A woman recently called my office and told me that her husband was causing her anxiety attacks. She asked me if there was anything I could do to help her.
As the director of a marriage counseling clinic, I've seen both men and women make this seemingly logical — but incorrect — assumption. It's easy to think someone, or something, is causing your painful feelings. Recognize any of these responses in yourself?
There's Devon, a mother of two, who is convinced that her kids "make her angry."
Kenny is a dad who sometimes says to his kids, "Your mom drives me crazy."
Or Sophie, who tells her boyfriend that his driving scares her. Either he needs to drive differently, or he can find someone else to put up with his white-knuckle driving.
Most of us talk about our feelings this way; we say our emotions are caused by the actions of others. This can be a problem because when we focus on the other person we overlook the opportunity to find ways to heal.
Focus on the solutions, not the anxiety
Focusing more on your husband-or any other trigger of your anxiety-will only make you more anxious. A more effective strategy to deal with anxiety is to focus more on the physical sensations in your body than on over-thinking to find meaning and simply try to ride out the discomfort.
The cure for anxiety attacks doesn't come by assigning blame but by taking control of what you can do. One of the most effective forms of treatment for anxiety is mindfulness, a set of skills based on increasing awareness, tolerance and acceptance of what is happening in your body or in your environment.
Accepting what you can't control doesn't make you weak
As more than one wise psychologist has observed many times over the years, most of the causes of mental illness can be condensed into one singular theme: the inability to accept what you cannot control.
Acceptance doesn't mean you fall in love with all of your husband's flaws. It means you stop over-reacting to them and you channel your energy into something more productive. It means you set limits on what you think about until you have a healthy way to process it.
When couples are on the brink of divorce and feel hatred for each other, if they can learn to accept what they can't control helps to burn off negative or violent energy. This doesn't happen by diving right into solving the problems. Instead, a better approach is to focus on helping couples learn how to cool off and approach the problem more efficiently. Often finding less direct, but more rewarding angles to think about a problem helps couples discover what they can do together to make their relationship better.
If you think your husband or wife is causing your anxiety, I suggest that you take time off from focusing on the problems. Don't compare yourself to your friends seemingly perfect lives. Go on a Facebook diet. Use that time instead to get hooked on the big biological powerhouses of pleasure like nature, playing with children or physical activity.
You have more control over your feelings than you might think. Don't give anyone the power to make you panic.