This is How to Rewire Your Anxious Brain

by | Dec 13, 2020 | Anxiety, Health anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts, Relationships | 57 comments

Some people are called to explore the vicissitudes of depression; Johann Hari comes to mind. Other are tasked with uncovering the underpinnings of eating disorders, like Anita Johnston, author of the exquisitely wise book, Eating in the Light of the Moon. For a myriad of reasons, both conscious and unconscious, I have been drawn along the pathways of deeply understanding anxiety, intrusive thoughts, panic, and compulsions. I have become over these many decades a devotee of anxiety, an apprentice to this symptom that expresses itself in so many ways for so many people. Anxiety calls to me both personally through my own lived experience and those of my kids and professionally through the extraordinary clients and course members who have found their way to my work.

This abiding curiosity to understand anxiety from multiple angles has recently led me to the book, Rewire Your Anxious Brain, by Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle, for I’ve been wanting to understand the neuroscience of anxiety: what is happening in the brain when we have an anxious response? I was also curious – and a bit nervous! – to see how much of the neuroscience would corroborate or contradict my own work with anxiety. Would I find that the neuroscience scientifically supports what depth psychologists have known for decades? Or would the neuroscience invalidate the depth work around anxiety that I’ve taught and written about for two decades.

Thankfully, it was the former (phew!): the science supports what psychologists have long known. Just as science through brain imaging can now explain what Buddhist meditators have known for thousands of years about the effects of meditation, neuroscience can now explain not only what is happening in the moment of anxiety but also how to rewire the brain so that we can heal at the neurological root. In other words, science explains the how of the what that psychology and spirituality have taught for a very long time.

Why is the how helpful? Because the anxious brain is also the inquisitive brain, and when we’re working with anxiety it helps enormously to understand why something is important. I can tell you that meditation will help you grow your witness self so that you’re less reactive in an amplified moment which will help you access the choice point for how to respond, but when you read the scientific evidence of how meditation helps your brain be less reactive, you’re more inclined to commit to the practice. The anxious brain responds well to facts and science, and it’s this very cognitive understanding that is part of the rewiring process. For when you can respond to the heightened anxiety response with a calm voice of, “Oh, I know what’s happening right now. This is my amygdala letting me know that there’s a real or perceived threat and my cortex is misinterpreting the threat,” you immediately set into a motion a new neural pathway in your brain that can see the “threat” through a non-threatening lens.

Let’s back up a bit. Here’s what Rewire the Anxious Brain teaches:

The field of neuroscience has revealed an extraordinary amount of information about how our brains process information. It teaches us that we have a cortex in the front of the brain that is the thinking part and an amygdala in the middle of the brain that is the emotional part. The amygdala triggers the anxious response while the cortex offers its interpretation or misinterpretation of the stimulus. This is a highly simplified explanation of the cortex and amygdala, but even this basic information will help you understand what’s happening in an anxious moment.

With the understanding that part of the job of the cortex is to anticipate and interpret, let’s break this down using the example of relationship anxiety. Please keep in mind that if you don’t struggle with relationship anxiety this can be applied to any hook onto which anxiety hangs its hat: health, sexuality, money, germs, social, harm.

Amygdala Trigger: I feel anxious in the presence of my partner or while thinking about my partner. My heart races, my stomach drops, my chest tightens.

Cortex interprets: “I don’t love my partner.” “There’s someone better for me.” “I’m not in love enough.” And all the ways that relationship anxiety expresses itself.

Relationship anxiety begins.

You can see that the anxiety begins with the somatic response of the amygdala and then the relationship anxiety takes hold because of a misinterpretation of a normal anxious response. What if you interpreted the initial anxiety response through the lens of the Wise Mind that could say something like, “Of course you’re scared. To love is to risk my heart, and this vulnerability is terrifying” instead of through the lens of the amygdala, whose entire job is to scan the horizon looking for danger and the cortex, who attaches first-response interpretations to the situation?

