Depression and Anxiety

Dealing with Anxiety After an Affair: When Will it Get Better?

Anxiety After an Affair: Very Common and Very ChallengingAnxiety after an affair

Anxiety after an affair is a major obstacle for couples to work though, and, while common, can be a substantial challenge in the healing process.

What we’ve found in working with couples is that:

  • The amount of time for the anxiety to lessen varies greatly with the individual who was hurt by the cheating
  • The partner who went outside of the relationship may become frustrated because he or she is working hard to alleviate the partner’s fears, but can feel helpless as the anxiety continues
  • The healing process is most effective when both partners understand the challenge and are able to work as a team to address the anxiety.

In this post, we’ll aim to deepen your understanding of why anxiety after an affair is so challenging. We’ll then explore some ways in which partners can collaborate to ease the nervousness that has become so prevalent.

Not Unusual at All

Infidelity is a traumatic event in a relationship. Our biggest fear in relationships is losing our partner. This fear is the root cause of the anxiety and can result in varying types of actions as the hurt partner strives to be certain the connection is secure.

These typically stem from an intense need to know the partner is now faithful, and may include:

  • Strong desires to verify partner’s activities; “Why were you late?”, “You didn’t answer your phone or return my text for so long!”
  • A need to check the partner’s phone and email for any signs of improper outside contact
  • Behaviors seen by the partner as controlling: “Who are you going to lunch with at work?”, “When will you be home?”

Healing is hampered, often, because these fear-driven behaviors by the hurt partner are not understood by the offending partner. The behaviors feel demanding, overly controlling and totally distrustful. The offending partner may feel, “Will you ever trust me again?”

Stay with us here; we’ll help you understand the fear and what lies beneath.

At the same time, when cheating is discovered, the hurt partner experiences a range of emotions that can include:

  • Shame that he or she is inadequate to meet partner’s needs
  • Intense waves of feelings from sadness to anger to withdrawal
  • Insecurity about the relationship, often for the first time in the couple’s history together

Anxiety of the hurt partner can thus feel as if this worry and fear is taking over the relationship. And, at times, these fears actually do become a dominant force between the couple.

Anxiety After an Affair: A Deeper Understanding

When any difficult or traumatic event occurs, our brain is wired to now be on the alert. We are  suddenly more likely to be fearful about any sign of disconnection in the relationship. A person may now react quickly and automatically to any possible trigger related to the trauma.

At times, the hurt partner herself or himself can’t figure out why the anxiety persists and continues to cause such highly escalated emotions. The hurt partner may be trying to recover from the affair, yet still has strong urges to search for any signs of “danger” to the relationship.

“Her emotions go from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds,” a partner might remark. “I try to reassure her, but my attempts never seem to go very far.”

“He just doesn’t understand that I can’t just ‘move on’ and let go of all this anxiety,” is a common reply.

The anxiety on the part of the hurt partner can impede recovery because arguments often result from one partner feeling controlled and constantly questioned. The hurt partner then may feel their partner is defensive and insincere — and those responses can trigger a fear that there is something being hidden.

It’s important to realize that the hurt partner’s anxiety is a natural and very human response to a hurtful event.

We’re Hard-Wired for Strong Connections

Anxiety after an affair is so common because of the strong emotional connection that occurs when couples fall in love. We are drawn to our partner both physically and emotionally and a strong, powerful bond is created.

This human bond developed in early, primitive times to keep us safe from predators. We banded together in groups to be more secure. We then became bonded as well to one special individual.

Any disruption, or threat, to that bond can become embedded in the emotional center of our brain. Hence, those intense feelings of anxiety after an affair is discovered.

Because we humans learn to love deeply, we hurt deeply, too.

Understanding Anxiety

We most often find that both partners are struggling to cope with the hurt partner’s anxiety after an affair. After all, anxiety is unpleasant and often misunderstood.

Therefore, it can be helpful to understand more about the nature of anxiety so you can collaborate together in coping, rather than becoming more upset when the anxious feelings occur.

