Answering Your Questions – Why Does Anxiety About The Past Keep Causing You Pain & Stress Today?
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
~ Stephen King~
One of the most common types of relationship anxiety I work with is anxiety born from painful past relationships that worms its way into present relationships. No matter how healthy or safe a new relationship might be, anxiety about the past can linger, flaring up in a new – and better – relationships for no apparent reason.
Many clients and readers pose this question in various ways, but a recent reader put this dilemma top of mind asking directly how to stop letting anxiety from the past infect the present, especially when it comes to relationships. The anxiety that plagues this particularly reader is the fear of her current relationship ending poorly like her others have, in spite of knowing her current partner wouldn’t do so.
“I know he will never do the things others have done, but I still worry,” this reader writes.
When anxiety from past relationships finds its way into a new relationship, it can leave you feeling confused and frustrated, and also put reassurance demands on your relationship that can be straining. The anxiety seems to come out of nowhere, and can feel especially irrational when nothing in your new situation seems dangerous or uncomfortable.
Sometimes one of the most uncomfortable things in a relationship can be your anxiety about the past, and of course, your desire for it to go away. After all, you are out of that old relationship, your new partner is NOT like your previous one, and you are confident there is nothing to worry about.
So how DO we take control of anxiety about the past that is unnecessarily complicating our healthier relationships? What can we do to make it stand down?
Here are my 5 top tips.
1.Try not to fight your anxiety.
We only worry about the things we care about most, and recognizing anxiety is trying to protect you can help you deal with it more constructively. Of course, you care deeply about the safety of your relationship and your future happiness.
You also care about making sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. But that doesn’t mean your anxiety is there to hurt you, or that something is wrong with you if you feel it.
Work to shed your anxiety about your anxiety, since resisting anxiety tends to escalate it. This will allow you to look at your anxiety about the past head on. By naming it, you will gain more control over it, and be able to better discern what it is trying to tell you. This will also help put you in the mindset of working with your anxiety rather than against it.
2. Know your “buttons” and “ghosts from the past.”
Thanks to our well-tuned brain anatomy(with the memory-storing hippocampus being directly adjacent to the threat-activating amygdala), we are set up to vividly remember and feel danger when we encounter situations that are similar to others that could be dangerous.
Sensitive by design, “buttons” are our strongly lodged mental associationsto painful situations of the past that often drive strong, and sometimes confusing, emotional reactions to present situations. Buttons can be surprisingly accurate, but can also misfire.
“When painful associations lodged in our minds are brought up in present situations, our reactions can feel overblown. The present experience feels familiar and our amygdala signals danger. We are triggered and our reaction is exaggerated.”
~ Alicia H Clark fromHack Your Anxiety~
Understanding your sensitive areas can help you better asses what is a ghost flaring up or a fictional worry, and what might be a rational concern worthy of investigation (which is the next step).
3. Detangling imaginary “ghosts” from real threats.
One of the most important questions to ask when anxiety flares up is whether your anxiety is based on a probability or simply a possibility. Just this questioning alone creates a greater sense of control, and a powerful reduction in anxiety.
Ask yourself what anxiety about the past is wholly unlikely to happen in your current situation, and what are the ones that could happen.
If you aren’t sure, ask yourself where is the evidence such a thing will happen.
If there is evidence to support your relationship anxieties, then it is critical to pay attention. But if there is truly no evidence to support your anxiety, it is safe to determine anxiety as unfounded, and irrational. Irrational anxiety doesn’t mean such a situation isn’t possible, it just means it isn’t probable.
In the case of the reader above, it could help her to look at how her current partner ended his other relationships to get a clearer sense of how differently he handles conflict compared to her previous partners. This brave analysis of the facts is how we continually detangle them from the fictional worries that can sometimes take hold.
4. Reframe irrational anxiety.
When your mind starts spinning irrational fears and tall tales, meaning your anxiety about the past is truly irrational with no legitimate bearing on the realities of your relationship now, your challenge is to reframe your irrational thoughts into rational ones.
Instead of interpreting your new partner’s silence as withholding and dangerous like in your previous relationship, for example, remind yourself of your partner’s innate introversion and occasional need for solitude to restore his energy.
Immediately reframing irrational into the rational is the work here.
When you notice anxiety from the past flare, aim to direct your thoughts away from the scary possibilities based on other relationships, and redirect them toward the more reasonable and positiveprobabilities that better reflect your current relationship. We can’t stop our thoughts or make them go away, but we can replace them with more reasonable ones that, with practice, eventually replace the unreasonable ones.
5. Practice enough that you can create a helpful mantra.
The key to making this stick is to distill this process enough that you can quickly redirect your buttons into rational and calming thoughts. Here is an example of what a calming mantra might look like for you, but feel free to create your own:
- “This anxiety is there to protect me and relates to my difficult and hurtful previous relationship.”
- “But there is no evidence to support this anxiety now. This man is not like my previous partner, and has given me no evidence that he ever will be. It is ok to keep checking, but it is also my responsibility to recognize when I am safe.”
- “He is working hard to earn my trust, and I am working hard to know he is trustworthy. It may take time, but my safety is worth it.”
Working through anxiety about the past isn’t easy, and can be a particular challenge when it feels like “ghosts from the past” are threatening take over.
The key to managing this anxiety is to take control as soon as you can, work the process of detangling, and be gentle with yourself and your partner.
It’s ok if this all takes time. Remember this is who you are, and there is no shame in learning and healing from the past. Your past has after all allowed your present to be what it is today.
With time and practice, your anxiety about the past will begin to stand down as you absorb this new reality and come to believe that you are in fact safe. This is how the realities of your current relationship lay to rest the ghosts from your past for good, and allow you to focus on the connection and joy you deserve.
Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash