Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

Unexpressed grief becomes anxiety

Unexpressed grief becomes anxiety

Many of the clients I work with report experiencing some sort of anxiety in their lives, which makes sense, as anxiety is considered to be a fairly normal part of living in this world. Normal or not, most people want less of it. Clinicians use specific markers to determine a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (there are several types). An anxiety disorder basically means that you have more of it than is considered normal.

Anxiety is physiological, emotional, and cognitive (body, heart, mind)

Anxiety is conventionally viewed as a cognitive or “thought” disorder, but I have suggested elsewhere that anxiety is simultaneously rooted in the body, and that it can be approached through the body via nervous system self-regulation (and co-regulation) techniques. It’s also worth adding that anxiety is emotional as well as cognitive and physiological, and I believe that emotion needs to be met on its own terms (more on that another time; much to say, including why do we continue to mislabel emotional health as “mental health”? Why don’t we address emotional health for what it is, directly? So strange, and yet entirely consistent with a head-centric culture that minimizes feeling and heart-intelligence.)

Anxiety… Grief in disguise?

Here I want to make a proposition – not a definitive or universal claim about anxiety – but rather a part of the picture or piece of the puzzle: Anxiety can be a result of unexpressed grief. Unexpressed grief can become anxiety. Unexpressed grief can be carried in the body, in the heart (the metaphorical or “feeling” heart), and in the mind (mentally, as thoughts), and over time this unexpressed grief comes to take the shape of what we call “anxiety”. In other words, anxiety might be grief in disguise.

We might not instinctively think of grief and anxiety side by side. Many of us don’t tend to think of grief much at all. Instead, depression gets most of the attention, probably because it fits more snugly into categorical and diagnostic parameters. Grief, not so much. For a while the experts worked with a model that tried to fit grief into tidy stages, but that project was largely discarded. Grief is too unwieldy. Too wild. Untameable. Also, grief is distinctly feeling. Depression, on the other hand, can be squeezed into the “mental health” box. Here’s an interesting insight about another difference between grief and depression: Depression disconnects us from life. Grief connects us to life.

Grief connects us to life

Grief doesn’t connect us to the parts of life we favour or prefer, but it very much connects us to an essential and unescapable (and, come to think about it, anxiety-provoking) part of life: Loss.

Grief is loss. Pretty simple equation. We grieve what we lose. We don’t grieve everything we lose, but when we grieve it is because we have lost something; something we cared about, something we loved. So here we can see that grief is distinctly connected to love. No love, no grief. No grief, no love. We grieve the loss of people we love, relationships we love, even an identity or idea or fantasy or way of life that we have loved and lost.

Grief demands expression

Grief is expressed through the body, somatically, through an action, most notably through weeping (for some reason I prefer “weeping” over “crying” in this case; there’s a different kind of connotation or significance, and language matters), but also through shaking or trembling, writhing, wailing, screaming, fists pounding, contortions of the body, even vomiting.

When we treat grief with the reverence and attention it deserves, it can also be expressed through language, through writing or journaling, through poetry, through talking or conversation. In more traditional cultures, grief is expressed through songs, through prayer, and through ritual or ceremony. When we lack these kinds of expression grief can turn into violence, self harm, hatred, substance abuse and harmful excesses. Denied or repressed, grief can also become depression, or, as I am proposing here, anxiety.

Some writers, leaders, and activists – Francis Weller and Stephen Jenkinson come to mind – suggest that grief must be expressed within the container of community, in the company of others, in order to be properly metabolized. Other thinkers on the subject, like Thomas Moore, take a more private introspective approach (Moore was a monk after all).

Grief is an ongoing initiation

In my professional life I have witnessed how grief, expressed or unexpressed, plays a role in how relationships unfold. In my personal life – I am now in my fiftieth year – I have discovered firsthand the inescapable hand of grief. The longer we live, the more we lose; the more we lose, the more we are put in touch with the grief energy. Grief is an ongoing initiation; we are initiated into the realm of grief through time and through aging. Grief comes with age, and it ages us. It comes with maturity, and it matures us.

