If you have codependent traits and you’re feeling highly stressed or anxious, you’re not alone – and this article is for you.
Codependents are like sponges. We absorb other people’s problems, feelings, and energy. This takes a big toll on us and leaves many of us with high levels of chronic stress and anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a form of fear. You might not consciously feel afraid. Instead, you might notice that you’re tense, “on edge”, irritable, tired, worried, or unhappy.
In pre-historic times, anxiety was largely a response to physical danger; it helped us protect ourselves by activating the fight, flight, or freeze response.
When we sense danger, our bodies automatically release hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare us to fight or run away from danger. This helped us survive when predators were after us!
However, most of us living in modern Western societies aren’t in a tremendous amount of physical danger. Instead, our anxiety is a response to feeling emotionally unsafe or the fear of being emotionally harmed. This is why anxiety can be confusing and hard to spot – our danger alert system is going off, but there doesn’t seem to be any apparent physical threat. We are, however, feeling emotionally unsafe or emotionally threatened.
Many codependents grew up in chaotic or “dysfunctional” families where they were emotionally (if not physically) mistreated. For example, maybe you were ignored, harshly criticized, called derogatory names, yelled at, or didn’t have your emotional needs met in other ways. And as a result, codependents tend to fear rejection, criticism, not being good enough, failure, conflict, vulnerability, and being out of control. So, situations and people that trigger these fears can spike our anxiety. And, unfortunately, codependents are often in relationships with people who activate these fears by being rejecting, critical, controlling, or defensive.
What feels “emotionally unsafe”?
What feels emotionally unsafe is unique to you, but, as I mentioned, people who struggle with codependency are especially sensitive to fears of rejection or abandonment, feeling powerless, or not being listened to or respected. And feeling emotionally threatened or overwhelmed in any of these ways will activate our anxiety.
An emotionally unsafe or overwhelming experience could be your father criticizing you, or an impossible deadline at work, or your three screaming kids clamoring for your attention. Take a moment and write down some of the situations that make you feel anxious. Can you identify what feels emotionally unsafe about these situations?
Anxiety makes it difficult for us to solve our problems
When we’re anxious, we get caught up in all the bad things that might happen. Our focus is drawn away from what is going on in reality and we catastrophize and become fixated on “what ifs”. We might notice something that’s going wrong (or even just have a suspicion or sixth sense that something is off) and magnify and distort it. And because bad things have happened to us in the past, we may not even realize that we’re distorting reality, being pessimistic, and expecting the worst. This type of negative thinking tends to spiral out of control, taking over our thinking and clouding our judgment. And when we think this way, it’s difficult to enjoy what’s good in our lives and make decisions.
Denying our feelings
Codependents often have a hard time noticing, valuing, and expressing their feelings. For most of us, we learned in childhood that only certain feelings are acceptable (for example, codependents frequently learn that anger is wrong or scary) or that no one is interested in our feelings – they don’t matter. We grew up without a vocabulary for our feelings and believing they don’t have value. So, we tend to suppress or deny our feelings but this can cause serious problems for us.
When we suppress our feelings, they get stuck in our bodies. This is why we often first notice anxiety as physical symptoms. Anxiety shows up in our bodies as stress, tension, and health problems.
Common physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Rapid heart rate and rapid breathing
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Muscle tension
Anxiety and stress hormones are helpful when we’re facing a vicious dog; they allow us to be strong and fast and keep ourselves safe. However, when dealing with “emotional danger”, fighting or running away from our stressors isn’t very helpful.
However, if your anxiety is activated by seeing your alcoholic spouse knocking back another beer or by your kids disobeying you, your natural fight or flight response doesn’t help you solve these problems. Obviously, fighting with your antagonistic spouse or running away from your frustrating kids isn’t a healthy or productive way to cope or solve problems. Meanwhile, stress builds up over time not just because you’re exposed to stressful situations, but because those anxiety-induced stress hormones are accumulating in your body and not being used to escape from danger.
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of how anxiety manifests in codependents, let’s talk about how to cope with anxiety and lessen stress.
Codependency and anxiety: ways to cope
We become focused on other people and their problems so much so that we’re consumed with worry and obsessed with trying to change, fix, and control things. We scan for problems, trying to head them off, and our anxiety skyrockets. And then we launch into enabling and controlling to try to tame our fears that disaster is just around the corner. This uses up all our energy but doesn’t actually solve anything.
Detaching is the process of putting some emotional and/or physical space between you and other people. As codependents, we are overstressed in part because we take on other people’s feelings and problems. When we detach, we can notice our own feelings, differentiate what’s in our control and what isn’t, and stop trying to fix or change people who don’t want to change. Detaching is hard for codependents because we feel guilty when we do things for ourselves, stop caretaking and helping (which is often really enabling or unwanted advice), and let others sort out their own problems.
Codependents often think that being a good parent, spouse, child, or friend means we should be self-sacrificing and taking care of others, so detaching can feel like we’re failing and not meeting people’s expectations. We need to challenge some of these rigid role expectations and try to see that it was never our job to take responsibility for what other people do or how they feel and that sometimes our efforts to help have caused us and others more pain.
So, when you’re experiencing a high level of stress or feeling anxious about a particular person or situation, you may need to take some time away – spend less time together, not engage in discussions about painful subjects, or ruminating about their problems. This doesn’t have to last forever, but it may be what you need temporarily to take care of yourself.
A mantra is something that you say to yourself repeatedly to remind you of how you want to feel and act. During stressful times, it’s natural to slide back into old ways of behaving. So, even though you’re trying to detach, you may find yourself returning to advice-giving, ruminating, or catastrophizing.
A mantra is helpful because it doesn’t take a lot of thought; the more you use it the more natural it becomes. Although you’ll want to create a mantra specifically for what you’re struggling with, these are some examples:
I can handle this.
I need to accept the things I can’t change and focus on myself.
This isn’t my problem.
I am safe.
These are irrational thoughts.
Exercise is an especially effective way to reduce anxiety because it metabolizes stress hormones. As I mentioned earlier, anxiety naturally primes your body for physical exertion as a means of protection. This is why it’s so helpful to go for a run or bike ride when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Breathe your way through it
Slow, deep breathing also naturally calms your body. All you need to do is breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for a few seconds, and exhale through your mouth for a count of five or six. I love to use the Calm app on my phone to do this. It has a meditation called “Breathe” which is just slow breathing in time with the “Breathe Bubble”. It really helps you slow down and it’s super simple. Often, calming your nervous system with slow breathing will make it easier to do more complex anxiety-reducing tasks like detaching.
Focus on the present
When you’re anxious, your mind is anticipating danger and problems. And this can distort our thinking my overexaggerating problems and making it hard for us to see positives. This isn’t usually helpful. Instead, remind yourself to stay focused on the present moment, on accepting what is, and dealing with this moment, not what might happen.
Although codependents tend to be anxious, we can learn to feel safer and worry less. Detaching, using a coping mantra, regular exercise, breathing through the stress, and focusing on the present can help us to focus on what we can control rather than obsessing about other people and problems.
If you live in the San Jose area and struggle with codependency, you can find out more about codependency counseling in my Campbell office here. Or sign-up below for new articles about codependency and emotional wellness.
©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo by Jon Ly on Unsplash.com.