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Dr. Raj … on Anxiety in Relationships

Anxiety in Relationships
Anxiety in Relationships
Guided Practice

Your closest relationship – your love relationship – should provide peace and a sense of respite, comfort and a spiritual connection for you and your partner. When that doesn’t happen (and even in the best of relationships it sometimes doesn’t) it often turns out that underlying anxiety is the reason why.

Anxiety plays out in relationships in many different ways. If you are the anxious person, your feelings may affect your ability to be close to your partner, whether or not the root of your worries has anything to do with him or her. If your loved one is doing things that cause you to feel anxious (like staying late at the office too often or spending too much money) then the feeling is a double-whammy – there’s the angst itself, plus the fact that you can’t get solace from your partner. And if your partner is the one with anxiety, that’s tough too, because anxiety can lead to controlling or clingy behavior.

When I think about anxiety I think of worrying, so I looked up the root of that word (something I do sometimes to understand concepts better) and I think you’ll find this as interesting as I did! The word “worry” is derived from a High German word, “worgen,” which means, literally, to strangle!  Worrying – anxiety – cuts off your ability to breathe. A bit of worrying can be a good thing, a sign that you need to solve a problem – but worry that just feeds on itself can strangle you … and your relationship.

Awareness of the role that anxiety plays in your relationships is a good first step toward taking control over it. Because anxiety is a fact of life, it’s important to learn to handle it productively in our relationships (most especially our intimate ones). When you feel anxious, pay attention to what you are feeling. Ask yourself, is this real or am I in reaction? If the problem is real, it needs to be solved and/or your anxiety needs to be released in an appropriate way. To learn how to do that, I suggest taking few minutes to try one of the mindfulness meditative techniques that I’ve outlined in today’s Guided Practice.

Guided Practice

Mindfulness is the art of living in the present moment. Anger (about what’s past) and anxiety (about what lies ahead) can take us out of where we are (the now) and interfere with our ability to function well.  Here are some strategies to help you figure out what’s at the root of your anxiety and find a way to resolve it.

The first step is to quiet your mind. It’s a fact that you cannot listen and think at the same time (and “thinking” in this context refers to the anxious thoughts that are looping in your brain).

Here’s what to do: Where ever you are, whatever you are doing, if you find that anxiety is building within, take 3 – 5 minutes to just sit and listen, with your full attention, to the sound in your environment. Whether what you hear is a lawn mower, rain, music, the air conditioner, music or even just the sound of your own breathing, listen closely.

Next comes deep breathing. I like a form deep breathing that I learned while working on my fellowship with Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s called “4 – 7 – 8 Breathing” and it’s a simple technique that has been shown to quiet the mind and calm the body.

  • Exhale, completely emptying your lungs.
  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose, four a count of 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  • Exhale, completely (make a “whooshing” sound to help empty your lungs) to a count of 8.
  • Repeat the cycle several times.

Now that you’ve calmed yourself – physically and mentally – you can examine your feelings and uncover the source of your anxiety. Do this by asking yourself “Am I in reaction?”  If the answer is yes, ask yourself “What am I reacting to?”  Is the anxiety based on things that happened in the past or fears about what might happen in the future? Or is there something happening right now that requires your focus and attention in a problem-solving way?

If your answer to the “Am I in reaction” question relates to the past or the future, try this technique to bring yourself into the here and now.  This is something I do regularly in my own life. I learned it from Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth. What he does is to observe and describe each moment as he lives it.  In an interview with Oprah, he discusses what it looks like to be in the present moment by describing himself waiting in his hotel room for a car to arrive to take him back to a lecture hall.  “The car come and the telephone rings, simple; I go downstairs and get in the car, simple; on the drive, blue sky, green trees, simple.”

This works so well for me that I’m able to bring my awareness into the present very quickly by just repeating to myself, “blue sky, green tree.” It’s like a mantra that brings on a meditative moment for me. When I find myself feeling overwhelmed and anxious about life, no matter where I am (even in Manhattan!) I find that almost always there’s a tree outside and sky above that I can use to focus my attention.  “Blue sky, green tree” has become my signal to stop, tune in to the world around me and turn off my anxious thoughts.  Try it!  Feel free to use these words or find some that work for you.

One final note: If your answer to the “Am I in reaction” question brought you to awareness of an issue you need to address with your significant other, you will achieve better results and can even enhance your intimacy by approaching the conversation in a calm, focused and loving way. Start by engaging him or her in a calm conversation before you bring up your concern.  Remember that your goal is not to accuse (that’s reaction!) but to clarify. This is another strategy I find has been very effective in my own relationships and I hope you find it works for you! Please feel free to call my show or send me an email to let me know how it works.