It’s helpful to know:

  • Anxiety varies greatly with the individual. How each person experiences anxiety can have a range of intensity, from mild to very extreme.
  • Anxiety can include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping, problems with concentration, stomach discomfort, chest pain, fatigue and a general feeling of restlessness and being on edge
  • Anxiety is often accompanied by unwanted, repetitive thoughts and compulsive behaviors — such as persistent questioning, a strong need to check the partner’s phone and email and a great need for ongoing reassurance
  • For some, anxiety feels like a sudden panic.

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress, fear and apprehension of a possible future event. Accepting and understanding this “natural response” can be quite challenging, however.

Coping with Anxiety

There are several self-care ways to assist in coping with anxiety. These can include:

  • Eating healthy, avoiding excess sugar, caffeine and alcohol, which can trigger anxiety in some people
  • Learn breathing exercises to help your body gain a sense of safety and security (which, in turn, helps the brain learn to relax). You can find several ideas on the internet, and there are a number of phone apps to assist you in learning to breathe for relaxation as well.
  • Exercise is very helpful for many to reduce anxiety
  • Working to get enough sleep, even though this may be more difficult after the affair discovery

In some cases, counseling and/or medication may be an important component of coping with anxiety after an affair if the hurt partner’s anxiety is disruptive to daily well-being and health and if the anxiety continues with intensity.

Healing Together

Coping with the hurt partner’s anxiety can be — and this may indeed seem contradictory — an important way of healing and a key component of affair recovery. You can learn to stand together in helping the anxious partner work through periods of anxiety.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Work together to accept the anxiety as a common occurrence after infidelity. Rather than “fighting” the anxiety (which creates even more tension!), acknowledge that anxiety will occur. Or, as therapists often say, “Name it to tame it.” You can both say, “Yes, it’s that anxiety again. We know it will happen.”
  2. If you’re the hurt partner, try to discover what will help reassure you. Can you request that your partner provide what you need? Is it a calming discussion, acceptance of your pain, reassurance of commitment to the relationship?
  3. If you’re the offending partner, avoid being defensive. This is critically important, as you’ll see in our related articles. Its helpful to learn to accept your partner’s feelings as genuine and that he or she is struggling to stay calm. You may not fully understand your partner’s emotions or anxiety; however, they are real and true for him or her.

The majority of couples seek to recover from infidelity. However, not all can heal without help. Counselors trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy have a proven roadmap for helping couples heal after a hurtful event. Seeking professional help may be the best path for this difficult phase of your life together.

More Helpful Posts

Because recovery from infidelity is such an important and challenging area, we’ve devoted several articles to this subject. You can read more about affair recovery  

If you’d like to book a free consultation to discuss healing after an affair, click here. Or, you can read more about our approach to Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.

Do I Need Individual Counseling AND Couples Counseling?

I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people who call and ask, “Do I Need Individual Counseling AND Couples Counseling?”Woman free from depression  While there are times that this is needed, I’ll give the perspective that I have as a couples counselor on whether you should seek both individual counseling and couples counseling.

The Notion That You Need to Work On Yourself First Is Outdated and Blaming

One of the main reasons that people feel they may need individual counseling is that they think, or have been told by their partner, that they have “some issues” to work out. Sure, folks have issues. However, the majority of the time, unless we are talking about a serious mental health diagnosis or some other big stuff, it’s not a good idea to see your issues as something that you need to go off in private to work on. 

Why is your relationship struggling? Is it because you have these issues that you can’t handle, and your partner is an innocent bystander being caught in the crossfire of your stuff? Or are you like most couples, where you both do things that result in the other person feeling hurt, unheard, angry, etc? The fact is that relationships can be a huge contributor to things like depression and anxiety, as well as anger and bad moods. Fights and distance can make depression and anxiety worse. Looking at these things outside of the relationship is like going to the doctor for knee pain and not bringing your knee.  A LOT of things can successfully be addressed in the light of improving your most important relationship.

Plus, it makes it seem like you’re the reason your relationship is struggling. As a couples counselor, I know this is usually not true. And buying into blaming one person for what’s wrong in a relationship is, well, probably not helping the relationship. 

The Notion That Your Partner’s Involvement Can’t Help You Heal Is Also Outdated

In the olden days, psychoanalysis was an individual pursuit. The field of relationship therapy came out of a response to seeing that our loved ones are the biggest source of both our pleasure and pain. Not including them really denies how powerful the bond with your loved ones is in helping you cope. 

