I remember how I looked with complete lack of compassion at my mother when I was a young adult in my twenties. I couldn’t understand why she felt to hopeless, helpless and unhappy because I was young and had my entire life still in front of me. In her generation, there wasn’t much to accomplish anymore once your children were grown up. All a woman without a career had to look forward to was the arrival of her grandchildren. And when her first grandchild came, her oldest daughter (me) even lived far away in a different country on a different continent. Looking back now, I realize how once she was over 60, she desperately tried to find meaning as a homemaker with grown-up kids, even though she didn’t take any pride in any of the housewifely activities. She was the happiest when she could go out, connect with people and exercise.
When interacting with her, she usually seemed needy and clingy to me because I wasn’t in touch with my own neediness. I judged her for self-medicating with alcohol and over-exercising because I didn’t understand how we all use STERBS (Short Term Energy Relieving Behaviours) to distract ourselves from our pain. She had depression and anxiety, even though it wasn’t called anxiety back then. I just perceived her as ridiculously worried about things and unnecessarily afraid. My dad, a typical male of his generation, was overidentified with the rational mind and ridiculed her emotions and fears. And my sister and I kept her at arms length when she started getting too anxious. She had nobody to turn to who made her feel a bit safer, a bit more loved. Not until many years later when I was an adult myself with two daughters did that understanding and compassion for how hard it must have been to be her slowly set in.
Today depression and anxiety have become an epidemic. Some experts, for example the Cognitive Behaviour Therapists, suggest depression and anxiety need to be managed by interventions at the level of thought; other experts suggest there is a problem with our emotions. I believe we need to address both, our thoughts and the underlying beliefs as well as our emotions. The changes we make and the techniques we can learn need to consider both. But how do our relationships play into our thoughts and emotions?
From an attachment standpoint, part of the reason for anxiety and depression is a lack of connection. We are mammals who need to bond and connect with others in their lives. My mom was reaching out to a husband who did not know what to do with emotions and to two daughters who didn’t know that she was mirroring certain traits for us that we had disowned inside ourselves. The relationships in our life either help us to manage the depression and anxiety or they trigger it even further.
Partners who are not securely attached to one another, are typically highly anxious and/or depressed. We relive our childhood fears and experiences with our partner. Our partner is a proxy for all the other relationships we have ever had, going all the way back to our first attachment figures, our mother and father.
When we want to address depression and anxiety, we need to grow resources within ourselves, but relationships themselves can also become a resource and a safe heaven to find release. According to attachment theorist John Bowlby, people who feel depressed are experiencing an inner narrative about feeling lonely and not seeing themselves as important to other people. Sue Johnson points out that in our primary relationship, this plays out as the experience of not being seen, not mattering and not being needed. The emotions triggered are those of feeling unlovable and unworthy, of not being good enough in relation to other people.
So from the view of an attachment theory based clinician like Sue Johnson or Stan Tatkin, the cure for depression and anxiety lies in healing the loss of connection that was experienced in earlier relationships, which is being mirrored in our present relationships. Tatkin points out the effectiveness of face-to-face and eye-to-eye contact between partners. That connection through the eyes is stimulating and can upregulate the partner who feels depressed or anxious. It also focuses the depressed person outwards, instead of in their own head. It is like an outside meditation, keeping the focus on the present moment instead of the painful past or the worries about the future that are playing out in a depressed or anxious mind.
The importance of the eye-to-eye connection has been studied on mothers and infants. The more the mother makes contact face to face, giving the baby reassuring facial cues and being attentive, the more secure and happy the baby feels. The still face experiments with babies (for example conducted by Dr. Edward Tronick) on the other hand have shown that a still face in the mother and a lack of connection through visual and auditory responses create a response of fear and anxiety in the child.
The same still applies to adults. We are social mammals. There is a tremendous power when two people allow themselves to be truly present in and dedicated to a relationship. All our past relationships come out through the present-day love relationship to be completed and healed. Initially, the anxiety and depression might be intensified in the interactions, but partners can learn how to help co-regulate each other’s emotional states. According to Tatkin, the partner can become the best antidepressant and anxiolytic.
Tatkin points out the importance of “landing together at night and launching together in the morning”. Ideally, we start the day with our partner and we end it again in the evening by sharing about the day and connecting. He states that co-sleeping creates an important connection, even though that requires that issues like intense snoring, sleep apnea and restless-leg syndrome are being treated successfully.
In order to hold each other and down-regulate together, it is useful to have a tool to rate and communicate the emotion(s) that come up. Jayson Gaddis’ NESTR ritual would be one such tool. The N stands for the Number of activation. 1 is not triggered at all and 10 would be extremely activated, for example feeling high anxiety. The E is to pinpoint the Emotion that we are experiencing. The S calls to find the sensation in the body which comes with this emotion. And T is for becoming aware of the Thoughts or the inner narrative that goes hand in hand with the emotion. R is a reminder for Resources that the individual can connect with to either regulate themselves or regulate together with the partner.
There is a lot of advice out there on the internet on how to love someone with depression and how to love someone with anxiety. There are of course many different degrees of depression and anxiety disorder, and differing responses are required. Often both issues come hand in hand. The numbness of depression can be a protective mechanism so that we do not need to feel more frightening emotions.
A few things you can do for your partner or another person close to you to deal with mild anxiety or mild depression are to truly listen, acknowledge, empathize and normalize. Your partner needs to know that you care and that what they are experiencing is understandable and normal. Do your best to be patient. Fears may be illogical but they are still very real to the person. Encourage your partner and lift them up. Tell them why they matter to you. Whatever you say or do, keep in mind that your only goal is to make them feel safer and more loved. Arguing about right or wrong makes no sense when fears are involved.
When your partner finds the courage to express an emotion, validate it with your words, your tone of voice and with simple actions. You can ask if they want a hug or if they want to be held. If something you do makes them feel anxious, adapt. If you are, for example, triggering an anxious response in your partner because you drive faster than they do, respond by saying, “I am sorry, honey” and slow down. This is not about you and if you are a good driver, this is about an irrational fear that your partner is experiencing. You can either choose to get defensive and be right or you can be a partner they feel safe with.
Or if your partner has a hard time getting out of bed and finding meaning in life, don’t judge or ridicule, don’t preach about how good their life is or become a fixer or pusher. Gently encourage. Small steps of doing something different are huge leaps forward when dealing with depression. Imagine your partner just had surgery. You wouldn’t push them to leave the hospital and be fully recovered the day after. Just slowly walking down the hallway on your arm would be a huge accomplishment for them. It is the same when recovering from depression. Small changes every day are progress. Provide companionship as your partner establishes healthy habits and rituals of movement.
For both anxiety as well as depression, be present and be in your heart. If you feel judgment like I used to feel for my mother, it’s because your own shadows are triggered and that is where the work needs to be done.
Contact me for more information on either couple’s coaching or individual sessions. We can work on your own triggers and patterns in individual sessions or on your interactions with each other, so you can be a relief to each other when anxiety or depression show up.
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