Anxiety is a pervasive problem in general, and of course, it’s going to come out in relationships because relationships hit every emotional sore spot inside of us and there is a lot at stake.
Your intentions are good, you want the relationship to last and you want to avoid being hurt, but the way it manifests could end up ruining the very thing you want so badly.
So let’s break it down and talk about why it happens and what you can do to solve it and get the love you want.
People who experience a high level of anxiety in their relationships usually have an anxious attachment style
Our attachment style determines a lot about how we interact in relationships, but you don’t have to be boxed in by your style. A lot of people see attachment style as something fixed but it really is a spectrum and you can manage it to be on the more “high-functioning” side.
Essentially, there are four main attachment styles:
- Secure. This is essentially the gold standard. People with a secure attachment style feel comfortable and confident in relationships. They can be vulnerable and also at ease without worrying their partners will leave them.
- Avoidant. People with this attachment style avoid or fear commitment- they may completely avoid relationships altogether or be cold and distant when in a relationship anytime they feel like things are getting too close.
- Anxious. This is a type of insecure attachment style rooted in fear of abandonment. These people are usually terrified of their partner leaving them, and they have a hard time being apart from their partners in general.
- Anxious/avoidant. This style is a mix of the previous two. They desperately crave closeness, but also feel terrified of it. This style is considered the rarest and usually occurs in people who had especially traumatic childhoods.
For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing specifically on the anxious style.
Some classic signs of an anxious attachment style are feeling insecure in a relationship, clingy, terrified of rejection, jealous, distrusting your partner, overthinking everything and having a negative view of yourself
Now here is the thing about anxious attachment that people don’t always realize: it doesn’t necessarily mean you are constantly consumed with fears of your partner leaving (although some people who are very high anxiety will feel that way). Rather, it’s activated by certain triggers. So you can be totally fine and cool and chill in your relationship, but if you sense your partner might leave or if he or she shows signs that they might be losing interest, that anxious attachment style will be activated and the fear will come flooding in.
A study found that people with an anxious attachment style are indeed more vigilant to changes in others’ emotional expression and can have a higher degree of accuracy and sensitivity to other people’s cues. However, this finding comes with a caveat. The study showed that people with an anxious attachment style tend to jump to conclusions very quickly, and when they do, they tend to misinterpret people’s emotional states. Only when the experiment was designed in such a way that anxious participants had to wait a little longer— they couldn’t react immediately when they spotted a change, but had to wait a little longer— and get more information before making a judgment did they have an advantage over other participants.
Let’s unpack what this means.
Anxious people are hyper-vigilant about how their partners act. So let’s say one day you text your guy and he doesn’t text back for a few hours. But usually, he texts back within one hour, and you know this because you are always paying close attention.
But today he’s going longer than normal and you start to spin. What is going on? Is he with a girl? He must be with a girl because he always has his phone on him … I mean it’s 2023… everyone is glued to their phone! Why wouldn’t he have his phone? He must be with his girl and he doesn’t want to text me when he’s with her. I can’t believe he’s doing this. Men are all evil monsters. I’m going to end up alone. Life isn’t fair
And you spin and spin. Then your guy reemerges. Turns out, he was in a meeting that ran long. Now you feel better, but deep down you’re angry. He still should have texted. Something isn’t right. Maybe he’s losing interest. And now you punish him because he has wronged you. Maybe you’re passive-aggressive, maybe you ice him out, maybe you yell at him, maybe you withhold affection.
He doesn’t understand why you’re acting like this and may put up a wall because he doesn’t want to deal with it. You might interpret this as him being cold and mean and think maybe he’s getting tired of you and is thinking about leaving and your anxiety will kick into high gear once again.
If you are anxiously attached, and if you also happen to be dating someone who is avoidantly attached, this type of thing will be recurrent and your relationship will be absolute misery until you either deal with it or break up.
One thing I talk about a lot is the fact that the subconscious mind is always looking to prove itself right.
Essentially these anxious thoughts come from a place of thinking deep down that you are not enough, that you’re unworthy. And your mind is looking for proof of that.
This is why anxious women are often drawn to avoidant men – because deep down she doesn’t feel worthy of love, but she thinks if she can get this guy to love her, then she’ll be worthy and then all her past pain and trauma will be wiped away, but she can’t really break through because he has an avoidant style and her neediness makes him even more avoidant.