There are things that we bring into a relationship that are bigger than the relationship itself. Things like depression, anxiety, past trauma, these are all things that can feel like a huge barrier to us being able to be really present and show up in our relationship in a way that creates closeness instead of distance or fights. Being able to explore some of how this impacts your relationship, with your partner in the room, can really help them understand what’s going on, and how they play a role (positive or not) in the interactions between you.

There is some research being done that is pointing to the healing power of the relationship for things like addictions, depression, and trauma. There’s even evidence that we feel pain and fear more intensely when we don’t have the comfort of our partner (if the relationship is strong). Things that have traditionally warranted a solely individual approach can be folded in with the couples counseling in powerful ways. And working on improving the relationship has incredible benefits for your individual coping and resilience. Win-win.  Many of these things do require individual counseling as well, but we prefer to suggest that you start with couples counseling before adding individual counseling.

Why We Suggest Starting With Couples Counseling First

Instead of jumping feet first into several types of counseling at once, we suggest starting with couples counseling for several reasons:

  1. It gives the therapist a chance to assess the situation and help you decide if it’s indeed true that you need extra individual support from another therapist doing individual therapy.
  2. Your couples therapist can help you find ways in which the individual therapy and couples counseling are going to compliment each other. You can choose an individual therapist that works from a relationship point of view. Some types of therapy can accidentally undermine your couples work by giving you contradictory advice, such as to deal with your emotions by yourself instead of learning how to respond to becoming upset with your partner in the moment, with them there.  We really like to set individual therapy clients up with another practitioner who also does couples therapy right here in our practice. This way, you know you will be complimenting both your individual and couples therapy by addressing things in both types of therapy in ways that make sense together.
  3. It prevents you from starting too much counseling at once. This can be counterproductive and confusing.
  4. It gives you, as a couple, a good first glimpse into all the things that you’ll be able to accomplish with couples therapy. This helps get you off to a good start where you are both seeing your own role in the relationship issues, rather than one partner being pre-labeled as the “one who really needs the therapy.”

Do I Need Individual Counseling AND Couples Counseling?

Hopefully this has given you some glimpse into how we approach this, but this is a good question to ask any counselor that you are considering seeing. If someone absolutely says that you shouldn’t do couples therapy until all of your individual issues are resolved, you can run screaming for the hills.  And if you ask a couples counselor this question, you can get a good glimpse into how they work and what their approach is.

Disclaimer 

There are some instances where couples counseling is absolutely not a good idea – such as when there is physical abuse in the relationship, or when someone has active addiction that is so strong that they are not yet capable of interacting in a meaningful way in therapy. (However, both of these situations also need assessment because they aren’t black and white, so it’s still best to contact a qualified couples therapist to get assessed).

 

 

Counseling for Anxiety and Relationship Issues Actually Changes Your Brain

Help Ahead for depression and relationship issues'Did you know that counseling for anxiety and relationship issues (as well as a host of other things) can re-wire your brain?

Many people have heard of how the way that we think influences how we feel. And most of the time, the way we feel influences how we think. If we experience a worry, that can create a physical feeling of anxiety. This physical feeling and the fear that come with it cause us to do things that might not be helpful, such as worry more or avoid situations that cause us stress. Sometimes it’s the physical feeling that comes first. All of these things seem to be wrapped up together.

The same is true for conflict in relationships. It’s easy to go on autopilot and have that same fight with your spouse over and over, without ever wondering if there’s something that your brain has been trained to do. You feel nervous and defensive in your body, and you know there’s going to be a disagreement. So you go ahead an strike first.

All of this happens without even thinking most of the time. And the more your do and experience certain types of things, the more they are likely to happen.

Your brain chemistry changes with your experiences.

In science this is called brain plasticity, but what it means is very practical. It means that even adults have a tremendous capacity to change how their brains are wired, for the better. You can actually learn how to create an upward spiral for yourself that is even better than antidepressants or anxiety drugs. Sometimes these drugs can be a lifesaver, but pills alone never work at both the symptoms and their causes. When you learn how to re-wire your brain through powerful techniques learned in counseling for anxiety and relationship issues, you are not only learning how to address the causes of the problem with different behaviors, but you are actually changing your brain’s chemistry, much like an antidepressant.

