Sudden-onset relationship anxiety; how to cope
June 19, 2023 12:55 PM   Subscribe

New and persistent feelings of dread relating to my relationship. This is unusual for me and I don't want to blow anything up. How can I feel better?

I'm not typically an anxious person. But a couple of times, in the past, I've had an experience where some trivial thing — often a line in a book — triggers a whole bunch of fears for me, the idea that there's something fundamentally wrong in my life and I need to make a drastic change. Usually the way I've dealt with this feeling is by actually making the change: leaving jobs, ending relationships, moving cities, etc, and treating the feeling as some kind of calling from on high spurring me to action.

I don't want to do that this time (the feeling was triggered by a scene in a novel, not anything my partner did). I love my partner, and I want to stay in the relationship I'm in. But in the meantime, I've still got this full-body dread feeling that's making it difficult to sleep, eat, and work. It feels disconnected from my intentions and thoughts — it's just a malevolent presence sitting on me that won't go away. I've tried journaling, meditation, box breathing, and exercise, and those all help temporarily (and when the feeling lifts I feel almost euphoric with relief and happiness). But then the dread seeps back in again.

Part of the fear is that it will never go away and I will be forced to act on the dread, as that's the only thing that will make it dissipate. That's what I've done before. But I hate the idea of letting this anxiety drive my choices — if I blow things up, it should be because I want to, not because my somatic nervous system went haywire!

As I said above I'm not usually an anxious person, so I don't have a great handle on how to manage. This has been going on for a week and doesn't seem to be getting better. Yes I'm going to (carefully) talk to my partner about it, which I hope will lift some of it off my shoulders.
posted by beatrice rex to Human Relations (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I’m sorry you’re feeling so stressed about it this!! The thing is, you tell us you’re not someone who’s normally anxious but this happens frequently enough, according to your words, that it’s bothersome. Not being able to sleep well for a few days over something is worthy of examination. I think we can all benefit from therapy and I think this applies to you too. Maybe just a few sessions would do the trick! You sound normal! And we all deserve support with hard things. I hope talking to your partner helps and that you look into the additional help you deserve too! I know this isn’t super helpful for the here and now but overtime it will help.
posted by smorgasbord at 1:43 PM on June 19, 2023 [3 favorites]

How do you feel about the times when you've listened to this feeling and made the change? Did it feel like the right think afterwards or do you think you let fear drive you into something that was hasty and short sighted.

If, in the past, this feeing was a good guide then maybe the feeling is right but the target is wrong. In other words, maybe there is something that needs change but it might not be the relationship. Or maybe there is something off in the relationship that needs attention but if you could articulate what the real problem was, you and your partner might be able to work together to make things better in ways that would calm your warning system.
posted by metahawk at 2:50 PM on June 19, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I notice that you don't actually articulate the fear here -- what precisely the scene in the novel was, what the "message" was you thought you got from it, how that linked up to your relationship. It probably feels scary to get specific like that out loud. You should. Putting words to this and hearing direct feedback about it will both help it dissipate and help you get clear about what you actually want to do, if anything.
posted by shadygrove at 2:59 PM on June 19, 2023 [16 favorites]

I think you’re in short term therapy territory here.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:30 PM on June 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm almost hesitant to post this because it could be wildly off-base, but the pattern you describe (an exogenous, specifically identifiable trigger that seems to "implant" an extremely difficult-to-resist impulse; dread and sleeplessness when the impulse is resisted; a sense of relief or even euphoria when the impulse is obeyed or is otherwise lifted) sounds very similar to how a friend describes their intrusive thoughts. Friend has a diagnosis and sees this pattern as a symptom, and in their case, it's very clear to them that these impulses can be (but are not always) harmful or self-destructive--that is, their impulses are not their subconscious benignly providing a catalyst that helps them make a difficult but necessary change or decision, which sounds like how you have explained this pattern to yourself in the past ("some kind of calling from on high spurring me to action").

I realize I'm being vague, and it's because I'm not your doctor, I'm not a doctor of any kind, and I take a pretty dim view of internet diagnoses in general. But if you have recourse to a mental health professional of some kind or a therapist, I encourage you to talk through both this situation and the past instances, including the effects they had on your life.
posted by pullayup at 4:42 PM on June 19, 2023 [13 favorites]

I agree with a couple of the points above that focus on the meta-dread, or the fear that the dread won't go away. That was one of the worst part of intrusive thoughts (something I've only truly struggled with for a short period in my life) - the fear that the problem would never go away. In therapy I found that (of course) the way to feel better was to talk about the unpleasant intrusive thoughts, to be specific, and lastly, to let myself feel the feelings in full. And I found that even if I sat with those thoughts and feelings and they were intense and unpleasant, I was ok.

