I’m an anxious guy with an anxious lover, and it feels like we’re often playing hot potato with our anxiety. When I’m anxious, I pass it to her. When she’s anxious, she passes it to me. It’s unintentional, but exhausting nonetheless.
If only there were ways to shield yourself from someone else’s anxiety so we could break the cycle. Oh, there are? Let’s talk about them together.
Recognize Where Your Anxiety Comes From
There’s a well-established explanation for why anxiety and other emotions are contagious. “This is because we have ‘mirror neurons’ that pick up other people’s emotions,” says psychologist Ann Buscho, author of The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting: A Child-Centered Solution to Co-Parenting During Separation and Divorce. For example, she says, a mom can soothe a crying baby by simply acting calm due to limbic resonance, a capacity for sharing deep emotional states. “They even regulate each other’s heart rates,” she adds. In other words, you may be feeling your partner’s anxiety simply because that’s what your body is designed to do.
Likewise, if your partner’s anxiety makes you anxious, it’s possible that you’re taking on their feelings because of the way you were raised. For instance, psychologist Jeanette Raymond says people who grew up with visibly anxious parents (especially those who refused therapy) are more likely to pick up on someone else’s negative emotions because that’s how they learned to connect with their loved ones.
Knowing why you’re contracting your partner’s anxiety can at least help you rationalize those feelings. In fact, Buscho says externalizing your anxiety by reminding yourself that you’re simply under its influence — as opposed to anxiety being an actual part of your character — can help you recognize that it will pass.
Don’t Get Mad
Getting frustrated and telling your partner to be less anxious is one of the least helpful things you can do. “The anxious partner isn’t intentionally making the other person anxious,” says couples therapist Caitlin Cantor. Therefore, she says it’s best to simply take steps to self-soothe (and remember, if you’re able to calm yourself down, that can relax your anxious partner, too).
As for how to alleviate your anxiety, there are all sorts of ways. Raymond, for instance, suggests grounding yourself by tuning into the physical feelings of your feet on the floor or your butt in a chair. She also recommends taking deep breaths, which activate your parasympathetic nervous system and subsequently make you feel safe. “You may want to do that with your partner, too,” she adds. Meanwhile, Buscho says, “It helps to visualize a calm, safe place in nature, like the beach or the mountains.”
Likewise, meditation can be a huge help, even if only for a few minutes a day. That’s because it activates the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, which governs thinking and emotion in ways that are believed to spur a decrease in anxiety. For new meditators, Buscho recommends the Calm app, which will teach you all the basics.
Do Something Else
If all else fails, disengaging, going to another room and doing something you enjoy may be the best option. “Sometimes you have to just detach,” Buscho says. “Their anxiety isn’t your problem to fix.”
In a roundabout way, this might even help your partner, too, because removing your anxiety from the situation ensures that it doesn’t reflect onto them.
I guess I’ll go eat all the snacks in my kitchen, then.