The details of how your brain changes are too detailed to get into here, but think of it this way: If you drive a Jeep down a muddy road, you leave tracks in the mud. The more you drive through that, the deeper the tracks get. When the mud dries and hardens, you are left with hard tracks that the wheels of your Jeep will naturally fall into the next time you go down that road. Our thoughts, feelings, actions, and brain chemistry create these tracks. These tracks represent how our brains are wired to have a certain chemical and neurological makeup. It is within your power to create new tracks, and actually have different chemistry and neurology. This means a new experience with a re-wired brain. You aren’t destined to drive down that same path with those old brain wires if you have some help in creating those new tracks.

If you are interested in learning more about how to create real and lasting change through counseling for anxiety and relationship issues, we’d be honored to help. Call our Lakewood office now to get your  free consultation and explore what new tracks you’d like to create on your road to the life you want.

The Real Reason You Can’t Stay Motivated

The real reason you can't stay motivatedI have a really bad habit when I’m trying to stay motivated to change something about my life. It’s something that I recognize does me no good, but it creeps up on me like the dishes and the laundry. I don’t notice it at first, but then suddenly I’m knee-deep.  Somehow my optimism about things has dissolved and I have a case of the screw-its. I’m talking about feeling discouraged at the amount of progress I’ve made in my endeavors. Trying to be a better parent and spouse. Trying to do the things that I know are important for my mental and physical well-being.  Have you ever worked hard at something, but couldn’t stay motivated because you weren’t seeing any progress? Since I’m a human, I do things that work against my peace of mind. And, since I’m a therapist, I know I didn’t invent this little mind game.  In my Lakewood counseling practice I see this all the time.

There are plenty ways to describe this habit. You can call it perfectionism, pessimism, realism, the need for instant gratification (I want this issue fixed now). Sometimes I just call it:

“I’m never going to stop yelling as a parent. Things were going well this morning and then I blew it.”

“My partner and I haven’t solved our fighting problem, this isn’t working at all.”

Why do we do this to ourselves? Goal setting and staying motivated while you are imperfect isn’t easy. Here’s a neat way to combat this that I got from a mentor of mine:

String.

Yes.

String. This is a powerful metaphor for setting goals and having confidence. And it’s a way to learn how to be gentle with yourself. Here’s how it goes:

Everyone has a certain length of string. This string represents how much good stuff we have that can combat a problem. Coping skills and tools to use in difficult situations. Knowledge that we need. Resources such as having enough support and encouragement. Usually we have a relatively short piece of string. We humans tend to recycle the same strategies to deal with issues over and over. We yell. We sulk. We turn to substances or other distractions. We get mad. We approach our issues the same way over and over.

We add to our string every time that we work at improving ourselves, try to learn new ways to deal, etc.  So you tried to be patient with your spouse and not start an argument when you would otherwise have gotten into a huge fight? String. You are trying to take better care of yourself by eating healthier? String. You tried out meditation that one time? String. We don’t add a whole lot of string at one time because we don’t magically erase all of our problems at once. We tend to add it inch by inch.

Here’s the problem

If you had five feet of string, then, no, an inch wouldn’t even be noticeable. That is the lens that we are looking through – we think we have way more than we do, so small changes are too little, too late. But, adding an inch of string to 4 inches is a significant improvement.  That’s something to protect and keep working at. It’s very, very easy to discount your efforts because you think that you should be better at this happiness thing. Then, it’s hard to stay motivated to keep trying.

You didn’t yell at your children this morning, but by the end of the day you were barking orders from the couch again. You tried really hard not to argue with your spouse, but you still had an argument anyway. We think, “That’s nice, but it’s not enough. This isn’t fixed.” We focus on the fact that we didn’t add ten feet of string, and we cut off the bit that we do have by thinking it’s not enough.

It may sound strange that overestimating how many coping skills we really have is not helpful. Isn’t self-esteem important? But, what does it do to your self-esteem to feel like no matter how hard you try, you stink and aren’t changing enough in your life?  By remembering that naturally we humans only have a few ways that we know of to deal with issues, we can take a deep breath and realize that a teeny bit of string added (to our tiny bit of string) is a real change. Yelling bit less during the day, holding off before you jump into that argument, thinking about starting to eat better – inch by inch you are making real progress.

