How Relationships Can Help With Anxiety and Depression

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.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field on the left side of the bar. Thank you for your support!

The Four Stages of Long-Term Relationships

Have you ever taken a test to determine your highest five or highest ten values in life? I have done so repeatedly during my life and have experienced an interesting shift in values and priorities as I get older.

I have had a couple of, let’s say “interesting years”, going through menopause, getting a first taste of the empty nest syndrome with my oldest daughter, and breaking both my ankles a couple of years ago, which meant experiencing what it is like to be helpless. With all this came a bit of a shift in my value system. Ten or even just five years ago my children were my highest priority, followed by building my business and my education/learning. Safety and financial security in old age did not even show up within the first five. Now it has moved up, because these experiences shifted my priorities.

My top values are not just the children anymore but “relationships” in general. By that I mean not only my own relationships, but also my ability to assist other people with their relationships. That number 1 priority is followed by the value of “learning and growth”. Now these top two go nicely hand in hand. Richard Bach said, “We teach best what we most need to learn.” I would fully agree with this. And I want to add to it, “We teach best what we feel most passionate about.”

With my value system shifting, I had a huge personal growth experience because what didn’t change in line with my needs and priorities was my partner’s value system. His highest values continued to be freedom and autonomy. Meanwhile, I was trying to sell him on my new highest values of making financial decisions for safety and planning ahead to the future. Basically, I was asking him to live life my way.

My blind spot was that I was trying to impose my agenda of what I thought was best for him and us onto him. And being unable to convince him of the importance of my values, I started feeling resentful. What I completely overlooked was that nobody wants to do something that they cannot link to their own highest values. Everybody is motivated to make changes, but when we want to shift, we need to be able to link how an activity or choice is serving our highest priorities in life. There was nothing wrong with his values, they were just different, and the safe choices I wanted to make were not in line with his main needs and value system.

Values are an important part of all our relationships. Where they overlap, we experience harmony and understanding, when they don’t overlap, we often experience judgments and fear. We try to change the other person based on our system of ideals. Those differences in values, priorities and needs usually arise during the second stage in long-term relationships, but can also show up again when value systems shift.

Relationship coach Jayson Gaddis from the Relationship School in Bolder, Colorado, explains that long-term relationships evolve through three or—depending how you look at it—even four stages of relationships. To understand what each stage is about and how we move to the next stage is critical for relationship longevity.

 

THE HONEYMOON STAGE

It all starts with what we know as the “honeymoon stage” when we are completely smitten with each other. We focus on what we have in common, the same interests and the same values or world views. The person we are infatuated with is at the top of our priority list because the electricity and chemistry we feel lights up the same part of the brain as addictive substances. When we are experiencing love, our brain secretes neurochemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and growth hormones. We are on a euphoric high. We feel we cannot be apart from the other person. This is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of our species. This biochemistry is ideal for us wanting to reproduce.

The honeymoon stage usually last a few months to a couple of years. If we expect this stage to continue, disappointment ultimately sets in. This stage is not meant to last. It was meant to bring us together. It slowly turns into the stage that Gaddis calls “The Challenging Stage”.

 

THE CHALLENGING STAGE

Eventually, the sober reality comes in. As we get to know the other person with all their good traits but also their challenging ones or their “flaws”, disillusionment occurs. This is a chance to learn to love our partner the way they really are. We begin to see the difference between us and the person we love. We had different experiences growing up and have therefore learned different beliefs than our partner. No two people have absolutely overlapping values, and we now notice the values which don’t match as well as dissimilar ways of handling life. This is were we often try to sell the other person on our values. We want to convince them and are bound to fail because value systems tend to be strong and ingrained. Our baggage from our past resurfaces and needs to be dealt with. Our childhood wounds and experiences from past relationships enter into the equation. Our partner mirrors our disowned parts—also called our shadows—to us.

When two people come together, they are different to begin with, and in this stage, they might polarize into opposites and judge each other for those differences. What attracted them in their partner when they met is now likely to be a point of criticism. Certain differences even become perpetual problems. Dave, for example, has safety and security as a high priority, while his partner Marie has freedom as her highest value. Paul is identified with responsibility and hard work, while his girlfriend Eva is able to relax and enjoy life more. Jenny wants to expose their kids to lots of educational and cultural activities, and her husband Frank has different parenting ideas, wanting them to excel in sports. Laura likes to go out and party, while Ross prefers to be home. Amanda is very neat, while Lucas has a much higher tolerance for mess.

In this stage, we experience conflicts and might get stuck in arguing or even blaming each other. We end up in a tug of war trying to convince the other one that we are right. If we don’t learn how to handle these conflicts differently, the result is burn out. People either give up and leave the relationship, or they compartmentalize the difficult issues and settle for maintaining the status quo, as unsatisfactory as it might be for one or both partners. Unless we learn how to deal with the challenges in a constructive manner, we won’t advance to stage three.

 

THE MATURE LOVE STAGE

Stage two is testing us on how we handle interpersonal stress, and if we know what to do with our baggage from the past when it resurfaces. It is normal in all relationships to have disagreements and challenges, and it is also normal that we trigger our nervous systems into firing. When our reptilian brain perceives threat, we go into fight or flight mode. Our fear provokes the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, as well as inflammatory agents such as cytokines. How we navigate those differences determines whether we are able to advance to stage three.

When we learn how to deal with adversity in stage two, an empowered relationship in stage three is the result. The challenges in this mature love stage don’t stop, but we have learned how to deal with our triggers in a conscious way. We now have the confidence to make it through challenges together, knowing that we have each other’s backs. We are able to recognize when our values and priorities shift and handle this change consciously. This requires both partners to put in the necessary work to understand themselves and each other so that the relationship can get stronger through this growth process.

 

LOVE 360 STAGE

Gaddis names a fourth state which is an adjunct to stage three. In the Love 360 Phase, we trust the bigger level of life. You could say we assume a more spiritual view. We realize that things are not happening to us but for us. Our trials are blessings at the same time. That principle applies no matter what we go through, including affairs, disconnection from each other or even break-ups. What is happening is a gift and an opportunity to grow and learn from it, provided both partners are willing to put the work in.

When we reach the Love 360 State, we are experiencing a different clarity and are able to perceive that the events are all for our benefit. We realize that we are in charge of what we want to create as opposed to being in the victim seat, where we feel life is out to get us. Adversity makes us stronger as individuals and as a couple. We are able to hold more contradictory perspectives. We recognize our dis-empowering stories as limiting narratives and re-frame them. We are also able to hold the space for each other in the midst of drama or life changes and trust that we can work through anything together.

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 advance to the next level of your relationship. From March 20 to April 3, 2018 I am offering a 20% off SPRING SPECIAL for Couples.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field on the left side of the bar. Thank you for your support!