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Numerous clients have walked into my office with a similar set of symptoms: difficulty concentrating, intrusive worries or thoughts, a history of unresolved emotional wounds or devastating breakups, and nervousness and fear around relationships, intimacy, and commitment. Their symptoms triggered relationship or dating difficulties and led to the use of walls for protection and a fascination with fleeing their romantic relationships. Simply put, they were experiencing relationship anxiety.
Many of my clients mentioned above are now married or engaged. Others realized their relationship was making them anxious because of a specific relationship issue or pattern of behavior and not because of general relationship anxiety (yes, there is a big difference) and realized walking away from an unhealthy partner was the recipe for greater happiness. Some are single again and using better tools to make dating less anxiety provoking.
Regardless of their individual paths and choices, they learned how to manage their anxiety, leading to well-informed relationship decisions and the ability to stop relationship anxiety from running the show. And that’s what I’m here to help you do. Below I’ll take you through what relationship anxiety is, its common symptoms and effects on couples, and how to overcome it.
Anxiety consists of feelings of uneasiness, worry, or apprehension about the future or uncertain outcomes. Anxiety may arise when we question our ability to handle something, when we feel out of control, or when we have to accept the reality of not knowing what the future will hold.
Relationships bring up these concerns for many. As exciting as love can be, it can also breed anxiety and fear about getting hurt, rejected, or let down. Relationship anxiety is one of the most universal forms of anxiety, given the natural feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty associated with investing in a partner, falling in love, and trusting someone new.
Anxiety can manifest physically through symptoms such as rapid heart rate, panic attacks, loss of appetite, shaking, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, stomachaches, and headaches. Relationship anxiety often mimics these physical symptoms while negatively affecting dating, relationships, and psychological well-being.
“Anxiety consists of feelings of uneasiness, worry, or apprehension. Anxiety may arise when we question our ability to handle something, feel out of control, or have to accept the reality of not knowing what the future will hold.”
Relationship anxiety can be more than mentally draining and can actually tax our immune system. Research has found “levels of cortisol — a hormone associated with stress — were on average 11% higher in people with higher levels of attachment anxiety than in those who were less anxious.”
Relationship anxiety emerges from a number of causes and underlying factors. I often see relationship anxiety coupled with low self-esteem or a lack of self-acceptance. The relationship you have with yourself directly influences how you relate to others, so feeling unworthy or undeserving of love or having a poor self-image is bound to cause you to question if someone could love or accept you, which in turn causes anxiety around relationships.
Relationship anxiety may also be connected to a pre-existing anxiety or other mental health disorder. It commonly surfaces from an anxious attachment style, which is the attachment style of about 20% of the population. Anxious attachment style is generally derived from childhood experiences with inconsistent caregiving or a lack of love and affection from early caregivers, which interferes with our evolutionary need for connection and attachment. As an adult, someone with an anxious attachment style may become hypervigilant, monitor the behavior of a significant other too closely, and become needy of reassurance. The good news: your attachment style can change!
Other major causes of relationship anxiety include a history of toxic or abusive relationships, difficult breakups, or unresolved wounds from previous relationships. You may also be anxious if you fear a partner will leave you or if you fear commitment, marriage, or emotional vulnerability. It may appear if you are struggling with communication or security in your current relationship. Increased fighting, lack of trust in the future, or relationship stress can set off anxiety. Relationship anxiety may appear at any stage in a relationship.
Relationship anxiety can lead to a variety of symptoms, the most common being:
Every relationship is unique, and therefore relationship anxiety, if present, can impact couples in different ways. Here are a some of the most common effects:
This will interfere with your own emotional availability. If you are not emotionally available, it is very difficult to connect with romantic partners or take risks in relationships.
Relationship anxiety can also lead you to question yourself or your partner. It may be difficult to believe your partner or trust your relationship is positive.
As well as hypersensitivity with being apart from your partner, feeling anxious can lead to desperate behavior and jealousy. Also, if your partner doesn’t always respond with warmth and affection, you may feel more insecure and anxious, even if nothing is wrong.
You may find yourself picking fights, punishing your partner, acting selfishly, or withholding love and affection if you are not in control or aware of your anxious feelings.
Your anxiety may tell you not to get your hopes up or not to get too attached and can lead to a lack of excitement about your relationships and future commitment.
Despite relationship anxiety causing you to wonder if you should put the brakes on your relationship, understanding what relationship anxiety is can lead to symptom management and recovery. Through the active use of coping skills, self-care practices, and communication strategies, relationship anxiety is less likely to cause a blockage in relationship success.
Take an honest look at your childhood experiences and past relationships as well as related feelings and patterns. Think about how you were treated in past relationships and what caused you to feel insecure or undeserving of love. When did these feelings start? By gaining a better understanding of yourself, you can modify anxious thoughts and feelings and leave the past behind, which in turn creates healthier behavior patterns.
You can do this by knowing the difference between relationship anxiety and anxiety or fear due to a specific relationship or partner who is not right for you.
This can be a tricky balance, but it is so important to trust your intuition and decipher where your anxiety is coming from. Anxiety present during an abusive relationship or with an unstable partner is worth listening to, whereas relationship anxiety present during a relationship you want to stay in is worth managing.
And don’t let your anxiety lead you to mistreat your partner.
Talk about your feelings with your partner instead of relying on avoidance tactics or emotionally reactive behaviors. Instead of punishing your partner or keeping your emotions to yourself, communicate calmly and assertively while keeping in mind that your partner is imperfect (as we all are) and is doing his or her best to meet your needs.
Putting yourself down, calling yourself names, or struggling to let go of mistakes or imperfections all block your ability to feel worthy and accepted. Gain awareness of the way you talk to yourself about yourself and modify thoughts such as “I’m lazy,” “I’m stupid,” “I’m ugly,” “No one will ever love me,” or “I will never find love,” to more encouraging, accepting, and reality-based thoughts, such as “I am beautiful,” “I am deserving of love and happiness,” “I give myself permission to love and accept love.”
Every time you revert back to your self-critical voice, catch yourself and replace it with your new voice. Don’t be discouraged if it takes time to change your automatic thoughts. It truly takes effort and practice to change ingrained beliefs and inner voices.
It is best to pick a secure partner who will offer you support, patience and love as you work through your anxiety. Also, be aware of on-again, off-again relationships as they commonly breed power struggles and anxiety when you don’t know where you stand or if the fate of your relationship is in another person’s hands.
Try exercising, spending time in nature, meditating, reading, journaling, and spending quality time with loved ones. Treat yourself to a massage or spa treatment and practice bringing your mind back to the present when it naturally wanders. Approach life with an attitude of gratitude and soak in the many physical and mental health benefits. Practice deep-breathing and relaxation strategies as well as mindfulness (living in the present with a non-judgmental attitude).
Also, understand when to seek help from a trusted mental health professional. If you are unaware of the root cause of your anxiety, your symptoms are not improving or if your anxiety is interfering with your ability to function, seeking out psychotherapy is a wise idea.
In fact, the more you diminish the power your anxiety has over you, the more joyous, trusting, and connected your relationship will become. By letting go of anxiety’s pull on you with the above strategies, you can shift your focus to enjoying and strengthening your love life.