If you have to wait for therapy, you might try journaling about the specifics and the feelings to see if they aren't lessened by getting them out on paper.
posted by ldthomps at 7:15 PM on June 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

Hey, you didn't mention this, so I am...

It's possible for there to be something medical going on that causes this feeling, too. I know you mentioned triggers, like a book passage... but just in case, hear me out.

You already are pretty sure that the feeling isn't REALLY connected to your partner, despite it attaching to them. Just in case it's STILL being sneaky - like, what if it's not REALLY connected to the book passage, but the book passage made you notice it, or you just happened to be reading it at the same time...

So... have you run this by your doctor? Specifically mentioning this dread / sense of doom?
Because it can be a legitimate medical symptom. A physical one, not just a mental one.

If you haven't... you might consider it.
posted by stormyteal at 11:23 PM on June 19, 2023 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This happens to me too! I've never talked to anyone else with this so honestly it's nice to know I'm not the only one. And omg it's so awful, and I'm sorry you're going through this.

After a considerable number of life-altering shifts including cross country moves and broken relationships, about 7 years ago I went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed this as "cyclical depression' (so basically bipolar but without any mania). She prescribed me Lamictal and the weird dread thing stopped happening almost immediately. The one I was in lifted within a week and it's never come back. Like, something will trigger it (last time it was a song, ugh) and I can feel it kind of start but then it just fizzles out. Honestly it's been a life saver, quite literally.

Then I began EMDR and parts work therapy just over a year ago. This has allowed me to heal some of the deep underlying traumas that were at the root of this and I have recently tapered off of the Lamictal and am cautiously optimistic. That was not my original intention going into therapy, and If I do get a dread-triggering episode I cant shake, I'm going right back on the meds because I know they work and I'm not blowing up my life again because of this condition.

As far as I can tell, at least for me, these are not benign signals from my subconscious but a "nervous system going haywire" situation. The haywire nervous system seems very tied to my childhood trauma, hence why the EMDR and parts work has helped so much.

I strongly encourage you to consider medication, preferably along with therapy, since if your experience is anything like mine, the dread is all consuming and doesn't respond much to the usual 'write it out or walk it out' methods of dealing with depression or thought spirals.

Best of luck. Feel free to PM me about this.
posted by ananci at 4:16 AM on June 20, 2023 [6 favorites]

In line with stormyteal - have you started or stopped any medications recently? Any changes to your sleep patterns or menstrual cycle if you have one? Diet? Any stressors in other areas of your life?

And holy crap ananci - yes that's very similar to my train of thought and experience. Since it has happened before, It might be worth examining the circumstances surrounding the previous experiences.

One more thing - I hate to say since this is where your fear is, but is the relationship doing whatever you need it to be doing?
posted by mokeydraws at 6:42 AM on June 20, 2023

For me, I have a very strong "everything is fine! nothing to see here!" drive in my mind, and sometimes it seems like "oh no what if something is secretly terrible" is a function of the other parts of my mind trying to get through that wall to inform me about something being not-quite-right (not actually terrible, but just not quite where I would ideally want it to be). Are you able to look semi-objectively at the relationship for not-quite-right-ness without it having to mean that it has to end? (Maybe instead it means talking to the other person, or changing your own behavior, or just being clear with yourself that you're consciously making some tradeoffs to be in the relationship and that it's worth it to you.)

(This isn't to detract from the recommendations around therapy and/or medication!)
posted by rivenwanderer at 8:11 AM on June 20, 2023 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you to all who responded — I'm glad to see that I'm not alone in going through things like this. shadygrove, thanks for calling me out on being very vague. I went to my journal and tried to be as specific as possible about the real thoughts and real fears happening, went through some full-body shakes (fun) but came out of it with a much better idea of how to talk about what's going on with me.

Also thanks to ananci; you've given me something new to consider. I'm kind of tired of the "blow up my life every few years because of a bad and mysterious feeling" cycle. Sometimes that's had good results but sometimes led to decisions I regret, and I really want to be making decisions from an intentional place.

Dread still hanging around but I have some hope of working through it, whatever the outcome. Thank you.
posted by beatrice rex at 9:54 AM on June 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

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