Is My Anxiety Attracting Your Depression? Polyvagal Theory in Romance.

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Faced with life-threatening danger, fight/flight is the defense option I want. So, I kinda live in fight/flight all the time.

And my anxiety looks productive. I have all this energy. I need to channel it somewhere. Clean the bathroom. Mow the lawn. Write all the thank-you notes.

But the more I do, the less you do? Is my anxiety attracting your depression?

Early on you loved my energy. Maybe you thought I could save us both from wooly mammoth stampedes. But now my “productivity” annoys you.

According to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, the best-case scenario, if faced with life-threatening danger, would be the more active defense of fight/flight. We can fight or flee. There’s a surge of adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine—power to lift a tree off my trapped child. There is hope of survival. So no wonder my anxiety feels superior to your depression.

However, today most of our life-threatening situations have no clear fight or flight options. Life-threatening danger looms in climate change and terrorism. We drive at 70 miles an hour a few feet from other speeding vehicles. Fighting or fleeing the danger in these situations is complicated.

For me this peripheral sense of life-threatening danger creates constant hyper-alert stimulation that I manage with much activity. You seem unable to channel your fight/flight into activities. In fact, the more I channel my fight/flight into type-A hamster-wheel activity, the more you seem to move into foggy immobility. So, is my anxiety attracting your depression?

Polyvagal theory says that when fight or flight is impossible, the body shuts down. When we feel trapped, we move into freeze or faint…or computer surfing. Shut-down exists to make death less painful. It is the final defense, occurring when there is no hope for living.

Wait. Might your depression attract my anxiety? As I feel you slipping into heavy immobility, might that freak me out? Well, yes!

And then, as I get more and more stressed, does my initially attractive anxiety more and more overwhelm you?

If my anxiety is attracting and exacerbating your depression and your depression is attracting and exacerbating my anxiety, what can we do? Is break-up inevitable?

Let’s be honest: my hyper-functioning is not ideal functioning. I get a lot done but I’d much rather whistle while I work. Whistling is polyvagal theory’s third option, a playful way to exist in the world called the social engagement system.

Granted it is healthier to channel my anxious energy into productive activities rather than pulling my hair out. But it’s not the playful way—it’s not the social engagement system way.

And I must admit: when faced with your depression, to parade my activities as super-useful helps no one. Doing activities in a playful manner is far superior to the super hero I assume when anxiety is driving my actions.

There is hope. We are two separate people, not one body with one nervous system between us. Even if my anxiety attracts your depression, your shut-down does not have to then heighten my anxiety. I can get myself to yoga class. I can go to my meditation room.

If my anxiety is attracting your depression, I will give you quiet space to deal with your defense response, my love, while I deal with mine.

 

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Author: Dee Wagner, MS

Editor: Travis May

Images: Author’s Own

 

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Dee Wagner, MS

Dee Wagner, MS is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist working over 22 years at The Link Counseling Center in Atlanta. Along with John Cargile and Kathy Jernigan, she wrote the book/workbook Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating.

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anonymous Nov 29, 2015 8:56am

Thanks,Jenny! Actually,I have been thinking a lot about how yoga is also good for us when we are depressed because it replicates a trapped exterior with poses that are static and muscle work-outs that are isometric. Then,within the stillness,we find openness in small muscular adjustments and depth of breathing. How does that idea resonate with you?

anonymous Nov 25, 2015 6:20am

Dee,

What a kick, seeing the dance we humans do that is no longer relevant but continues all the same. Hear, hear to the suggestion of yoga and meditation! I’d love to hear more about what the depressed partner can do with his or her space in the mean time? Write more, please! I love your voice!

anonymous Nov 25, 2015 5:38am

Interesting, thanks!

anonymous Nov 24, 2015 7:54pm

This is fantastic!! I love how you share about these ideas so playfully while also giving solid neuroscience right alongside. It can be such a never-ending spiral that anxiety in one person creating depression in the other creating anxiety in the other. What a relief to highlight the playful and socially engaged middle ground!