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Anxiety, Trauma, and Relationships

Fiona Owen

Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

We aim to be happy most of the time, and when we aren't we often experience varying levels of disappointment and sometimes even anxiety due to unrealistic expectations. No wonder, then, that so many of us are anxious! Expecting perpetual happiness in my opinion is a false premise on which to live. In reality, we will experience a range of emotions as part of being alive. Without having experienced adversity, disappointment, loss how will we know or appreciate when we are content or happy? Realistically, happiness is a state that we visit intermittently. Contentment is probably more sustainable, but it too isn't always present. Most of the time we are getting on with the business of living, which doesn't always include being happy. I suggest that operating from the false premise of perpetual happiness is also partly the reason why so many relationships get into tough places; in other words, when a relationship gets really difficult, and one or both partners get anxious and frightened they give up because they feel as they can no longer see the value of pushing through the tough places.

Anxiety is a part of our human condition and serves as an important alert to the body of potential harm or danger. Our emotions are responses to the environment around us. Say we hear unidentified loud noises, we want to make sense of them so we don't become unduly anxious. If for example the noises sound like gun fire we sense acute danger, however, once we determine the noise comes from fireworks then the danger level decreases as do fear and anxiety levels.

Emotions feeds the anxiety or calms the anxiety. The four main emotion groups are mad, sad, glad and scared. These groups are what initiate reaction.

Anxiety is related to fear and causes the same physiological response. The cortex of the brain becomes flooded with cortisol and adrenalin. The primitive brain, which does not use reason, then takes over. The primitive brain is responsible for the freeze, fight/flight response. In a healthy situation this response function is beneficial. When anxiety regulation is not within usual ranges then humans respond prematurely or inappropriately to the fear stimulus and the individual becomes unnecessarily anxious.

Fear is a healthy response to what is happening if the perception matches reality. Anxiety is the same response but to something that might happen. The anxious self has one foot in the future, scanning for danger. Anxiety creates an energetic charge that is left with nowhere to go because it is not really responding to tangible threat. Storing elevated levels of anxiety leads to immobilisation of the body due to overload. This can result in a panic attack. Energy charges the individual into mobilisation when they need to perform. However, anxiety interrupts the individual's ability to affectively process that energy.

In a relationship, good communication is vital towards partners' understanding and experience of each other. This is because without communication we are not able to know what another person is experiencing and only have our own frame of reference to work from to determine what might be happening for someone else. In order for relationships to function well there needs to be trust, respect, honesty and kindness. Also both partners must feel safe taking the risk of making themselves vulnerable. Without vulnerability in a relationship there is compromised intimacy. Anxiety prevents the establishment of vulnerability. This in turn fuels more anxiety as the fear of being hurt increases. The vicious spiral continues and the relationship becomes more and more fragile.

Trauma links into anxiety as a memory of some event(s) that have not been resolved.

Our senses (sight, taste, smell, touch and hearing) evoke reactions and an individual can't always identify what the trigger has been. For instance, if someone had a trauma producing event and a particular song was playing during that event, now every time that song plays it's a memory trigger for that person and they may respond to the memory as if happening all over again unaware that it's the memory that's driving their response. This heightens anxiety as a fear of what might happen.

When they are able to recognise that they are responding to a current situation based on their prior experience then they can activate change. Exposing the triggers and conditioned responses is required to determine how individuals create the anxiety. Once they recognise and understand their individual trigger/response, they can reconsider and change their way of interpreting triggers and their process for dealing with them.

We can never fully understand the experience of another person and what their triggers are. There is a certain amount of assumption then and this opens up the possibility of misunderstanding. As individuals we are separate and we crave social contact. To be in a healthy relationship partners must learn the differences between each other and to compromise by communicating those differences, so they can learn about each other's triggers.

Good communication skills are essential for healthy relating. The process of couples' therapy allows a safe neutral space for couples to experiment and learn how best to explore their differences in order not to heighten friction and fuel anxiety.

If conflict is sustained over an extended period, the damage created can be so deep that recovery becomes altogether too difficult. I liken couples counselling to proactively getting your car serviced. If you don't wait until the car is broken, then repairs are not so complex and expensive. Likewise, if couples seek counselling early enough their relationship stands a good chance of being repaired, their anxiety is reduced and they can achieve more happiness and contentment in their lives.

If you would like any more information on Anxiety, Trauma, and Relationships or would like to make an appointment to explore this, please contact us.

Fiona Owen
M Soc Sc (Counselling), B Sc Psychology, Grad. Dip. Ed.
Perth, Western Australia

Fiona Owen is currently on a long term sabbatical, in her absence, please contact one of the other practitioners, or leave a message on the Contact Page.

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