Have you ever felt anxious and not understood why? You may think that anxiety is something that has to be lived with or managed with tools. As a psychotherapist, I have seen how working through feelings and early relational dynamics can reduce patterns of anxiety.
We will explore the six ways anxiety and relationships are linked. I suggest that anxiety is actually caused in response to unconscious feelings that emerge as a response to important people in our lives.
We will learn how early attachment bonds affect how we relate to ourselves and others throughout our lives.
As humans, it's important we experience ordinary anxiety, as it’s a healthy signal for danger. This type of anxiety happens when the body perceives danger, and it responds with physical symptoms, which makes us take action (such as fight, flee, freeze, or collapse). These are ways to protect us and potentially save our lives.
Problems show when we experience anxiety or panic when there is no perceived visible threat. What usually happens with maladaptive anxiety is that the threat is internal. It is an internal conflict of some sort, involving feelings and defences against those feelings. This is when it is helpful to seek therapy.
Let’s look at the six ways anxiety and relationships are linked.
1. Early attachment bonds
Because humans are born vulnerable, there is a need for our caregivers during childhood. Without this care (from mother, father, or another carer), we would likely die. This is partly why children who are abused by their main carers stay attached to them. As humans, we have this built-in drive towards connection with, and love for and from, other humans. During abuse, it is safer for us to believe that if we change, the abuse will stop, rather than recognising the devastating truth.
2. Complex feelings towards parents
Because we form bonds with our caregivers to fulfil our need for love and connection, there is this good connection. When things go wrong, such as a parent who is depressed, emotionally unavailable, or abusive, other feelings also arise, such as rage, pain, and guilt.
Because of our need for survival and the need for our carers growing up, it feels dangerous to have aggressive feelings towards our carers. So the brain protects us by ignoring these feelings.
3. Why anxiety? Why complex feelings are repressed to the unconscious
The problem is that when feelings are ignored, they get stuck in the body (sometimes disconnected from the mind) and continue to grow. This can cause anxiety or physical symptoms such as headaches or IBS. This may have been helpful back then, as it helped us survive in a toxic environment. But later in life, when the environment is no longer toxic, it is not helpful.
In healthy development, our caregivers would say: "It’s OK to feel angry at me for turning off the TV." It teaches the child to recognise what they are feeling (emotional regulation), and it gives the child permission to have a negative feeling so that all the feelings can be a part of the psyche, not just the good ones. If anger is allowed to follow this natural course with an adult mind that is able to contain and talk about it with the child, without punishment or rejection, then the feeling runs its course and goes.
4. How we relate to ourselves: the internalisation of our earliest relationship
Our earliest important relationship and the environment we were raised in, are how we learn to interact with ourselves. This means that if we had a parent who was neglectful, critical or rejecting, we will unconsciously treat ourselves in these ways, as it’s what we know.
Other examples might be unconsciously neglecting ourselves (which may show up as loneliness or never seeming to get good things in life). Criticism (showing up as perfectionism) or rejection of ourselves and our feelings (showing up as avoidance or people pleasing).
5. Emotional triggers
One of the six ways anxiety and relationships are linked is when we are emotionally triggered. This is when we feel something in a relationship that brings back early, painful, unprocessed feelings.
This includes the complication of projection. If we had early experiences of constant rejection (such as micro rejections of things we said, always being told we were doing things wrong, etc) then we will unconsciously expect everyone to reject us in this way. We see the world and people through this lens of projected rejection.
This then gets in the way of seeing people for who they really are and seeing the good in people. This can be very painful and confusing and causes anxiety.
6. Social anxiety
BACP research in February found that 62% of people in the UK said their mental health had been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Of those people, 41% said that social anxiety was a reason for this. And research suggests younger people are more likely to experience social anxiety.
Social anxiety can be seen as unconscious complex feelings (both positive and negative) from our earliest relationships or family experiences being triggered in the current situation.
For example, if we had an experience of always being rejected or shamed, we will unconsciously expect this to happen in our current lives. We depend on our defences to protect against rejection, because if we can predict it, we can take steps to avoid it. The problem is when the defence gets in the way of becoming close to people and realising that people can be different from those early relationships.
I believe that the rise in anxiety post-pandemic is because we were left with our internal worlds during the lockdowns, without being able to distract ourselves and keep ourselves feeling good by doing the things we love (be that socialising, going to an exhibition or eating out).
Our unresolved anxieties were triggered by the isolation (if we felt emotionally or physically isolated as a child growing up, then isolation is very painful and would have been triggered during lockdowns). The existential threat of danger and death that the pandemic created could be triggered if we grew up in an unpredictable household, where we did not feel safe.
If we were locked down with our families, as younger people, we might have had less practice at getting out into the world and experiencing relationships that treated us differently from our families of origin.
In all of these cases, the problems arise because the feelings that arise are unconscious and can’t be understood and worked through without the help of a therapist. Once these feelings arise, there is an increase in anxiety to try to repress the feelings.
What can be done
I hope this piece has helped you to understand the six ways anxiety and relationships are linked.
If you’re curious about yourself and why you feel the way you do and believe in change, then therapy can help. Therapy can be a supportive place to work through painful, unresolved feelings and unconscious dynamics from the past. Getting the right support can help you feel freer internally and help you move forward in life, by building up your tolerance and capacities to experiences, thereby containing anxiety, and your feelings.
In therapy, the client can have a different experience of relating. They can learn that their feelings, thoughts and behaviours are welcome, in an environment where they won’t be judged. For some people, it is a revelation to realise their unconscious expectations and behaviours in relationships and to realise that not all people will treat them in the same way they were treated early in life. And as feelings and projections are neutralised, anxiety greatly decreases.
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