This month Douglas Holwerda, American trained and licensed mental health counsellor, advises on how to deal with a creeping neurosis
I have been married to my wife for 10 years. She has always been serious and responsible about how we plan and live our lives. She is organised and prepared in everything that she does.
Since we have moved to Vietnam two years ago with our two young children, I have seen a trend in her that is concerning me. What once felt like planning ahead has now become constant worry. My wife is becoming anal about the details of life. She’s got lists; she anticipates unlikely things that could go wrong; she is often fearful. What makes it difficult is that I often feel like I am doing things to appease her worry, and that they really are more than is necessary. I have had little success convincing her to chill out. Is there hope that she can change this before it has a negative impact on our children?
— Worried about a worrier
You are seeing in your wife a problem that exists for many people, and also that the problem has an effect on those around them (in this case you and your children). You are wondering if there is something that can be done, particularly since your efforts have not been successful and you find yourself going along with her as a way of dealing with it.
It is quite common for family and friends to accommodate those we love, who are being influenced by emotions or conditions that distort their perspective.
Distorted thinking is a by-product of anxiety, depression, alcoholism, narcissism and many other mental health-related disorders. Worry is often one of the ways that someone who has generalised anxiety exhibits behaviours that are influenced by that anxiety. A degree of anxiety or worry keeps us alert and aware of how to deal with a life that has dangers and threats. Too much anxiety, particularly when it is not understood as such, generates worry.
The underlying assumption of the worrier is that they can prevent negative outcomes by anticipating them. As the anxiety intensifies, the effort focused on anticipating the dangers increases to a point where it is based on unrealistic possibilities. People can lose the ability to make a realistic risk assessment — often with more emphasis on the worst scenario than on the likeliness of it happening. Because most of the anxiety is played out in our imagination, there is a tendency for anxiety to create more anxiety.
It is not uncommon for parents to experience anxiety in a way that they haven’t before they first have children. The fact that a child is dependent and needs protection and care can feel overwhelming. It can also be threatening to one’s sense of emotional safety when moving to and living in a country that represents new and different ways of living. Many people feel disrupted and anxious when adapting to a new place, people and culture. This can often turn into anxiety or depression.
One of the great things in the field of psychology is that we know more than we ever did before, both about what it is that defines a mental health problem, and what it is that can be done. While it is not always easy to overcome mood disorders like anxiety and depression, it can be done. In addition to therapists who are trained to help people address these problems there is much being written that is very helpful both in assessing the problem and instituting solutions.
Rather than trying to offer an abbreviated version of the solutions to worrying, I will send you to a website from the Center for Clinical Interventions that will provide a more complete understanding of what it takes to address it. I might add that both you and your wife might benefit from learning about different parts of the problem.
You might read the modules on the topic of ‘assertiveness’, which might help you communicate with her in a balanced way about what you are willing to do or not do as a response to her worry. If she is open to it, show her the modules on ‘worrying’ and ask her to see “if the shoe fits”. Here is the website: cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/consumers.cfm
I wish wellness to you and your family.