Anxiety: The Emotion Thief

by Jordan A. Hamilton, Ph.D.

Anxiety is a terrible thing to live with.  Whether it’s stress and worry about anything and everything, or the constant fear of the next panic attack, anxiety narrows lives and erodes even the most committed of relationships.  Whatever becomes associated with the anxious condition is avoided.  The anxious partner withdraws into their fear or clings so tightly that the other partner suffocates.  Anxiety affects not only the individual, but also all relationships including marriage, family, friends and co-workers.  It can damage careers and threaten jobs.

The anxious person is living in fear; unwittingly terrorized by their thoughts.  The fear may be small, looking like chronic nervousness, but it reaches into every corner of a couple’s life.  This Generalized Anxiety is persistent worry.  Like water on a rock, it wears at the foundations of an individual’s sense of self-worth.

When panic attacks, everything else becomes unimportant.  There is the fearful thought, the hollow feeling in the throat or chest, the shallow breathing, the tingling of the fingers and toes, the fear that death is at the door. They come out of nowhere, unheralded and unwanted. After one attack, there is the growing fear of another.  Soon the anxious individual is fearful of being fearful.

Avoidance becomes the pattern. The non-anxious partner often finds their own lives suddenly restricted by the fears carried by their partner.  Vacations are limited by the fear of flying, or of freeways or by the fear of crowds.  Every outing becomes a challenge to negotiate.  Every perceived risk is avoided.  In this way, anxiety becomes a thief, robbing loving partners of spontaneity, adventure and joy.

Whether it is called worry, nervousness, chronic stress or anxiety it wears upon families and friendships as well as marriages.  As the worried one’s self-esteem shrinks, they begin to emotionally withdraw and isolate.  They may even become depressed. It is painful and even embarrassing to feel out of control.  So it is understandable that the anxious person begins to stop doing, going and seeing the people, places, and things that have triggered anxious feelings. The anxious person progressively becomes more dependent upon family and friends.  And while they are grateful for the help and comfort, the anxious person often berates himself or herself for being so needy and causing so much trouble.

Marriages and families gradually become organized around the anxiety disorder.  Initially, the problem is given a quick fix.  “Okay, we won’t take the freeway” or “Don’t worry, we’ll be home by dark.”  Children will often forsake their own needs and wants for a parent.  “It’s alright mom, you don’t have to go.  I don’t mind.”  Husbands, wives, children, other family members and friends begin to add anxiety into the relationship equation.  Though well-intended, caring people unknowingly enable the avoidance that helps maintain the anxious feelings and behaviors.

So what should loving family and friends do for their anxious loved one?  Insist that they see a licensed mental health professional who knows and understands how to treat this condition. Unfortunately, but understandably, treatment for anxiety is often at top of the list of avoided activities. Yet nothing could be more important!  Medication alone only delays getting to the heart of the matter.  (Ironically, anxiety takes a toll on the health of the physical heart, but more about that later.)  Research demonstrates that psychotherapy along with medication produces the best results in the treatment of anxiety.  Gentle insistence upon going to a mental health professional is very important.

So how does anxiety start?  There are many causes.  Individuals can inherit this tendency to be anxious.  Parents may model a fearful approach to life by their thoughts, words and deeds.  Anxiety can also result from a major life trauma that has stolen an individual’s sense of security and ability to take care of them.  Emotionally unresolved life traumas can and will pass on from one generation to another.  A nervous grandmother or grandfather can pass their fears down to their daughters and sons and to their grandchildren!  Anxieties can result from medical conditions and medications.  An anxiety disorder can be part of a more complex pattern or problem.  In some situations, an anxiety disorder can have unconscious benefits called secondary gain.

At the heart of the problem of almost all anxiety disorders is unexpressed emotion.  David Burns M.D., author of “When Panic Attacks”, has said that anxious people are just too nice.  These are people who hold in their feelings rather than take the risk of offending someone.  Over time, the unexpressed emotional energy reaches a critical mass.  The body just can’t contain the pent up emotion any longer.  If the individual is unwilling or unable to bring these feelings into awareness and talk about them, the emotion will begin to leak out in chronic worry or burst out in a panic attack or other emotional meltdown.

Anxiety is scary.  Fears and fearful thoughts are haunting.  We are frightened because we are out of control.  In that moment, when the cloud of nervousness comes over us we are no longer present with those we love.  Medical research is producing more and more evidence that chronic stress and worry are at the root of many physical disorders and diseases.  Without treatment, anxiety is like compound interest, it keeps growing over time; paying a terrible dividend.  Don’t get hung up in trying to diagnosis yourself or your loved one.  Regardless of the cause, act now.  (Contact us now, click here)

Types of Anxiety Disorders

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