So when I’m getting discouraged at just how little I’ve been able to change, I try to take that as a clue that I need to think about string. If you are struggling to improve your relationships or accomplish your goals and feeling stuck, it might be time to call us at (720) 443-1947 to schedule a free 30-minute consultation and learn how to create the life you want.

Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, is the Director of A Peaceful Life Counseling Services in Lakewood, CO. She specializes in helping people create vibrant lives and relationships.

How to be Your Own Therapist

How to be your own therapistBe your own therapist? This is what you need to know

My approach to counseling is about creating psychological flexibility- the ability to essentially be your own therapist. If you can remember the parts of a butterfly, you are well on your way to understanding the elements of what psychological flexibility is.

Our psychological flexibility is like a butterfly. A butterfly has two wings (in this example) and a body in the middle. Each wing flutters in sync and they attach to the body, which is like the hub and hinge of it all. Without the body, the wings are useless. Without each wing, the creature falls to the ground and spins in circles. (Sad picture, but stay with me here).

We all have painful and unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and habits that get in the way of just about everything. We have to be able to cope with these feelings and thoughts as they come. Many people can see clearly that this is necessary, and enter therapy searching for a way to do just this. Working with these thoughts and feelings is one wing of our butterfly.

The second wing balances the other. It is the important stuff; our goals and meaningful things we do that make our lives vital. It’s going in the direction that is healthy and good for you. It’s knowing what direction that would be, and what we’d be doing more of to get there. Sometimes folks are aware that they need something like this, but may have no idea how to figure that out and create change.

In the middle is our butterfly body. This anchors and powers our two wings of strength and meaning. The body is our ability to be present and have a helpful rather than a rigid story about ourselves and our struggles. Being able to notice when one of the wings is off and what needs to be done to fly well  are the hinges that keep the butterfly going.  That’s where you learn how to be your own therapist. Many people come to therapy craving some way to learn how to make themselves feel better. They want to see what the problem is and what to do about it.

Two wings and a body, and you have a beautiful analogy of psychological flexibility. Any issue, from actual diagnosed mental illnesses to relationship struggles and stress, call for psychological flexibility. Wouldn’t you like to have a mind like a butterfly? Strength, meaning, and presence. To be able to float, change course, land quietly, and make fine tuned adjustments in your life. Flexible enough to dream of new possibilities and strong enough to deal with what gets in the way.

If you are like many folks who feel more like that butterfly going in circles on the ground, I’d love to help you increase your psychological flexibility in your life and relationships.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

Coping with Anxiety

Coping with Anxiety by Learning the Secret Ingredient to Anxiety

Coping With Anxiety by Understanding the Secret Ingredient to Anxiety

Coping with anxiety can be tough, especially if you aren’t quite sure what the anxiety is all about. Most people think that coping with anxiety is about making yourself feel more relaxed, or trying not to worry about certain things. But, anxiety can take many forms, a lot of which don’t seem like worry at all. In this article we’re going to approach coping with anxiety from a different perspective that helps you recognize it in many forms and address the root.

What Exactly is Anxiety?

The root of anxiety is something called Experiential Avoidance. This simply means trying not to feel pain or discomfort. Our brain tells us that we can avoid feeling like crap if we try to control more of the situation. Ask yourself if any of the following sounds familiar:

  • You don’t want to feel anxious about being late, so you set your alarm for extra early. You start to feel anxious about missing your alarm, and to get rid of that feeling you check your alarm clock. That helps, a bit, but the anxiety hasn’t gone away, so you do more to try to avoid those feelings by also setting your phone. Then, you ask your partner to make sure you’re up at a certain time. You think you are avoiding being late, but your actions are really helping you feel less anxious about thing in the moment.
  • You don’t want to get into a car accident because that scares you, so you are a very careful driver. Being careful hasn’t gotten rid of the fear that you are going to have an accident, so you up your game and stop driving on busy roads. This helps for a while, but then you figure you should stop driving on the highway. It’s the feeling that you are afraid of getting into an accident that you are trying to get rid of.
  • You had a fight with your partner. You replay the fight in your head over and over again, and your brain tells you that you are processing it. But, really, what you are doing is called rumination. You are trying to analyze what you could have said differently, what you will say if that comes up again, what you wish your partner would have said or not said. You don’t like the way the fight went, and that causes you to worry that the relationship is in trouble. You don’t like feeling like your relationship is in trouble, and you don’t like feeling like you aren’t tackling the issue in the best way because you’re unprepared for the argument. To avoid that feeling, your brain replays this scene over and over, and it’s all in an effort to feel less anxious in the moment about the relationship.