These primal parts of our brain served us very well when we needed to be on high alert for physical danger, like snakes and tigers and fires, but are they still serving us? I actually believe they are. And this is where the information of neuroscience ends and the wisdom of depth psychology begins.

Through the depth psychological lens, we can understand that an element of relationship anxiety is misinterpreting the normal and understandable anxious response of being in a relationship with a loving, emotionally available, safe partner. When we follow the misinterpretation of the cortex, we follow a red herring, for it’s unlikely that the problem is your loving partner. The problem – or the opportunity – is to examine your lifetime of fear of love and life that will only be triggered in the presence of real love.

If we understood the link between love and fear, if we taught young people that at some point in a healthy relationship – anywhere from date 1 to 20 years in – anxiety might arise and your first response might be to interpret the anxiety as a message that you’re with the wrong partner, so much suffering could be avoided.

Let’s rewind again as this is somewhat complex and I want to make sure that the steps are clear:

The amygdala’s job is to scan looking for danger. In the case of relationship anxiety, it interprets healthy love as danger for two primary reasons:

  1. If you’ve never experienced or witnessed healthy love, it’s unfamiliar and we register unfamiliar as dangerous.
  2. Real, safe, available love IS dangerous in the sense that it involves risk. Nowhere are our hearts more vulnerable than in the realm of real love.

So the amygdala is correct is sensing danger! But then the cortex comes in and misinterprets the trigger response, and that’s when understandable fear morphs into anxiety.

The key here, as I’ve discussed in many posts including this one, is to practice changing your response to the trigger. If you believe that your triggers are evidence that you’re with the wrong partner, you’re reinforcing that neural pathway in your brain that equates your partner with “wrong”, which will only increase your anxiety. But if you challenge your initial interpretation while tending to the core fears and wounds around love and also learning to work effectively with vulnerability and the fear of loss/uncertainty, you begin to rewire your brain and embark on a path of true healing.

So here the healing path is both on-the-spot – practicing how you respond in the moment to the anxiety – and deep dive, which is the path of working with a therapist and/or committing to a journaling and meditation practice so that you can attend to the anxiety at the root. Both rewire the brain. Both are essential. For some people, the cognitive understanding of what’s happening in their brains is enough to break free from anxiety. But for many others, especially when there’s a lifetime of anxiety that has attached to different themes, they need to delve into the underlayers that comprise the anxiety, which is their pain, overlooked trauma, and the spiritual opportunity of becoming more comfortable with loss and uncertainty.

The amygdala and cortex are doing their jobs well, and they’re pointing us in the direction of elevating our relationship to fear. While many of us are no longer living with threats of physical danger (I recognize that this isn’t all of us, by any means), we’re rising up Maslow’s hierarchy and being invited to work with the emotional and spiritual layers of fear. Yes, there is still danger; amygdala is registering accurately. And yes cortex still needs to interpret; but it needs an upgrade in terms of its information database regarding love, health, bodies, sexuality, dreams, and metaphors, for it’s difficult to interpret accurately if we don’t have access to accurate information.

This is why I believe that anxiety and panic attacks are modern day initiation rites. As modern people, we’re no longer sent into the forest on a vision quest where we’re asked to confront our fears and build our courage. Instead, anxiety and panic initiate us into our shadow realms so that we can evolve on our healing paths. Anxiety isn’t here to torture you. It’s here to alert you to your pain and invite you to step onto a path of healing, from the level of the brain to the heart to the body to the soul. We’re being asked to rewire on all fronts so that we can shrink fear and grow love. It’s a warrior’s path that takes us into the dark forest of fear and lands us, eventually, into a sunlit clearing where we find our true self. Welcome to the forest.

***

Note: If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and would like to receive the support, tools, and information of a deep-dive roadmap that will help you rewire and heal at the root, consider my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. You can learn more here. 

