Anxiety is, in its simplest form, a natural human emotional response. It originates in the limbic brain (a.k.a. the emotional brain) when a threat is perceived in the environment. The brain rings the alarm system (your anxiety) to get you to pay attention. That’s the basic definition.
But anxiety can feel a lot more complicated than that. You might feel anxious when there seems to be no obvious threat around you. And sometimes that feeling of anxiety can persist long after the perceived threat has subsided.
This is largely because the brain can perceive ‘threats’ in the environment based on previous experiences. So if the current situation feels similar to an uncomfortable situation you’ve been in before, then the brain will ring the alarm system in the present.
The current situation in the world has resulted in many brains persistently ringing alarm bells of anxiety. Threats are perceived everywhere, from health difficulties to financial crises and impending recessions. It’s no wonder so many people are struggling with anxiety right now.
How Does Anxiety Affect Us?
When the brain rings the alarm system of anxiety, the sole purpose is to get you to pay attention. This is to ensure your safety. The brain becomes ready to release adrenaline, which is the next step in dealing with the threat. You either run from it, fight it, or freeze and hope it doesn’t notice you.
But getting you primed and ready to manage the threat means increasing your heart rate to make sure your muscles and brain receive enough oxygen.
Your breathing rate will also increase in order to make sure there’s enough oxygen to go around. Glucose is released into the system to give you the energy you need (and results in that feeling of jitteriness). And your bowels might release in order to make you lighter (and hopefully faster).
A prolonged experience of anxiety will likely result in more complex symptoms such as dizziness (from increased breath rate), chest pain (from racing heart and constricted muscles), nausea and tummy troubles (from affected digestion) and many more.
Let’s face it, the symptoms and physical experience of anxiety are very unpleasant.
It feels impossible to concentrate or remain present. People often become preoccupied with their physical symptoms because they feel so uncomfortable and worrisome.
As a result, the experience of anxiety itself becomes anxiety provoking, which often results in more anxiety and more symptoms. A bit of a vicious cycle.
The Physical Effects of Anxiety
It’s no wonder that our relationships are affected by anxiety - especially when it comes to intimacy and connection.
Truth is, there isn’t a mammal out there that will mate when there are predators lurking.
They need to feel safe before they can engage in the act, and humans are no different. When anxiety has you believing there's a looming threat (despite the threat not always being clear or real), it's going to be very difficult to relax, feel safe and engage in intimacy.
Moreover, libido is often physiologically affected with chronic experiences of anxiety.
This has to do with the stress hormone, cortisol, being released into the body to assist with the fight, flight or freeze response.
The more anxious or stressed you feel, the more cortisol is being created and released into your body.
This has several effects, not least of which is the effect on women’s hormone levels. More specifically, progesterone is used as a precursor to cortisol, which means the body will make use of the available progesterone to feed the required cortisol levels. This lowers the levels of progesterone in the body.
As a result, we have a knock-on effect because a dip in progesterone levels will mean that oestrogen becomes dominant. And any hormonal imbalance is likely to affect libido on a physical level.
No matter how good your intentions are, if your hormones are out of whack, then the lust for intimacy simply will not be there.
What Can You Do About It?
Making sure that you get enough sleep and eat foods that maintain stable blood sugar levels will help to regulate cortisol levels (or, at the very least, prevent further stress on the system).
Above all else, have patience with one another and remember that mammals never mate when they do not feel safe!
The Psychological Effects of Anxiety
Physical intimacy is not the only victim to chronic anxiety. Emotional connection is also affected by the experience.
With ongoing symptoms that affect your ability to concentrate, focus and feel well, it's often difficult to remain present in any given moment.
This means that partners are often preoccupied with their physical and psychological experience of anxiety and are unable to engage fully with one another.
Being able to communicate effectively in a relationship is largely dependent on your ability to remain present and engage in active listening. This means truly hearing what your partner has to say and interacting with them in a meaningful way that builds connection.
This level of present communication becomes challenging when you’re experiencing a foggy brain, dizziness, tingling sensations and heart palpitations (to name but a few). It's hard to focus on what someone else is saying when your own body feels like it's betraying you.
Not to mention the emotional feeling of nervousness that ensues when you're anxious. So the level of connection and communication can be sorely disrupted when one, or both, partners are struggling with anxiety.
What Can You Do About It?
It helps to take time out of your usual busy routines to connect with one another in a safe and relaxing way.
Communication is often stimulated when you’re in a different location than usual. Go for a walk, grab lunch in the park, or eat dinner outside rather than in front of the TV.
These moments and changes to routine provide a space that facilitates connection and, potentially, breaks through the preoccupation that anxiety can cause.
The Emotional Effects of Anxiety
Beyond sex and communication, relationships also require a level of self-confidence and trust.
Knowing that you're loved and cherished in a relationship helps you put your best self forward and connect more intimately with your partner.
People in general have a hard time believing they're good enough and worthy of love. When anxiety is in the picture, this sense of self-confidence is often damaged. Anxiety may leave you feeling needy, insecure and unsure of yourself, which often translates into the relationship, especially when it's rooted in childhood trauma.
This can put pressure on both partners - one partner is asked to provide constant reassurance and the other is asked to trust that they're loved.
This dynamic does not always play out as smoothly as one hopes. One partner might start to feel like a burden, putting a strain on the relationship.
This becomes more challenging when physical intimacy has already flown out the window and communication is closely following. The sense of trust, security and belonging in the relationship can become significantly challenged, leading to an increase in anxiety.
What Can You Do About It?
Find time to connect with one another in a fun, light-hearted way. Play and laughter reconnects the underlying friendship and foundation of the relationship.
Date nights and intentionally creating space to connect will reinforce the sense of love and belonging in the relationship.
While anxiety is a natural human response, prolonged (or stuck) anxiety can be quite disruptive.
Relationships are often negatively affected when one partner struggles with significant anxiety, especially when it's rooted in childhood trauma.
Not only do the physical symptoms leave you feeling preoccupied and uncomfortable, but the physical effects of anxiety can also make changes to your energy and libido levels.
It’s important for couples to seek additional support if they find anxiety interrupting communication and connection. While only one of you might be struggling with anxiety, both partners need to navigate the consequences and interpersonal dynamics that arise as a result.
Self-Guided Support for Anxiety
Research shows that self-help materials are often enough for people to overcome mild to moderate mental health difficulties without professional support.
If you’re interested in a self-guided program that includes tools from CBT and ACT, be sure to check out The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit. It's "like 10 therapy sessions in one."
Diante is a clinical psychologist and certified anxiety coach offering online support for women who are fed up with anxiety getting in the way of their relationships, parenting or personal dreams. You can find out more about her at www.theunstuckinitiative.com or follow her on Instagram @the.intentional.psychologist or Facebook: www.facebook.com/intentionalpsychologist