Most of us experience acute anxiety. This is the nervous feeling you get when speaking in front of a large crowd, or when you are hosting the entire family for Thanksgiving and you want everything to be perfect. Acute anxiety is your central nervous system’s response to a threat (real or imagined), and after a short period, those anxious feelings taper off and you return your normal baseline state. Chronic anxiety is something altogether different, and can be dangerous in any relationship.
Let’s look at the example of Mike and Elaine. Mike is attending therapy because his wife, Elaine, gave him an ultimatum. “Either you go to therapy or this marriage is over.”
Mike is all about blame. Typically, when he and Elaine have an argument, even about something small or insignificant, Mike tends to become defensive and shift the blame to her. Even when he is at fault and knows he should apologize, he often justifies his actions to make it appear as though Elaine is responsible for the problem. As a corporate lawyer, he is very skilled at this kind of deflection.
During an argument, Mike experiences the physical symptoms of anxiety. The tension builds in his chest; his muscles involuntarily tighten in response to the stress he feels. Mike does not have the tools he needs to calm himself. He is uncomfortable with the physical sensations, and will do whatever it takes to relieve the pressure. He wants an immediate resolution. More often than not, the result is an angry explosion, and Elaine doesn’t know how to short circuit his reaction.
When I dig deeper into Mike’s background, I learn that his father left the home when Mike was eleven years old. He and his mother were left in poverty, moving from home to home, barely surviving. His mother lacked healthy coping strategies to deal with her situation, and her extreme anxiety was expressed in loud volume confrontations. When she raised her voice with Mike, he learned to defend himself and turn the confrontation back on her. He never learned how to defuse a situation.
To avert the uncomfortable symptoms of his chronic anxiety, Mike tries to avoid conflict. He is nice to everyone in order to prevent a confrontation. Mike finds it difficult to spend more than thirty minutes with either of his parents; just being around them causes stress. His area of legal specialty is contract law, where he sits behind a desk and reviews paperwork. Although he rarely experiences conflict on the job, he unknowingly remains in a constant state of alert.
For Mike, chronic anxiety is like having background noise in his head at all times. He is constantly trying to avoid the sound, and he is always ready to fight it or flee from it. This is how he lives.
In this case, the background noise comes from his childhood experience with his family situation. When I help Mike understand this, I make sure to point out that there is no blame here; we are simply acknowledging the source. This source (negative family situation) is frequently the same across cultures, especially in the presence of poverty, substance abuse, violence, etc.
The first step in dealing with chronic anxiety is to get rid of the threat. In a relationship, it is critical to have the partner participate in this process. Since Mike’s anxiety is already creating a lot of noise in his head, talking is not an effective means of reducing his stress. Instead, we are using physical touch to make him feel safer. Whenever he and Elaine have a fight, she steps up and hugs him, at the same time asking him to give her a little space to think about the issue before they talk again. It has been difficult, but Mike is beginning to accept that Elaine processes conflict in a different way than he does, and he is getting better at giving her time to think. The physical reassurance of her hug reminds him that she is not rejecting him; they are simply having a difference of opinion.
Over time, Mike will learn to create healthy responses to conflict, which will ultimately reduce the level of his chronic anxiety. Removing the threat is the first step, and the comfort and encouragement implicit in Elaine’s hug helps him feel safe. Mike is ready for the challenge, because he does not want chronic anxiety to destroy his marriage.