As a slight aside, I want to offer another idea about grief while we’re on the subject, just to make things even more interesting: Grief is not the opposite of joy. In fact, grief and joy are neighbours. They’re not really even antagonistic neighbours. They might have a somewhat uneasy relationship, but ultimately they affirm each other.

Back to my original proposition… Unexpressed grief becomes anxiety. I share this idea because many people are perplexed by their anxiety. They struggle to know the cause or the source, to understand it. I invite you to give this idea some consideration. Entertain it. Investigate it. I offer it here humbly, that it might support you on your journey.

All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

(Read the comments on this post on facebook – click here. I especially like the idea offered by one reader that grief must be “tended”.)

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Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

“Stop feeling that” – Can you tolerate your partner’s difficult feelings?

"Stop feeling that" - Can you tolerate your partner's difficult feelings?When faced with our partner’s difficult feelings, the reflexive response tends to be some version of this: “Stop feeling that.” We might dress up our response in language that sounds more caring or compassionate, but the essential meaning of our message – stop feeling that – rings loud and clear.

We want our partner to stop feeling what they are feeling because it makes us uncomfortable in a hundred ways. Until we examine the discomfort that their feelings activate in us, we will continue to respond with some version of “Stop feeling that.” The problem with this response is that it easily turns the partner’s feelings into a point of contention, defensiveness follows, and a familiar escalation of conflict is often not far behind.

The alternative?

Another possibility is to respond to our partner’s difficult feelings with some version of this: “Please tell me more.” The problem with this is that it conflicts with our true intentions and desires. “Please tell me more” is a nice idea, but the truth is that we don’t want our partner to tell us more; we want them to stop feeling that.

Who would we have to be in order to genuinely want our partner to tell us more about their difficult feelings?

First, we’d have to be someone who can tolerate our partner’s difficult feelings. This is no small task. When the people closest to us are feeling something difficult, it is virtually impossible to not feel anxious. How we manage this anxiety determines our ability to be curious about their experience rather than trying to avoid, control, or fix it. In other words, our ability to be present in relationship hinges our ability to tolerate or manage the anxiety we feel.

Many of the complaints I hear in my marriage counselling practice come down to this –

“My partner doesn’t listen to me; they try to fix me or control me. I just want to be heard.”

Of course, the person saying this isn’t always telling the whole truth. Often there is a secret desire to have our partner rescue us, or there’s a not-so-secret attempt to pin our feelings on our partner, which makes it even harder for them to just “be with us” when we are suffering. There can also be an expectation that our partner demonstrate sufficient understanding, acknowledgement, or agreement when we reveal our feelings.

These dynamics can best be seen in the context of a “relationship system.” Thinking of relationship in terms of a system means acknowledging that relationship dynamics can’t be reduced to a simple cause and effect, but rather that there are multiple inputs that shape the system in complex ways, and that each person in the system has a part in either maintaining or changing it, no matter if they see themselves as the protagonist or the antagonist.

Learn more about tolerating feelings and changing difficult relationship dynamics in my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

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Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

“My husband’s anger is wrecking our marriage.”

My husband's anger is hurting our marriage

Brian and Glory had been working with me for just over a year. The complex impulses and patterns shaping their relationship were slowly being revealed. Brian had a war-like energy, and could escalate a conflict to massive proportions in a matter of moments. This frightened Glory, who disliked conflict and shied away from any expressions of anger, even just a raised voice. To Glory it was obvious that, faced with a partner’s anger, any reasonable person would naturally want to retreat.

Glory was a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, and she had been clear in our sessions that she was willing to investigate her role in perpetuating the conflict cycle that had developed. Nonetheless, despite her stated willingness in this regard, she always came up empty handed when searching for her own complicity. After all, it was HE who would raise his voice, it was HIS anger that would spark and catch fire.

Many counsellors, as well as family and friends, will naturally side with the more “peaceful” person in this dynamic, the assumption being that the onus is on the “war-like” personality to change. This bias has its problems, as we’ll see.

To really understand all that is going on beneath the surface of a relationship like Glory’s and Brian’s it’s useful to take problem-solving off the table for a time. I like to do this transparently with clients, and to get their explicit consent and participation. I assure them that we can and will come back to the matter of solutions, but for now, I ask, can we just investigate without any agenda… can we simply be curious? Interestingly, this is where change tends to actually begin. When we start to examine a relationship with simple, genuine curiosity we make new discoveries.

