Life was good. The kids were raised and doing well. Our marriage was great, and I’d just begun graduate school, fulfilling a dream of my own. Life couldn’t have been better. But then suddenly I stopped sleeping. Night after night as I lay awake, I could feel the anxiety pushing in on my chest making it hard to breathe. And worse, I couldn’t get my mind to be quiet as my brain was pummeled with a multitude of worries. I’d had anxiety before, but why now? It made no sense.
If you can relate, you’re not alone. Anxiety is the number one mental health issue in the United States, affecting 40 million adults according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In Canada, 1 in 10 adults experience debilitating anxiety at some point in their lives (Statistics Canada).
Anxiety is different than stress. Stress is a result of the external pressure that everyday life brings. You fight with your spouse, the kids act up, there’s a problem at work. All these situations are stressful and can make you feel tense, cause you to have a short fuse, and even lose sleep. But feeling stressed is not the same thing as having anxiety.
While anxiety can be triggered by stress, by definition, anxiety is an uneasiness or worry about what might happen in the future, and can cause you to feel fearful and agitated even when things are going Okay. While occasional anxiety is normal, debilitating anxiety doesn’t go away, often gets worse and interferes with day-to-day functioning. With anxiety, your brain gets stuck in the “What If…” loop that spirals to the worst-case scenario and an impending dread of what might happen.
I call it the bully brain. What if I write this test and fail? What if I get on the plane and it crashes? What if I leave the house and something terrible happens? Anxiety is a bully that tries to hamper your life, rob you of joy and keep you in a silent prison of fear as you attempt to keep the symptoms at bay.
And not only can it paralyze you, anxiety can impact your marriage and your family. As anxiety escalates, your life gets smaller. Anxiety restricts your activities, your social life and your ability to cope with everyday challenges. If you or your spouse have anxiety, it can cause tension in your marriage due to irritability, interrupted sleep or an irrational need to control your environment. But there’s good news. Anxiety, while so debilitating, is also a very treatable illness, and one that you can learn to manage and control. While the feeling of being out of control is often the driving force behind anxiety, knowing that you can control it, is also the first step to overcoming it.
I have anxiety and my spouse doesn’t understand
When you have anxiety, you can feel so alone. You may feel weak, that you’re going crazy, or that you don’t have enough faith in God, but these thoughts are not true. And when your spouse doesn’t understand what you’re going through, it can feel worse as now your symptoms are affecting your loved ones as well.
Anxiety has a variety of sources that will be important to examine with a professional as you heal, but acknowledging that anxiety is real and that it’s not just a mental condition, but a physiological one as well, will be the first step. When you are willing to face the truth about how your anxiety is hindering you, you can begin to take important steps to overcome it.
The truth is, while anxiety tries to bully your brain, you can learn to talk back to your bully. Your bully brain wants to convince you that you have no control over your thoughts, that you are captive and powerless to its onslaught of worries. But your bully brain is a liar.
Your brain is an incredible and amazing organ that God says you can control by taking negative thoughts captive and setting your mind on what is good, true and positive. Examine your ‘What if’ loop using the anxiety train exercise:
If I (do or don’t do something) _________, then (this will happen) ___________, and if that happens then __________, and if that happens then ___________.
Our brains go to the worst-case scenario in a nanosecond without us even knowing. Breaking it down helps our rational brain put the current situation into a more manageable perspective. Often our anxiety train ends at something catastrophic like, “I’m going to die, I’m helpless, I’ll be a failure, everyone will leave me, no one will love me.” Once we know where our thoughts take us, we can start interrupting the train with more rational thoughts like, “If I fail this test, I can try it again,” rather than, “I’ll be a failure.” Or if I have a panic attack, “I can do something to help me calm down,” rather than “I’m going to die.” Keep a journal of what your bully brain is telling you. As you get to know your bully brain’s tactics, you can begin to interrupt the loop with a positive, rational thought.
Recognize when your anxiety is building up and take a break, take deep breaths, go for a walk, let your spouse know what you’re feeling rather than taking it out on them. While acknowledging the truth about what is happening is a first important step, there are other steps you can take to begin to control it. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has tips on things you can start doing today.
What can I do to help my spouse with anxiety?
Having a spouse who struggles with anxiety can be painful and frustrating. It can limit your activities if they’re anxious about leaving home or being in social situations. It can lead to fights that have no resolution, leaving you feeling lost and alone, or the one who is to blame.
You want to help, but you don’t know what to do. And getting upset and telling them to “calm down, it’s not a big deal” can make it worse because someone dealing with anxiety can’t ‘just calm down’. Further, similar comments can increase their anxiety because in that moment when their brain is screaming danger, your response can feel dismissing and affirms that they are alone in this and no one understands.
Staying calm and validating their feelings and experience, even if you don’t know what it feels like, can help calm their heightened amygdala. Saying things like, “What’s happening for you right now? What are you feeling? How can I help?” allows them to tune in to what they’re experiencing and focus on their thought process. Reassure them with calm, affirming words that counteract their fears. Saying, “You can do this, you’ll be okay, I’m here for you” can help to override their threat center and forge a new, positive pathway in the brain.
Finally, understanding and acknowledging that anxiety is a real thing for your spouse can be very comforting. When you can join them in their experience and encourage and support them in seeking help from a professional, they will know that they are not alone, and that alone can help begin their healing journey.
Because this was my second experience with debilitating anxiety, I knew what to do. The first time, I let it escalate in severity for a year, causing me to become ill and nonfunctional. But this time, I vowed that I wouldn’t let it restrict my life and keep me from my goals. This time I enlisted my husband’s help and support immediately, rather than keeping it to myself. This time, I sought professional help right away and adjusted some lifestyle choices that allowed my healing to begin before my bully brain got out of control.
Most of my patients struggle with anxiety. It’s real and it hurts. But thankfully that’s not the end of the story — it wasn’t for me, and it isn’t for them. There is so much hope for healing from anxiety, regardless of how debilitating it feels right now. My patients are getting stronger. They’re learning to shut down their bully brains and live a full and joyful life. This is their story now. And it can be your story too.