An anxious person may also act out because they want to be soothed and reassured. We all like a little reassurance at times, but if it becomes constant, then it’s draining and emotionally exhausting even for the most empathetic partner.
Where does an anxious attachment style come from?
The majority of people in the field believe it’s formed in childhood and develops when a parent is inconsistent- one moment they’re emotionally insensitive and other moments they are loving and available. The child doesn’t know what to expect and is hungry for consistent attention and connection
This causes people with anxious attachment to have a hard time depending on others- they might distrust others and believe those they love and depend on can be emotionally erratic and even abusive.
However, it doesn’t always come from childhood. You can develop anxious attachment as an adult after a traumatic relationship experience.
Now let’s talk about solutions to get your anxiety under control
1. Date someone with a secure attachment style.
Dating someone who is secure will anchor you and model a healthy way of being. A lot of people with anxious attachment styles are drawn to avoidants but you have to recognize this will make things worse and this is usually a toxic dynamic.
The reason anxious and avoidants usually wind up together is first, only an anxious person will put up with the avoidant’s avoidance and the avoidant’s hot and cold behavior feels familiar to the anxious because that’s most likely what was modeled when they were growing up. We will always gravitate toward the familiar even if it hurts us.
2. Be emotionally honest.
Blaming, shaming, accusing, guilting and so forth rarely create a healthy dynamic. Being open, honest, and vulnerable does. So be honest with your partner. Tell them: “I care about you, I want to connect, but I have some intimacy issues that sometimes get in my way” and talk about it.
In order to do this, you need to be emotionally honest with yourself. Try to identify the source of your anxiety- did it come from your parents? From your ex? And examine how it shows up in your daily life and in your relationships. When you get an understanding of what’s at play, explain it to your partner.
You won’t be able to articulate these things when you’re in an emotionally reactive state so it’s important to discuss it when you’re calm instead of waiting for an argument.
If you’re afraid that your partner will leave if you’re honest or that they won’t be able to deal with it, then you’re probably with the wrong person.
3. Respond instead of react.
This goes back to the study I cited earlier: Only when the experiment was designed in such a way that anxious participants had to wait a little longer— they couldn’t react immediately when they spotted a change, but had to wait a little longer— and get more information before making a judgment did they have an advantage over other participants.
So what does this look like? Let’s say your guy goes out with his friends and you don’t hear from him- you immediately assume he met a girl and is hooking up with her, take a pause. Realize maybe he’s just having fun with his friends and wants to give them his attention.
Everything in your relationship is fine, there is no cause for concern.
It isn’t reasonable for him to text you every five minutes. If you place these demands and expectations, you will look needy and desperate and things will only further deteriorate.
Think about what you would tell your best friend in this situation- how would you talk to her? This is a good strategy overall to help us get centered when we’re unraveling.
Try to choose your response instead of reflexively reacting. Take deep breaths, count back from five, or go outside for some air. Anxiety can be very frenzied and frenetic, do whatever works best for you in those moments of heightened reactivity to slow it down.
4. Watch how you speak to yourself.
That inner voice is powerful and sometimes overbearing, but it doesn’t control us… we actually have agency over our thoughts. And what we think creates a change within us. Managing your thoughts is the difference between feeling panicked and terrified or calm and at ease.
Don’t go spiraling when the anxious thoughts creep in. Stop them in their tracks by telling yourself: I am OK. I will be OK.
You can also play therapist with yourself.
Ask yourself questions when you’re in a moment of panic.
What’s the real fear here?
I’m afraid he met another girl.
And what does that mean to you?
He’ll leave me.
And then what?
I’ll be alone.
And why does that make you scared?
It proves I’m unlovable
Well, eventually I’ll pick myself up and move on and will be OK.
Keep going and asking yourself questions … you will always land at a place where it will be OK and this will melt those panicked feelings away… there’s nothing to worry about if you know it will all end up OK.
5. Find someone reliable to talk to.
This could be a friend, a family member, a coach, or maybe a good therapist.
A lot of the time, our anxiety-generated fears are totally irrational and we can’t see it until we talk it out and unravel what’s going on. You need to separate the thoughts from your being and when they stay in there and go unchallenged, they merge in with who you are and how you see yourself.
Having an objective person can really help you get unravel what’s happening and loosen those knots. And a skilled therapist can give you the tools to manage that anxiety.
Journaling and meditation are also excellent tools for getting your mind and thoughts under control.