57 Comments

  1. Fab article. Interested in your perspective on whether CBT/ERP is the only ‘scientific’ approach, as this seems to be what it’s practitioners claim.

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    • It’s a tricky and fascinating conversation, Joshua. If by “scientific” approach we mean an approach this is reproducible, then we would say that many other approaches achieve similar results but haven’t necessarily done an official “study.” And yet we have to also question these studies, including who is funding them (insurance companies) because sometimes the study consists of 10 college students. So no, I do not believe that CBT/ERP is the only scientific approach, even though that’s why they claim. I think they have many wonderful tools to offer and I think that the approach is limited in terms of exploring the deeper roots of anxiety.

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      • I am reminded of that wonderful video by Lionel Corbett you posted a few months ago, in which he says we need to expand our paradigms around what constitutes ‘evidence’. I am also reminded of a lovely quotation by the late Rabbi Lionel Blue. When examining the evidence for God’s existence, he came to the conclusion that he need to “be his own evidence”.

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        • Yes! I was going to hop back on today and remind you to watch it ;).

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    • Joshua, I was going to mention this too. ERP seems to be the “only” treatment from a mainstream perspective but I think I personally need a blend of mainstream and depth work to heal. I have learned so much from Sheryl and have applied a lot of what I’ve learned. My black or white thinking doesn’t like that there isn’t one specific “treatment” for healing though. I want to be able to do 1, 2 and 3 and feel better but I know it’s ongoing work. 🙂

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      • from my perspective: we don’t need to be ‘mainstream’. We are all individuals and different things, and combinations of things, work for different people.

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        • Exactly what I’ll be posting about in the next couple of weeks ;). I think a hybrid model is best for most people, and I’m hoping that the field can expand its mindset to realize that humans and healing cannot be condensed or simplified to a one-sized-fits-all approach.

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          • most therapists themselves don’t offer ‘hybrid’ models, however, so much of the work needs to come from within. I do depth work with my analyst, and behavioral stuff in my day-to-day life. Seems to work mostly 🙂

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            • Absolutely, and that’s what I hope can change in the field. I’m so glad you’ve found your own roadmap, and that’s absolutely the most important piece.

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              • in a way it is a hybrid model I suppose, since analysis IS a form of exposure!!

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                • Yes! I love the way Pete Weiss talks about it in his interview. But I do think the Jungians could benefit from offering more direct behavioral tools.

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                  • nothing and nobody is perfect though. Part of the transference work in my therapy lies in coming to grips with that

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                    • Very wise, Joshua.

          • In a way I think a benefit of analysis might even be that it DOESN’T offer direct behavioral tools! For someone who is struggling to ‘grow up’ and taken ownership of their lives, this aspect actually encourages autonomy in decision making. Just an idea.

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        • I think this is where the individual model of therapy comes in: it’s up to a skilled therapist to do their best to determine what each client needs. Some may need behavioral tools. Some may need cognitive corrections. Some may need depth work. Again, it’s not one-sized-fits-all.

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          • I might add that, as you say yourself somewhere, the ultimate wisdom lies with the client themselves

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          • Thank you for this. I truly think I am creating a roadmap for my needs but it can feel overwhelming at time. I want to be sure I’m doing it “right.” I always think of what you say, Sheryl, about there not being one road to healing. Not sure I got that right, but I hope you know what I mean.

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            • I hear you Nicole. I too am obsessed with ‘getting my treatment right’. It has become an obsession alongside my relationship anxiety. In a way it is another form of relationship anxiety, just this time between me and my therapist!

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    • Loved this post. Will definitely be revisiting it. I wonder if I have relationship anxiety because I’m in a very loving relationship and that’s not what I saw growing up. Instead I saw two people who never touched and barley communicated but stayed in a marriage for the sake of the children. I never directly witnessed true, deep, real love.

