As I talked about last time, I’m devoting November and December to mental illness and psychopathology and the impact they have on dating and relationships. Today, we’ll talk about the most common (and perhaps most misunderstood) of the mental illness options:
Google defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” They also give a psychiatric definition: “a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.”
Anxiety can vary from being your run-of-the-mill worrying to a feeling that’s so crippling that the sufferer keeps his world very small (even as small as his own home) to avoid triggering panic attacks (a phenomenon known as agoraphobia). There are a variety of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety, social anxiety (which I’ll talk about next time), specific phobias, and panic disorder (panic attacks). It also includes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Symptoms of generalized anxiety (from the Mayo Clinic) can include:
- Persistent worrying or anxiety about a number of areas that are out of proportion to the impact of the events
- Overthinking plans and solutions to all possible worst-case outcomes
- Perceiving situations and events as threatening, even when they aren’t
- Difficulty handling uncertainty
- Indecisiveness and fear of making the wrong decision
- Inability to set aside or let go of a worry
- Inability to relax, feeling restless, and feeling keyed up or on edge
- Difficulty concentrating, or the feeling that your mind “goes blank”
Physical signs and symptoms may include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Muscle tension or muscle aches
- Trembling, feeling twitchy
- Nervousness or being easily startled
- Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
Anxiety disorders are the most highly treatable of the mental disorders, but the majority of people who have them never get treated. The causes of anxiety disorders are many and can include genes, family upbringing, and traumatic events (especially in childhood).
Dating, Relationships, and Anxiety
I have this friend. She’s pretty, she’s smart, but she’s a bit high-strung. One time, a guy she was interested sent her an interesting email. She talked to me about what to say in reply, I advised her, and she ended up spending 45 minutes on a 3-line reply. Another time, she went out with a guy a couple of times who told her he liked her at first but then she seemed “too anxious,” and she should “just relax.” When she got into a relationship, her worries over her career and family were regular issues, and her partner spent a lot of time reassuring and soothing her. Even with her friends, she would disappear for days at a time and return no calls because she was too overwhelmed with the demands of her life. After years of friendship, she moved away and we lost touch.
I also knew a guy who was young, good-looking, and loved music. Anxiety disorders ran in his family and he was no exception. He drank a lot in his youth, until his partner got pregnant and he decided to quit for the baby’s sake. But without the alcohol, his anxiety reared its head and he suffered from panic attacks so bad that he’d learned to cope by keeping his life confined to his city and the next one over, where he worked. He was in a band, but they couldn’t do gigs because it meant him traveling outside his zone of comfort. Dating was also hard for him because he was limited to those who lived in his (not that large) town.
I know another woman — a family member — who was impatient and tended toward irritability. She worried about many things and didn’t trust people. She was high-maintenance and demanding on everyone, especially her (thankfully easygoing) husband. She needed to control things and preferred things being neat and clean all the time.
What do these three people have in common? They all suffer from an untreated anxiety disorder, and that disorder has had a strong impact on their relationships.
What’s unique about anxiety is that it’s the one mental disorder that has a greater impact on dating than on relationships. Think about how nerve-wracking dating can be. If you’re a guy, getting up the nerve to talk to a woman you’re attracted to and then to ask her out is no small achievement. If you’re a woman, it’s nerve-wracking to talking to men you don’t know, wondering if some guy you met online will harm you, or waiting for a call from a guy you like. If you get past these stages, then you have to face new uncertainties — does he like me? Is she seeing other guys? Why hasn’t he called me? She says she’s busy; is she just not interested?
These things are hellish enough for anyone. For someone with anxiety, they can make dating a giant suffer-fest.
The good news is that when an anxious person gets past the dating phase and meets someone promising, things get a lot easier. However, anxiety can still test a relationship.
Anxiety is so uncomfortable that people will do anything to cope. They may self-medicate with alcohol. They may turn into clean freaks. They may have to fix every problem right away instead of letting it go. They may be controlling about wanting things their way. They may need a lot of space, and then get upset if you give them too much. They may have a new problem every week. They may worry that you’re going to leave them. They may avoid change of any kind. This isn’t them, it’s their anxiety.
If you don’t suffer from an anxiety problems, you might have a difficult time understanding why your partner is doing these things. They’re trying to cope, and no amount of telling your partner to “relax” or “quit worrying” is going to help. If anything, it will make him or her feel more alone and anxious. If you know (or even suspect) that your partner has problems with anxiety, do some research on anxiety disorders and how to have a relationship with an anxious person. Encourage him/her to seek treatment. I have no update on examples one and two above, but I do know that example three began taking a low dose of a good SSRI and it made all the difference for her. She was nicer and less irritable because she was no longer plagued by anxiety.
If you have the anxiety problems, it’s important to understand what anxiety feels and looks like for you, and convey that to your partner. It’s also important to seek treatment and/or ways to cope with anxiety, so as not to let it put too much strain on your relationship. There are a variety of possible treatments and I’m a big fan of trying natural remedies first. If your anxiety isn’t severe, they might do the trick. Even if you need to seek a doctor, the natural remedies can often help with the traditional treatments.
This is a big topic and I’ve only scratched the surface here. But if you suffer from anxiety problems or are involved with someone who does, don’t ignore them and hope they’ll go away. They won’t. Do your research and get your arms around the problem. Anxiety is treatable and there’s no reason it has to strain your love life.
I’d love to hear your comments, experiences, and advice about dealing with anxiety in dating and relationships. So would readers.