Putting problem solving aside allowed Glory and Brian to come to some new realizations about their relationship patterns. By doing “little experiments” (this is a Hakomi term for setting up small, carefully controlled interactions for the purposes of observing the experience and noticing habitual responses) Glory discovered that she had virtually no tolerance for anger or conflict. In the face of anger, even the subtlest anger, she would begin to retreat. The idea of meeting anger or conflict face-on had never even occurred to her as a possibility.

In Glory’s world, anger and conflict were intolerable. They were, in the simplest terms… bad. It made sense that she had been unable to identify any role that she might play in the relationship conflict cycles that plagued her marriage. After all, she always did everything in her power to avoid anger and conflict!

Once it dawned on her that her aversion to conflict and anger might actually be her role in the pattern, Glory had something to work with. She experimented with facing anger and conflict more directly. This let her see just how conflict-avoidant she was, and she got a glimpse of how this part of her personality had shaped her life.

Now remember, we’re still in simple curiosity mode. No problem solving, no prescribing, just noticing. And we’re not just talking about anger and conflict, we’re actually working with it as it comes up in session. We’re doing little experiments all the time. This requires a particular orientation from a therapist – they must recognize these opportunities as they naturally arise and use them for a client’s insight and learning.

This is not an orientation every therapist shares. I’ve been witness to many sessions where a counsellor does just the opposite; they try to calm down or smooth over strong emotions or outbursts in session so that they can get back to talking about the couple’s problems from a safe distance. Certainly there are times for de-escalation and peace-keeping, but if this is always the strategy, and if it is an automatic or unconscious strategy, opportunities will be missed, and old cycles will continue.

Back to Glory and Brian… Glory has now realized that she has always treated anger and conflict as inherently bad, something to be avoided, and she is beginning to see how this avoidance has both perpetuated their cycle, and has blinded her to role within it. She sees that her task may be to confront Brian’s anger and, it is revealed later in our sessions, perhaps her own anger as well; not surprisingly, it isn’t just other people’s anger that makes her uncomfortable.

Here’s what I presented to this couple and asked them to consider –

The moment that Brian feels Glory retreat in even the smallest way, he panics (it took some careful attention for him to recognize the degree of this panic response). Brian’s panic is expressed first as annoyance or criticism, but then moves quickly into rage. His rage is the rage of abandonment.

On her side of the equation, the moment Glory feels the smallest expression of Brian’s annoyance or criticism, she begins to retreat; she knows what is coming next. It’s crucial to note that we are talking about the tiniest expressions here. Barely discernible eye movements. Subtle changes in body language, posture, or verbal tone. Like most long-term couples, Brian and Glory are exquisitely attuned to each others state of being, and like most couples they are in denial of the power that their anxiety holds over each other and the relationship.

As I’ve often explained in my various writings, our nervous systems are in constant communication with each other, for better or for worse. Most of this communication is happening below conscious awareness, hence those conversations that everyone knows, beginning with –

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like THAT.”

“I’m not looking at you like anything!”

As we debriefed a particular incident that had threatened to escalate into a familiar multi-day meltdown, I was struck by the fact that both Brian and Glory experienced major incongruence between their two accounts of the event; they believed that their stories did not match. But I found their two stories remarkably consistent, the only notable discrepancy being this –

Each was acutely aware of each others subtle cues, but more or less oblivious of their own.

Glory could describe in detail Brian’s eye movements and the change of tone in his voice that led her to retreat, and yet she was blind to her equivalent cues to Brian, cues that essentially said “I’m disconnecting from you now.”

Conversely, Brian had a photographic memory of the moment Glory averted her gaze, and how that affected him, but he could not understand how his accusatory tone could possibly elicit such a strong response from her.

This was a good opportunity to draw some parallels. I explained that their two accounts of the same event sounded remarkably congruent to me, and I observed that each of them put disproportionate significance on each others cues, while downplaying the impact of their own responses on each other.

In other words, Brian couldn’t believe that a tiny little bit of criticism from him could make Glory retreat so dramatically, and Glory was baffled that the mere hint of disconnection or retreat from her could throw Brian into a rage. Each downplayed their own cues and reactions, while simultaneously inflating the other’s.

