Buying their first home together was supposed to be a happy milestone for Molly and Collin. However, the stress of the finances and the move sent Molly’s anxiety off the charts. Things turned sour as her uncontrolled anxiety led to abuse–insulting him, unfairly accusing him of dropping the ball, and threatening divorce.
Ted suffers from crippling social anxiety that has gradually grown into a fear of people judging not only him, but also his husband, Peter. Afraid that Peter might do something to humiliate them both, he tells him what he can and cannot wear or say. Sometimes when he feels particularly anxious about a social interaction, he makes Peter stay at home.
Whether it’s triggered by stressful circumstances, social situations, or something else, severe anxiety can lead to abuse. How can we take back control of our thoughts and feelings so we stop controlling and hurting those around us?
Does all anxiety lead to abuse?
Many people feel anxious from time to time. In small doses, it can prime us mentally and physically to meet a challenge head-on. I used to feel a little anxious before a school exam, and I found it helped me finish the questions on time.
However, for some of us, anxiety is uncontrollable, excessive, and disruptive to our day-to-day lives. This is called an “anxiety disorder” and can include the following symptoms:
- Regularly feeling “on edge”
- Fatigue or brain fog
- Muscle tension
- Body-focused repetitive behaviors (e.g. nail biting, hair pulling)
- Inability to switch off, especially at night
- Uncontrollable, catastrophic thoughts
- Panic attacks
- Self-sabotage (e.g. turning down a great job offer, cutting out friends and family)
Not all chronic, severe anxiety leads to abuse. But, like fear, sadness, and hurt, it’s one of those big emotions that can feel unbearable. And, like those emotions, it can create an extreme urge to say or do something—anything!—to stop the discomfort. It’s like having our head held under water: we feel compelled to change our circumstances and relieve the pressure. This is the kind of anxiety that might start us off on that path to actions we regret.
What happens to our relationship when anxiety leads to abuse
Unfortunately, anxiety has big impacts on our behavior around others as well as our minds and bodies. Some of us become irritable, short-tempered, or withdrawn. Or, we may overwhelm our partners with pleas for support, disrespecting their boundaries in the process. Many of us flip-flop between the two, overly hostile one minute, desperate for attention the next.
It doesn’t take much to imagine how these reactions can be just as unpleasant for our partner as the anxiety itself is for us. They may feel stressed, disrespected, intimidated by our moods, resentful of our neediness, or anxious themselves—yes, it can be catching! All of these things harm the core pillars of a healthy relationship: intimacy, trust, and respect.
For Molly and Ted, that overwhelming urge to relieve anxiety has led to abuse: verbal abuse in Molly’s case, and controlling behavior in Ted’s. Trying to relieve our anxiety through abusive behavior is harmful to both our relationship and our partner. What’s more, when we know we’re messing things up, it often only adds to our anxiety.
Where does anxiety come from?
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the human mind, and anxiety is no exception to this. Scientists aren’t sure whether it comes from our brain chemistry, genetics, upbringing, or a combination of all of these. That said, we can better understand our anxiety by asking ourselves every toddler’s two favorite questions: Why? What if?
When Molly asked herself “Why am I finding this move so stressful?” this was her initial answer: “Because it involves vast sums of money, logistics, and short time windows – an understandably stressful combination!” This may be true, but as she kept asking questions, she got closer and closer to understanding why her anxiety had led to abuse:
Q: Why are the money, logistics, and short time windows so stressful for you?
A: Because if we mess any of it up, the move will fall through.*
Q: What if the move does fall through?
A: I’ll never get my dream home, which I’ve wanted since I was a child.*
Q: Why do you want this dream home so bad?
A: Because I never had one growing up—we were constantly being evicted.
Q: Why was that difficult?
A: Because it felt like my parents weren’t able to take care of things. I always felt unstable and unsafe.
*You may be able to see for yourself how distorted these thoughts are. More on that in a moment.
When Ted did the same exercise, this is what he found:
Q: Why are you worried about the dinner party tonight?
A: Because everyone finds Peter and me really boring and dorky.
Q: What if you are both boring and dorky?
A: They’ll judge me for being a boring dork, and think I’m a total loser for being married to one. Nobody likes a boring, dorky loser.
Q: What if they don’t like you?
A: It would confirm that I’m not a likable person.
As Molly and Ted’s stories show, our anxiety usually boils down to one of two things:
- A need to feel safe and in control.
- A need to feel liked, loved, and accepted.
Anxiety is a sign that one or more of these needs probably wasn’t met in our past. For Molly, the stress of the move was bringing up feelings of being unstable and unsafe as a child—feelings she was projecting onto Collin. Ted’s social anxiety comes from a fear of abandonment: often left home alone, he wondered if his parents really loved him. Any experience that threatens our sense of safety, lovability, or self-worth can create the kind of severe anxiety that leads to abuse.
How to take back control from anxiety
Wanting to feel safe, in control, liked, loved, and accepted, is something we all have in common. However, none of us get to feel that way all the time. Sometimes we will feel out of our depth or overwhelmed. Some people will judge us, think badly of us, or reject us. Experiencing these challenges is something we all have in common, too.
The truth is, there’s little we can do about these external situations—our best course of action is to turn inward. Acknowledge and process the core hurts behind your anxiety. Challenge beliefs like “I must always be in control” or “I must please everyone.” It’s this internal process, not attempting to control external factors and people around us, that relieves the pressure and breaks anxiety’s grip.
Learn to recognize the signs that you are feeling anxious—some of these are similar to the warning signs that we’re getting angry. Practice recognizing and questioning those distorted thoughts that fuel your fears. “We’ll never get our dream home” and “they find me boring and dorky” are both assumptions, not facts.
What’s more, even if the move did fall through, does not mean Molly and Collin won’t find another dream home. Even if everyone does find Ted and Peter a little dorky, does not mean they dislike Ted or that he’s an unlikable person. Almost any anxiety-inducing thought can be reframed, and almost all these thoughts are irrational.
Journaling is an invaluable tool for identifying anxiety and working through it, asking “why?” and “what if?” We can also use our journal like a landfill, where we dump all those anxiety-inducing thoughts before getting on with our day. Some people even find it helps to turn their anxiety into a character and give them a job to do: “Ah, hello Anxiety! While you’re here, could you remind me to call the realtor before I go out?”
Anxiety is a normal emotion that serves a useful purpose. A little dose of it can help us get all that paperwork done in time to close the deal on our dream home. It can even motivate us to think of some interesting conversation topics ahead of that dinner party.
But when anxiety leads to abuse, it’s a sign that we need to work on ourselves. Remember: there’s very little we can control in this life, but that’s ok! When we have self-control, the rest tends to work itself out.
God doesn’t want us to feel afraid. In fact, “fear not” appears hundreds of times in the God-inspired words in the Bible. Knowing that God is good, all-powerful, and in control of everything is the best antidote to our anxiety.
When we face circumstances we can’t control or uncertainties we can’t predict, trusting those truths frees us from fear and anxiety. We can rest in the the assurance that he has a plan and the big unknowns in our life covered. When our anxiety subsides, we’ll find that we treat others with more patience, kindness, and love–which is his will for our lives.