This connection may not seem super clear, but if you put some thought into it you will see that in every situation where you are coping with anxiety, you can ask yourself, “What is it that I am trying to control? To not feel? To avoid?” Most of the time the answer makes perfect sense. I’m trying not to feel anxious, of course! I’m trying to avoid problems, duh! I’m trying to do things correctly so that I can feel no regrets or failure! These are understandable wishes, but there’s one catch:

The feeling of anxiety is a natural byproduct of doing things. Of living. There isn’t a way to avoid it. Coping with anxiety literally means making room for a bit of anxiety to ride along with you while you do life.

When we get caught up in the habitual way that we try to control everything around us so that we never feel anxious (or stressed, unprepared, regretful, shame, whatever), then we are actually feeding a loop where we never quite quench our thirst to be free from anxiety.

How Anxiety Hijacks Us

Oftentimes, we avoid doing things that are important to us because of what is getting in the way. Do an experiment: Take a problem that you have, whatever it is. Now, think of what you’d like to be able to do about that in a perfect world. Now, ask yourself what stops you from doing that. If the answer is another problem, ask yourself the same questions. Eventually, you will get down to what thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, (any private, internal experience) that you are avoiding having.

It looks like this:

“I have a problem in my relationship. I would like to be able to talk it out with my partner, but I can’t because we’ll get into a fight. I don’t want to get into a fight because I don’t want us to be upset at each other. I don’t want us to be upset at each other because I worry that we won’t be able to get over it. I don’t want to be in a situation that we can’t get over because that might break us up. I don’t want us to break up because I love my partner and I don’t want to lose them. I don’t want to lose them because I would be alone. So, I avoid talking about our issues in this relationship because I fear that they will leave me and I’ll be alone.”

In this example, the avoidance of feeling afraid that you’ll break up is the issue. It results in you not actually trying to fix anything in the relationship, which takes you further toward breaking up. If you were able to see that the fear of feeling this way blocks you, you could experience that fear and still do what’s important for the relationship to survive and thrive. (By the way, this fear is normal, and hey- there are ways to talk about that with your partner.) There are also ways to tell if the discomfort in your relationship is a symptom of being on a good path or not. And if you are avoiding relationship conflict, here’s a good article on the pitfalls of that approach.

Here are some other examples of experiential avoidance- see if you have ever done any of these things:

  • Procrastinating
  • Avoiding things that require too much effort or that make you feel like a failure – like working out, hobbies, etc.
  • Letting opportunities go to avoid fears of failure or change.
  • Being self-destructive to avoid emotional pain (drinking to avoid feeling anger, smoking marijuana to avoid feeling bored).

Notice anything interesting? The problem is not the uncomfortable internal experiences you have, it’s how you choose to approach them. Waiting to feel better in order to make your life better is like waiting for an illness to subside before you treat the illness.

Coping with Anxiety

Coping with anxiety gets much easier if you can see that the problem is that you don’t want to feel anything uncomfortable, and you do a lot to avoid it. You tell yourself you are avoiding problems themselves, but really you just don’t want to feel the things that come along with life. Recognizing what you are avoiding helps coping with anxiety because it gives you strength to face your issues head on, rather than getting caught in a trap of avoiding negative feelings and creating more issues as a result. If you’d like to explore how therapy can help your coping with anxiety, we’d be happy to have a complimentary half hour consultation with you to explore whether seeing one of our individual therapists for depression or anxiety in Denver can help you.

My favorite book on the topic of coping with anxiety is the Happiness Trap, and it goes into more detail on how experiential avoidance traps you into a negative cycle of creating more issues rather than actually conquering your anxiety or depression for good.