“I get a little angry. No big deal. But then she totally withdraws!”

“I take a little space for a few minutes, like any normal person, and then he totally blows up!”

The behaviour of each is deeply habitual, and feels completely “natural” from the subjective point of view. Neither Brian nor Glory could imagine how their minor little habits could trigger such a strong reaction in the other. A switch gets flipped, for both of them, a switch that runs right to their core.

As we continued experimenting and gaining insight through a collaborative curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgement, Glory and Brian each discovered how much impact their own triggers had on each other, and how this caused the escalation they experienced.

This was in important and ongoing discovery. Previously, they had dismissed each other’s reactions, while simultaneously holding their own to be natural and valid. Now they were each beginning to see how the other’s experience was as legitimate, in its own way, as their own. This, by the way, is an example of genuine empathy.

Empathy has its own nature and arises spontaneously when the conditions are right. Having an actual felt experience of each other’s vulnerability, coupled with a growing understanding of each other’s life experiences, outlooks, and character provided the right conditions for empathy to organically emerge. This allowed Glory and Brian to imagine themselves more as allies than adversaries, and it set the ground for co-operation as we began to address behavioural change.

As we began to address behavioural change and taking responsibility for one’s own actions, we started with some education on what I call “building capacity.” Both Glory and Brian needed to develop tolerance for each others anxious behaviours.

Brian needed to practice allowing Glory to make small retreats. Glory needed to practice allowing Brian to express anger or criticism. Neither Brian’s anxious anger nor Glory’s anxious withdrawal were inherently bad or wrong, and they only threatened the relationship to the degree that each could not tolerate the other. By growing their capacity, stretching their tolerance for each other, the burden of change falls on neither, and yet both are apt to find their own way of changing. Like most profound relationship work, it’s paradoxical. By allowing each other to be themselves, by practicing tolerating one another, a behaviour pattern is interrupted and the stage is set for change based on personal maturation; much more valuable than ultimatums or even negotiated compromise.

Change that comes out of growing our capacity feels satisfying and nourishing. It’s a source of pride and freedom. Change that comes from making demands, ultimatums, or even negotiated agreements about behaviour – “You promise to do this and I promise I won’t do that” – tends to be short-lived and can even be potentially destructive.

You might have noticed that there is virtually no story, no content, no “he said/she said” included in the account above. That’s because the issue that this couple faces isn’t, at core, about a particular disagreement or argument. Their conflict is rooted in something much deeper. We might call it habituated nervous system responses, or we could use another lens and call it attachment styles. The point is, we could spend forever dancing around the details of who said what and who did what, but underneath all that are two nervous systems doing their thing. Attending too much to “story and content” would just distract us from the work of capacity building.

So how to build capacity? How to develop tolerance for our partner’s small cues that set us off?

First we must begin to notice that which has always gone unnoticed. Brian and Glory, like all of us, developed strategies early in their lives for getting their needs met – needs for safety, for connection, for soothing, for autonomy, and so on. These strategies are unconscious, and are sometimes even pre-verbal. We make certain decisions about how to be in the world and with others before we even begin speaking as children. These strategies do not live in our conscious mind, they are held in the body, in the nervous system, in the emotional and instinctive parts of ourselves.

When these unconscious strategies get expressed in our adult relationships, they might create strong impulses and feelings (or perhaps numbness), but they tend to elude conscious awareness. Because they feel so naturally a part of us, it’s necessary to practice recognizing them. Until we do some work examining them, they really aren’t negotiable, they’re more or less hardwired. It’s also worth mentioning that the gender associations in Glory and Brian’s case can just as easily be reversed; a woman might tend toward anger and a man toward withdrawal, in fact I see this just as commonly.

Our task is to start noticing how we respond to particular stimuli, how we react to our partner’s cues. We practice in session, slowing down these interactions and noticing the subtleties contained within. From here, with a little experience under their belts, client couples will take this practice into their lives. If they will continue this difficult work, they will likely be rewarded. To learn more, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples – Insights and practices for cultivating love, sex, and intimacy (even in difficult times).

Follow me on social media for sex and relationship tips, tools, and insights – Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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