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  2. Hi Sheryl, thank you for your wisdom. Question for you… When it comes to rewriting your brain, is it similar to developing new neuropathways. For example, building new neurotransmitters through the practice of self care and replacing the false beliefs w the truth. Is this what occurs? Or what you have seen w your clients and/or yourself? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s exactly what it is: developing new neuropathways through responding differently to the anxiety. In the language I use, it’s about growing the loving Inner Parent who can access the choice point, which means being in relationship to the triggers instead of being fused with them. Every time you choose a different response, you build new neurotransmitters.

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      • Thanks, Sheryl! When you say being in relationship to the triggers instead of being fused w them, how exactly does this look like? What is meant by this? It would be so helpful to get a small visual.

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    • Sheryl, when Eckhart Tolle says, “You are not your thoughts, but the one who is observing them,” … would a neuroscientist say that observation would be happening in your prefrontal cortex? I’m sure that’s an oversimplification, but I am Fascinated by this topic!

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  3. This was much needed and so appreciated.

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  4. So, say you had a traumatic event occur that put your amygdala on high, and then you started having intrusive thoughts that aren’t in any way connected (on the surface, I guess) to said event – does that make any sense?

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    • Yes, that’s basically what anxiety and intrusive thoughts are for most people.

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  5. For someone who has a very logical brain but is a very anxious person, things like this are so nice for me to read. My brain likes facts like you said so this article is right up my ally. Thank you again Sheryl so much

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    • I’m so glad it was helpful, Stephanie. Yes, the anxious brain is very contained by facts! And it’s part of the rewiring to feed the cool, calm facts to the brain as a way to calm the cortex.

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  6. This is so great Sheryl (as always). I remember when I was deeply struggling with RA, a key for me was to “just be” with the discomfort of the sensations that were happening in my body (the signals that were being sent from my amygdala) and to short-circuit my cortex’s desire to assign meaning. I use this all the time when anxiety comes up for me now and it really helps. Thanks for giving me a much greater understanding of the science behind why I find it to be so helpful. 🙂

    Reply
    • I really love when science proves and explains what we intuitively land upon! And I love the way you’ve explained your process: to be with the sensations without assigning meaning. And this is exactly the process of rewiring: naming the sensation from the amygdala without interpretation. Or even offer an interpretation like, “I’m scared right now, or maybe even excited (they feel the same) and I don’t have to know exactly why.” The Break Free From Relationship Anxiety forum is so lucky to have you, Sarah :).

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  7. Really amazing article. There was even one part that made my jaw drop and I thought about it. Sad but… really true.

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    • I’m curious which part if you would like to share.

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  8. I really loved your explanations! I’m trying my best to rewire my thoughts. Do you have any suggestions? Write down the realistic thoughts every day? Thanks!

    Reply
    • She has all types of practical advice in her courses! I’ve taken two of them now and they really really help!

      Reply
  9. I loved this Sheryl. As an empirical psychological researcher I love it when science develops new ways to ‘prove’ deeper truths about ourselves and the universe. Our brains are big a complex, and rationality is only part of what we are capable of as human beings. Metaphor and science, emotion and rationality, poetry and reason can and do align and coexist, and when they do we experience Wholeness. Thank you for your weekly wisdom this horrendous year. Happy Hanukkha and Merry Christmas!

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    • So beautifully articulated, Carly. Thank you ;). xoxo

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  10. Thank you for this post! I’ve been noticing that my first trigger is a physical sensation, usually lightheadedness and breathlessness. I then think “if I’m feeling these things around my partner he must not be safe.” I then feel like if I stay with him I’m ignoring my intuitive signals that my body is sending to warn me. Then it spirals into more fearful/anxious thoughts and feelings from there. I obsessively look for evidence of him being unsafe, ect. What I believe is probably happening is that my unprocessed pain and trauma has wired my brain to feel constantly threatened and that I’m especially on high alert around someone I’m vulnerable with. But my anxious mind tells me “no, you know he’s not safe.” It feels horrible to be thinking and feeling this about someone I love so much. Do you have any advice on how to work with this? Thank you!

