• Taming Fear — Together

    Some fears can seem trivial or even fun to experience, like what you feel when watching a horror movie. But there are also things in life to be legitimately afraid of. And two of these — severe illness and financial hardship — have come to the fore as COVID-19 confronts couples with budget strains and health concerns. With finances being one of the most frequent causes of marital disagreements, now is the time to “double down” on relationship bonds, says therapist John Gallagher of CouplesTherapyOrlando.com.

    “When you’re afraid, one of the most powerful things you can do is to reach for your partner — literally — and share your fears. Research shows that when partners have a strong emotional bond, touching each other reduces pain and helps them cope with perceived threats.”

    That research includes a remarkable brain activity study from the University of Virginia. It involved 16 married couples who rated their marriages as highly satisfactory. The women were placed in an fMRI machine (which records brain activity in real time) and hooked to electrical contacts that administered a small shock.

    When they were shocked, researchers were able to see parts of their brains “light up” with activity on the scan due to the discomfort. The female subjects then received a visual warning cue that they were about to be shocked. This time, their brains reacted in anticipation. Next, a male stranger stood next to them and held their hand during the experiment. For most, there was a slight decrease in brain activity associated with pain and fear.

    Finally, their partners stood next to them and held their hand. This time, researchers saw a big drop in brain activity, and women who had previously rated the electric shock as painful reported it as mild with their partner’s support. The physical presence and touch of their partners lessened their anticipatory fear and their experience of pain itself.

    But why?

    “As individual animals in the wild, humans aren’t particularly effective at dealing with threats,” Gallagher explains. “We don’t have sharp teeth, and we don’t run that fast compared to other predators. You’re walking in the woods looking for something to eat, and a wolf appears. There are only three options: you can freeze and play dead, you can fight or you can run.

    “While those options might help when encountering a bear in the wild, when we’re faced with threats that aren’t an immediate danger — worries about future finances, will I get sick, will my family be alright — the primitive brain brings us to the freeze/fight/flight area, adrenaline pumps, and we experience those negative emotions that are meant to help up survive. But in the context of an anticipated threat, they don’t help that much. When we’re unsure of what to do, humans are wired to turn to each other, especially our partners, and seek comfort through emotional or physical connection,” says Gallagher.

    The power of that connection is evident in the research, but the caveat is that partners need a strong emotional bond in order for it to work. Gallagher says to just remember that you and your partner ARE there for each other:

    A — Accessible and emotionally available

    R — Responsive to needs and wanting to help

    E — Emotionally attuned and feeling together

    In the UVA research study, the higher the level of marriage satisfaction reported by a couple, the stronger the protective effect. While there’s more work to do in this area, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) can help partners mend rifts so that they can benefit from strong emotional support in trying times.

    “If you want to work on those ARE responses, you can read Hold Me Tight, by Dr. Sue Johnson, who developed Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy,” Gallagher says. “For some couples, that might be enough to strengthen their emotional bond. But if you’re having trouble, working with a trained EFT therapist may help.

    “Your fears are justified and deserve your — and your partner’s — attention. If you are not getting enough support from your relationship, call or come in. Help is available.”

    Do what you can to keep yourself physically and emotionally well during the crisis, and if you’re struggling, whether the issue is rooted in your relationship or your own feelings, reach out for help. Real solutions are as close as your phone or computer screen with teletherapy available at couplestherapyorlando.com.





    Therapy services available via Telehealth.