According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, “anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It helps one deal with a tense situation in the office, study harder for an exam, keep focused on an important speech. In general, it helps one cope. But when anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it has become a disabling disorder.” Put another way anxiety is supposed to help us. The parts of the brain that produce feelings of anxiety are similar to the parts of the brain that process pain, another negative emotion. Anxiety and its cousin pain help us by signaling danger and causing us to avoid. Their job is to inhibit behavior. The part of the brain that processes pain and anxiety is called the Behavioral Inhibition System or BIS.
I have observed that anxiety is the single biggest obstacle to recovery from a pathological relationship with a sociopath (psychopath). The aftermath of these relationships leaves a person with terrible anxiety, dread and when anxiety/dread is overwhelming, avoidance sets in. Avoidance coping leads people to withdraw from life and responsibilities and the result is only more anxiety. A vicious cycle sets in where anxiety leads to avoidance, avoidance behaviors get us in trouble, that trouble leads to more anxiety, that anxiety leads to even more avoidance…and so on.
Why is a pathological relationship different from all others? Why is the anxiety experienced afterward so profound? I think the roots of the anxiety have to do with 6 things:
1. During the relationship, mind games, undermine a person’s confidence.
2. During the relationship the victim is intentionally isolated from potential sources of support.
3. During the relationship the sociopath/psychopath does things that harm the victim’s relationships with significant people in his/her life.
4. The break-up of any relationship causes anxiety, conflict laden relationships more so.
5. In the aftermath many victims face financial problems.
6. In the aftermath many victims face legal problems.
O.K. , I admit the anxiety is caused by a total destruction of the framework of a person’s life!
I think that our psychological defenses can operate so well that many people underestimate the degree to which anxiety influences their behavior and the level of avoidance coping they engage in. The best indicator of anxiety, in my opinion is this avoidance coping.
Just what is avoidance coping? Avoidance coping means that a person denies or minimizes the seriousness of a situation. He/she uses a self—protective strategy and actively suppresses stressful thoughts. Most importantly, behaviorally speaking avoidance coping means an avoidance of tasks that might in anyway remind us of the stressor and avoidance of doing many of the tasks of life. Since avoidance coping requires so much mental energy, there is not enough left for getting work done. Instead, people tend to get satisfaction through other activities like eating or watching TV.
I got to thinking about avoidance coping this week because I tutor a 15 year old in math and he described his own behavior which is a good example of avoidance coping and its consequences. I hadn’t seen this student for about a year. I worked with him for several years and the last time I saw him he was in 8th grade and was doing very well in that he could solve simple algebra problems. Now in 9th grade, he is failing math so his mother called me. When I tested him, he had regressed. He could not do any of the tasks he could do easily only a year ago.
I asked him what happened. He said, “The things I know I do. When I don’t get something, I don’t want to do it. I get home and feel like I would rather ride my bike, so I do. Then I don’t do my homework.”
The point I want to make to you, is that I worked with him for only an hour and he got a 93 on the next test! Due to this victory, he feels a great deal less like avoiding. So I ask you, are there things you are avoiding that you could actually succeed at if you just stop avoiding? Wouldn’t an A grade at some task that you are avoiding boost your confidence and serve you better than that nagging feeling you are not doing the stuff you are supposed to do.
My student’s mother has some negative words for her son’s motivation. She says he is lazy etc. She just does not understand the degree to which anxiety is producing his dysfunctional behavior. He doesn’t outwardly appear anxious, though inwardly he is. Just that little contact with me reduced his anxiety enough to help him face that which he had been avoiding. Just like my student, even when we don’t appear anxious, our avoidance behaviors often lead to further damage to our already damaged relationships.
If you are avoiding too much, I encourage you to stop avoiding. Confront those tasks that are causing you dread, fear and anxiety. In the end you will feel a lot better. You might get an A grade if you try and not trying always leads to failure-an F. Next week more on anxiety and coping.