As part of PAPER's month-long "Sexpress" series, New York-based sexologist Shelby Sells will be writing weekly columns that investigate modern sexuality. Dive into her sexpertise, below.
Anxiety acts as an unfortunate agent of love. It's that tingling butterfly feeling in our stomach when we hang out with our crush. It's our heart beating out of control lying in bed at night thinking about them. Anxiety is exciting and scary. It's not always easy making ourselves vulnerable to new partners when there's a chance we could be hurt (especially if we have been hurt before). Having a predisposition to an anxiety disorder can make being in a relationship that much more of a struggle. So how does having anxiety impact our interpersonal and intimate relationships?
Anxiety usually works in two ways: it catapults us into action or it cripples us to despondent state. Fun stuff! As someone who deals with anxiety, and is the self-elected president of the Overthinkers Club, I can attest to the daily difficulties of dealing with this draining disorder.
One of the first steps to dealing with anxiety is understanding what you're feeling and why you're feeling this way. Anxiety disorders are common and affect almost 20% of the U.S. population. You are not alone. Education of this mental illness is a great way to familiarize yourself with what it is and how to treat it. Regardless of whether it is you or your partner who is suffering from anxiety (on any level), awareness is essential to establishing a solid foundation of support and understanding.
Communicating to a partner about anxiety can be difficult and scary. It takes a tremendous amount of strength and courage to overcome these disabling fears. Open dialogue helps create a safe space to work through concerns. Anxiety is a real mental health issue. It sometimes prevents us from going after what we want, including healthy, stable, loving relationships. Anxious thoughts tend to flood the minds of couples in a new partnership. What if they don't like me? What if they don't text me back? What if they go ghost on me? We can't live our lives in a "what if?" state of mind.
Constantly worrying about what will or won't happen almost ensures our unhappiness (hello self-fulfilling prophecy!) To truly appreciate a relationship we must be present in both body and mind. Confronting our fears head on and owning them helps us gain self-confidence and attraction to potential partners. Neurologically speaking, love produces an assortment of chemicals in our brain (including adrenaline and dopamine), and heightens our emotions in a positive way. We often see satisfying relationships help reduce stress and anxiety in partners. No wonder we continue to seek it out!
Before trust and security are established in a relationship, dating can often be a major source of anxiety for people. Meeting, connecting with, and being attracted to someone isn't always a sure thing. Timing is another factor we have no control over. And did I mention relationships involve work? Not everyone is ready for that kind of commitment. All of these ingredients are enough to give anyone a panic attack. On top of that, we carry our anxiety with us from childhood into adulthood, from one relationship to the next. Excuse me as my eyes roll entirely into the back of my head.
Dr. Claudia Aguirre speaks about "attachment style" — fear of rejection vs. fear of intimacy — a trait embedded in us as children that carries on as we mature into adulthood. She explains, "In psychology, there are two ends of the attachment spectrum: avoidance and anxiety. Those on the avoidance end of the spectrum tend to be very self-reliant and uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy. At the other end of the spectrum, those with high anxiety fear rejection and are more dependent on others." Figuring out the roots of what causes our anxiety is an essential key in letting go of our fears and transforming behavioral patterns. Knowing and understanding our emotional needs is a wonderful way to set ourselves up for healthy supportive relationships.
For more information on dealing with anxiety please visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.