    Reply
  11. This is such an important article shedding light on the link between depth psychology and neuroscience.

    It highlights the important change in paradigm required when looking at emotions. Our logical minds don’t always have all the answers.

    I watched a useful TED talk on this. Whilst I don’t like the title the content is good. ‘We are not at the mercy of our emotions’ (Lisa Feldman Barrett) She states that our brains are just guessing based on last experience and stimulus. Sometimes we guess right, sometimes we don’t!

    Thank you for you continued work in this fascinating area!

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    • Just watched this TED talk. Super interesting. Took me a bit to buy it, but the more she talked the more it made sense. Her closing thoughts were profound: “If you are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits which are buried deep inside your brain somewhere and which trigger automatically, then who is responsible when you behave badly? You are. Not because you are *culpable* for your emotions. But because the actions and the experiences you make today become your brain’s predictions for tomorrow. Sometimes we are responsible for something, not because we are to blame, but because we are the only ones who can change it.” Totally profound. I think she and Jordan Peterson would have a lot to talk about. He is big on taking personal responsibility. Something Sheryl has touched on too, which I appreciate.

      Reply
  12. Thank you for this, Sheryl! I have been reading more about the neuroscience behind anxiety lately so this came at the perfect time. Do you think that the reason our minds go back to some of the same, familiar intrusive thoughts is because of our past reactions to the specific trigger – it’s been identified as a threat? I have found that when my anxiety resurfaces it goes right back to some of the same, familiar thoughts that I’m guessing have become well worn grooves in my brain, and need to be rewired. Thank you, as always!

    Reply
    • Yes, from a neuroscience perspective I do think that’s part of it. From depth psychology, we would say that the thoughts are metaphors or messengers pointing you in the direction of deeper work around your wounds in relationships, your fear of loss, and the discomfort of uncertainty. I believe that both are true!

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  13. I am also reminded of Einstein: “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” I think that healing (for me at least) involves transcending the scientific and approaching the realm of the spiritual. I believe this to be true both with respect to marriage and with respect to therapy.

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  14. Hello, I’ve been a lurker for some time now. The instantaneous relief of seeing that I wasn’t alone was amazing the first time I came across the website- reading some of the posts was like reading my exact thoughts and experiences written down in extreme detail. I moved in with my partner of three years and started my first ‘real’ job out of university during the pandemic, and quickly fell into a deep pit of anxiety and sadness when the intrusive thoughts started about a week after we moved in. I’d never experienced anything like it before, even though I have always been anxious (particularly about my health). The trouble is, I thought reading all of this would be enough to get me through and help me heal- it did for a week, but the anxiety came back, and the thoughts with it. It’s settled into a kind of numb fear rather than the agony and darkness of before, but it’s still there in everything I do- I can’t get the thoughts about my partner out of my mind. Has anyone else been here at this stage? I just need some inspiration to keep pushing through, because the fear is so convincing and it hurts me and him.

    Reply
    • NM, I’ve absolutely been where you are. Made progress and then back-tracked. Thought I was free of intrusive thoughts and then they reappear. Felt like I was just surviving each day and reading Sheryl’s articles alone in the bathroom every morning before going back to face my fiancé. Wondering if I would make it through this dark night of the soul or if I was just tricking myself into staying a little longer each time. I’m happily married for over a year now and I absolutely feel if you keep doing the work it will be worth it. I am so so glad I didn’t let fear win in my life.

      There will absolutely be days where you feel better and days where you feel worse but eventually you will find that the bad days are fewer, further between, and more manageable when they do come. I still have my own work to do but I’ve come so far from where I was. I would entirely recommend Sheryl’s full course on relationship anxiety but if finances are an issue you could also see if there’s a copy of her Wisdom of Anxiety book at your local library or get a copy of the ebook – the last few chapters deal with RA. And you can keep reading and re-reading the free articles and course samples she has on this website along with doing your own journaling and self-care.

