You, Me, and Anxiety

“Relationships act as a mirror—reflecting our insecurities, mistakes, and unpleasant habits.  There is nothing more anxiety provoking than looking into a mirror and seeing yourself—not the you that is primped and pressed, but the naked you.”  — Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., PsychologyToday. There are always common issues that occur within relationships; believing you know someone enough that you can accurately read your partner’s mind, refusing to address problems directly, what-if thinking, small communication problems that eventually add up to something bigger.  What happens when one of those involved have either anxiety or depression?

Anxiety and depression are highly comorbid, meaning the two disorders are often seen together.

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, generalized anxiety affects approximately 1.5 percent of the U.S. population aged 18 and older in a given year, which is about about 3.3 million American adults. Many people with an anxiety disorder also have a co-occurring disorder or physical illness, which can make their symptoms worse and recovery more difficult.

The World Health Organization also claims depression is one of the more common mental disorders. Globally, an estimated 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression. In relationships that are touched by anxiety and depression, conflict is more likely to occur and it diminishes your ability to connect with your partner, creating doubts about your entire relationship. This has more potential to fuel major issues between partners.

Shannon Kolakowski, Psy.D., refers to depression as a “master manipulator” in her book When Depression Hurts Your Relationship.

“The primary feature of depression is distortion, meaning your perception of life—including your relationship—is easily warped and represented in a more negative way,” writes Kolakowski. “You might have more negative thoughts about your partner and your relationship. If your relationship is struggling, depression may be the hidden culprit,” she says.

But, there is some good news. A study conducted in the early 2000s by three university professors, concluded that building a strong and loving relationship can fortify you and your partner against the powerful effects of depression. But the major key to know what you’re fighting against, is being able to identify when and how depression is interfering in your relationship.

“My partner’s depression isn’t always present,” says Jonathan Kellen, a senior at Boston University. “But when it is I can feel it over a mile away.  You really need to look at the tell-tale signs. Sometimes it’s so obvious but it really just takes knowing your partner to the extreme.” Kellen recalls his girlfriend starting to distance herself from him and their group of friends when her depression starts to hit.

Kathleen Mongreat, Kellen’s girlfriend of over a year, says, “Sometimes I don’t even realize how badly my depression is acting up, I get so lost in my own head. He drags me out of it and makes me talk to him about it […] and I’m so thankful for that.”

Chris Iliades, MD notes that women tend to experience more sadness, guilt, and a lack of self-worth, while men may react to depression with anger, frustration, or even abuse. The problems that come with mixed anxiety and depression can be attributed to sleep trouble, concentration difficulties, high irritability and worry, expecting the worst, and being constantly on guard.

“I don’t even want to say this, but sometimes my partner can trigger my depression by expressing melancholy or negative thoughts,” says Mongreat. “I know he doesn’t mean to. It’s like if we fight and if he says something that makes me feel bad about myself, it may trigger a depressive episode. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want him telling me how he feels. His mental health is just as important as mine.”

According to Kolakowski, “Someone with lower-self-esteem and depression may have a bad time with their partner and think, ‘She doesn’t really care about me. I knew it wouldn’t last’, whereas someone with a healthier sense of self-worth may think, ‘Right now, we’re going through a tough time, but I know our relationship can withstand this. We’ll work it out.’”

Anxiety sufferers have reported that the condition impacts all their relationships, but their romantic relationships suffer the most. Anxiety is a condition of “near-total self-absorption”, made only worse by the fact that the sufferer typically realizes that he or she is being self-absorbed and grieves over his or her sad inability to see past themselves. An anxiety sufferer can feel as if he too is imprisoned in his own mind, but with the demonic twist that his mind can think of nothing but itself.

“We’re a weird combination of people because she has depression and I have anxiety,” says Kellen. “We can possibly trigger each other, which isn’t the best. But we also have a complete understanding of what’s going on in each other’s mind. In a weird way, it’s comforting.”

Kolakowski notes you may have an internal script that dictates the right things your partner should say and how they should support you. “When the other person inevitably deviates from your script, the depressed part of you may react with dissatisfaction, disenchantment, or feelings of failure.” These reactions can further impact one’s depression or anxiety, as can the breakdown of responsibilities at home and work, which add pressure to one’s anxiety or depression. And on the flip side, features or specifics of a relationship can also affect levels of anxiety or depression.

According to CNN, anxiety disorders cost the United States more than $42 billion a year, nearly one-third of the total "economic burden" of mental illness in this country. Anxiety and  relationships are a tricky combination, and if you throw in other mental health issues, it can be even harder. With anxiety, the person may already struggle to keep their emotions and fears in check. Allowing yourself to be emotionally open and vulnerable to another person can be challenging, confusing, and overwhelming.

Both depression and anxiety can make romantic relationships, as well as less intimate relationships, a little more difficult than usual; it’s a lot more than just an amount of money affecting our country. But when a couple is able to overcome this, it can bring an incredible bond that can last forever. For help finding treatment, information, and support, visit the website of Mental Health America. Below are some tips from Everyday Health about communicating and helping a loved one dealing with anxiety or depression.  

Things you can do to help someone with depression or anxiety:

-Let the person know if you've noticed a change in their behavior

-Spend time talking with the person about their experiences and let them know that you're there to listen without being judgmental

-Help the person to find information about depression and anxiety from a website or library

-Encourage the person to face their fears with support from their doctor/psychologist

It would be unhelpful to:

-Put pressure on the person by telling them to 'snap out of it' or 'get their act together'

-Stay away or avoid them

-Tell them they just need to stay busy or get out more

-Pressure them to party more or wipe out how they're feeling with drugs and alcohol