Whether you’re in a long-term committed relationship or fresh off a swiping session on Tinder, relationship anxiety can — and likely will — pop up at some point.
Whether it stems from lack of trust, fear of abandonment, questioning your compatibility or worrying about non-reciprocated feelings, most people experience some form of unease about the future of their partnership. The real issue arises when natural worry evolves into debilitating stress or results in self-sabotage that negatively affects your relationship.
Relationship anxiety can cause people to engage in behaviors that end up pushing their partner away.
Accepting that some anxiety is completely normal is the first step to keeping it at a manageable level.
When you begin to feel it spiral out of control — and have ripple affects that begin to hurt your relationship and your own mental health — here’s what you need to know about identifying the source and getting it under control.
Signs Your Relationship Anxiety Has Reached an Unhealthy Level
“It is important to note that everyone has some relationship anxiety, and that’s to be expected,” reiterated Dr. Amanda Zayde, a clinical psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center. “However, if you find yourself hypervigilant for clues that something is wrong, or if you experience frequent distress that impacts your daily life, please, take some time to address it. Everyone deserves to feel secure and connected in their relationships.”
Some clear signs that you’re toeing the line — or have sprinted beyond it — include “consistent emotional instability, impaired judgement, impaired impulse control, difficulty focusing and paying attention to daily tasks, feeling lovesick and sad, and a decrease in motivation, loneliness and fatigue,” says Dr. Danielle Forshee, a psychologist who specializes in relational and marital issues.
This ongoing state of mind is not only mentally exhausting and detrimental to your own wellbeing, but can ultimately lead to relationship disintegration.
“Relationship anxiety can cause people to engage in behaviors that end up pushing their partner away,” says Dr. Zayde. “For example, calling 20 times in a row, jumping to conclusions or becoming emotionally distant. It can also cause a tremendous amount of distress and distraction, as people spend hours trying to decode their partner’s behavior.”
Dr. Forshee adds, “They may obsess over their lover’s social media accounts, incessantly Google them or have their friends assist in doing some investigating. They may falsely accuse their new lover of things that they have no evidence for, or become overly clingy, all to satisfy the craving for attachment and euphoria.”
While these behaviors may result in a decrease in panic or anxiety for the moment via mini neurochemicals bursts, says Forshee, they’re only a short-term distraction. For long-term easement, you must do some deep, inner digging and then proactively work toward minimizing the anxiety. And this process starts with identifying the real reason behind why the anxiety is occurring in the first place.
Childhood: The Root Cause of Relationship Anxiety
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“Oftentimes, relationship anxiety stems from attachment patterns that develop in early childhood,” says Zayde. “A child will develop a prototype of what to expect from others based upon their early caregiving experiences.”
She says that, depending on the accuracy and consistency of the caregiver’s response, a child will learn to either express or suppress his or her emotional and physical needs. This coping mechanism may work at the time, but it can morph into maladaptive behaviors when applied to adult, romantic relationships.
Oftentimes, relationship anxiety stems from attachment patterns that develop in early childhood.
A common example of maladaptive behavior is what psychologists refer to as an enmeshed relationship, or a situation in which a parent is overly involved in a child’s life, as stated in Greenberg, Cicchetti and Cummings' book, Attachment in the Preschool Years. This can lead to "reciprocally intrusive, controlling behavior," and "much insecurity and distress on the part of both over real or threatened separation."
On the flip side, for those who feel easily suffocated in a relationship, they may have had childhood experiences that caused them to become avoidant of relationships and bonding. For example, a child with an inattentive parent may learn to suppress their innate proclivity toward bonding in order to prevent heartache and feelings of rejection. As an adult, that child may have a difficult time committing to, or being vulnerable in, a relationship.
If this rings true to your experience, it may be worth digging deeper into attachment theory, which has greatly impacted the way modern psychologists and relationship experts think about relationships. You can even take a quiz to identify which type of attachment style you, and your partner, have.
Your Ex May Be to Blame for Your Anxiety
In addition to your childhood, past relationships can also play a role in the way you behave in relationships.
“If you are experiencing the type of relationship anxiety where you fear being cheated on, or have lack of trust in your new admirer, this may result from previous relationship experiences that have been encoded in your brain. Our brain never forgets,” said Forshee. “Basically, your brain circuitry has become used to associating certain traits, smells, sounds and feelings with a previous lover and relationship experiences. Your brain has laid down a powerful pattern from previously learned experiences, and your brain retains traces of that circuitry, even after you’ve fallen for someone new.”
Your brain has laid down a powerful pattern from previously learned experiences, and retains traces of that circuitry, even after you’ve fallen for someone new.
Finally, when you enter a new relationship, your body produces large amounts of powerful chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine, cortisol and vasopressin. When combined, these “love chemicals,” facilitate bonding and commitment. While they make us feel highly passionate, they can also make us emotionally unstable, angsty and downright obsessed with new partners. When we’re around our partners — especially when hugging, kissing or having sex — this hormone production goes into overdrive.
“When we are away from our new love, are fearing rejection, or have been rejected, it can make it feel like we’re going through addiction withdrawal,” explained Forshee, which can result in unhealthy obsession and anxiety.
How to Overcome Relationship Anxiety
Pinpointing the root causes of your relationship anxiety is perhaps the easy part. While overcoming your anxiety may be slow-going and difficult, it can be done if you’re deliberately mindful, fully dedicated to improvement and are kind to yourself as you navigate the path ahead.
“Take some time to better understand how your early experiences have shaped your attachment style, and stay aware of ways in which you might be repeating early experiences with your current partner,” advises Zayde. “Pay attention to how often you are jumping to conclusions, and whether or not you have sufficient evidence to support your fears; oftentimes, our fears are based on past experiences, not our current relationship.”
When stressful thoughts begin to take hold, follow these expert suggestions for staying in control and helping ease anxiety:
- Exercise. To help curb anxiety in the moment, Forshee recommends hitting the gym. Numerous studies have demonstrated that exercising increases serotonin production and release. Isolating yourself and becoming physically stagnant are the two worst things you can do, so get moving.
- Positive self-talk. “Engage in positive-self talk rather than negative self-talk, and have a friend help remind you of better times and what the positive things are in your life now,” says Forshee. “This act assists in increasing serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of your brain right behind the frontal areas responsible for attention, judgement and impulse control.”
- Take a step back. Forshee stresses the importance of not acting on your emotional impulses when feeling anxious. She says your brain won’t allow you to make good decisions in the heat of the moment, and you’ll most likely regret your actions shortly thereafter.
- Find ways to relax. “If you are unable to elicit help from your support system or cannot get yourself moving, engaging in a relaxation technique such as diaphragmatic breathing may be beneficial. This will help in physiological de-escalation so you can think clearer and feel less worked up,” Forshee notes.
- Get help. “Finally, if you find that your relationship anxiety has taken over in a manner where you feel it is out of your control — or has wreaked havoc in your life — seeking professional counseling is likely to be beneficial.”
Overcoming relationship anxiety ultimately boils down to having control over your emotions and your mental process. There’s a direct correlation between your health — and the success of your relationships — and the depth of understanding you have about yourself, your behaviors and your feelings. Take steps to identify sources of anxiety and re-route the spiral it incites today, and you may just be able to map out a new pattern for your brain to follow next time around.