      All this to say: I see you. You are not alone, not by a long shot. I am rooting for you to get through this. I believe in you. This complete stranger has been where you are and has hope for you.

      Best wishes in your journey,
      JT

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      • What a lovely encouraging response. I agree with this stranger.

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      • Such a kind thing to do, to take the time to write such a detailed and compassionate response 🙂

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      • I really appreciate this, JT, thank you. From one stranger to another x

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      • I love this!!!

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  15. I love this so much! Thank you Sheryl for being so beautiful at explaining things.

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  16. It is amazing to see this work corroborated by science. I do wonder, though, if there will ever be a scientific explanation for all of the intricacies of the ego and the clever maneuvers it pulls. My intrusive thoughts have always been persistent, loud, and harsh in tone — until I read an article about distinguishing intuition from fear, which said that intuition speaks in a calm, kind voice whereas fear is harsh and demanding. Shortly after I read that, my intrusive thoughts changed and took on the “calm, kind voice” of intuition! It was the same thoughts, but my ego had discovered that I would pay attention to them if it masked them as intuition. I don’t know if our current scientific knowledge can account for that phenomenon (although it may in the future). That’s why I am grateful to have the kind of insight that other experts can provide.

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  17. Hi!
    What an incredible blog! Sheryl, you truly are amazing! I’m very fixated on the thought that “I’m the exception” with my Relationship anxiety for many reasons but what is showing up for me now and triggering me while reading this is that I didn’t have the usual responses of anxiety (tight chest, can’t breathe, racing heart) when I first started dating my partner. I really didn’t have any feelings for him (aside for good feelings from our first kiss) and just a lack of feelings in general and often get hooked on “well, I must be the exception to RA if I didn’t have usual anxious and panicking feelings”). I feel like I only said yes to him because I wanted a boyfriend and I have a history of not feeling good about myself when I say yes to someone or something when I want to say no and I’m worried that since I did that then there is another reason why I’m the exception and therefore I can’t be safe with him. I see that believing these thoughts/feelings is keeping me in the “comfort” of not taking the risk of loving not only my partner but of loving and forgiving and trusting myself, but it’s tough when I’m basically scanning for reasons to be the exception because I’m just scared. I didn’t really mean this to turn into all of this it just kind of spilled out but is it still relationship anxiety if typical anxiety sensations weren’t present in the beginning?

    Reply
    • YES! Still relationship anxiety :).

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  18. Thank you Sheryl! I’m really trying my best to take my projections off of my boyfriend and discover what’s going on within me thats needed healing for the majority of my life but my fears definitely like to find a sense of “control” in blaming my partner for my struggles, especially since I felt like I was on the “right” path in pursuing guys to find love and happiness and then when he pursued me and I said yes I plunged into my dark night of the soul (it’s comforting to think though that God knew I wasn’t on the path towards the true me and guided my boyfriend to me to help me learn about true love for myself and him). My boyfriend is not to blame for my wounds and when I do dig deeper and take the anxiety off of him completely I’m left to heal my beautiful soul that’s been longing to heal and when I do that I feel soo much lighter and more free and happier and more me! It’s a tricky process but your words and guidance over the years that I’ve been in my dark night of the soul have helped me more than I can express! Thank you!!

    Reply
  19. “…an element of relationship anxiety is misinterpreting the normal and understandable anxious response of being in a relationship with a loving, emotionally available, safe partner. When we follow the misinterpretation of the cortex, we follow a red herring, for it’s unlikely that the problem is your loving partner. The problem – or the opportunity – is to examine your lifetime of fear of love and life that will only be triggered in the presence of real love.”

    Well this just described me to a tee. I wish the Freudian therapist I saw for 13 years had pointed this out! Thank you.

    Reply

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