ruminate and have your thoughts hijacked while you are activated. Your thoughts then tell you that you have to fix the situation and you enact behaviors to do just that. The problem is that what you do to fix things often results in just making them worse. For an example, check out this YouTube clip from the movie “Swingers.” Watch how Mike digs himself a hole by trying to fix an imaginary problem.

One reason it is hard to control the hijacking, even though you know you really shouldn’t make that phone call, is that the wiring from your senses to your brain’s threat detection centers is quicker than the wiring from your senses to your cortex (where the conscious thought occurs). So, by the time you have had time to figure things through rationally, you have already experienced a surge of adrenaline which tells the rest of your brain that there is a threat out there that has to be eliminated.

The good news is that you can learn to control this pattern. Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Realize that your emotional barometer is too sensitive and gives you false positive readings.
  2. Be aware that it will be hard to think clearly when you are emotionally activated.
  3. Give yourself time outs. Take an extra 30 minutes or more before clicking “send” on that email.
  4. If the person you are talking to tries to distance him/herself, let it happen and try again another time.
  5. Tell yourself “there is nothing to fix.” Unless it is a life or death situation, it can wait until tomorrow.
  6. Distract yourself. Go do something else to take your mind off of it.
  7. Come to understand that talking about the problem over and over with your friends might keep you activated instead of making you feel better.
  8. Remember that having an overly sensitive threat detector also makes you extremely empathetic and compassionate to the emotional experiences of others.

There is nothing wrong with you! Your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are normal reactions of your biological machinery responding to the environment. If you can accepting that it was the environment that shaped your emotional system and personality, you should be able to stop blaming yourself and change.

One more thing you should know is that the biology of people with anxious attachment styles will interpret neutral facial expressions from others as a threat cue. The brain reads the neutral expression as an indicator that the other person is not going to be there for you and may reject you. So, your friend or partner who is trying to calm you down by not reacting or remaining cool while you are upset might just be having the opposite effect. And, of course, if you are that other person, being aware of the effect that your indifferent expression or attitude is having on your anxious friend can be eye-opening.

To learn more, tune in to my April post on the dismissing attachment style and the avoidance/denial of negative emotions.

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