Butterflies in your stomach: Is is love or anxiety?

The two feelings can trigger similar responses, such as a racing heart and problems concentrating. So how can we diferentiate them?

Love or anxiety

In literature and movies, the stories that impact us the most are not about peaceful, loving relationships. Instead, we tend to be drawn to much more complicated stories – the will-they-or-won’t-they romances, the ones where the couple can’t be together nor stand to be apart. In real life, when we meet a person who keeps us in suspense about their feelings for us, it’s not unusual to think that we are crazy in love. But it’s more likely that the butterflies in our stomach are due to anxiety, not love.

Anxiety can cause constant worry, problems concentrating and falling asleep, as well as physical symptoms such as elevated heart rate, excessive sweating or trembling. On paper, a racing heart and difficulties concentrating could be the description of a person falling in love. Is it any wonder, then, that we sometimes confuse the two?

Montse Cazcarra, a clinical psychologist, agrees that it’s very common for people to go to therapy for relationship-related anxiety. “When a relationship doesn’t provide us with security, or when our past experiences lead us to bond in a way that is shadowed by fear and insecurity, it is easy for us to experience anxiety.”

Why do we romanticize the feeling of butterflies in our stomachs?

In recent years, we have heard a lot about the so-called “myths of romantic love.” But what exactly does that refer to? In a nutshell, they are the preconceived ideas of love, which uphold asymmetries and hierarchies in heterosexual romantic relationships.

That seems to be a key issue. Susana Ivorra, a psychologist who specializes in family relationships and couples, explains. “The more ideas we have about romantic love – not romanticism; they are two different things – the more difficult anxiety at the start of a relationship will be.”

In fact, when people go to her for therapy for anxiety stemming from a relationship, Ivorra points out the romantic myths that movies and literature have planted in our minds. “Serene love doesn’t sell as well as intense, and sometimes obsessive, infatuation,” she observes.

In reality, “feeling butterflies in your stomach” usually means you are experiencing the physical symptoms of the insecurity that’s typical of a relationship’s early stages. “You are getting to know…the other person; therefore, you don’t have a guarantee that [the feeling] is mutual, so your body and mind stay alert, trying to decipher signs that the other person feels the same way you do,” explains Susana Ivorra.

But how long is it healthy to feel butterflies in our stomachs? According to the book by American anthropologist and biologist Helen Fischer, Why We Love, on average, this stage of falling in love lasts between 18 months and two years.

“Over time you realize, through words and deeds, that the other person loves you, and you love him or her; that is, you gain security in the relationship,” Ivorra continues. “That security produces calm and serenity; many times, [no longer feeling butterflies in your stomach] is interpreted as something negative, as the end of falling in love.” But it’s really the opposite.

An insecure attachment

Indeed, the problem occurs when people don’t stop feeling butterflies in their stomachs. It becomes a chronic issue, which experts refer to as a case of insecure attachment. “Faced with the possibility that our bond with our partner is in danger, we feel insecure, and it causes a lot of anxiety,” says psychologist Montse Cazcarra.

“Anxious or insecure attachment is characterized by a fear of abandonment, which translates into being very attuned to possible signs of the bond’s fragility, overthinking the relationship, trying to find a magic formula that allows us to keep our partner by our side, worrying excessively about the challenges we face in the relationship, having a hard time managing physical and emotional distance from our partner.”

A person who previously had a serene relationship can develop an insecure attachment in a new relationship, depending on the relationship with the other person and the circumstances. “It is possible that our attachment style will change, depending on the person with whom we bond. True, we have a primary attachment style, which we develop as a consequence of the bond we establish with our primary caregivers. But there are other bonds, we develop throughout our lives, that can exert a certain influence on our attachment style,” the expert says.

That is precisely what happens in on-again-off-again relationships. These are cases “when our partner needs more emotional distance than we can give, has doubts about the relationship, displays an inconsistent attitude, or when we feel that our relationship is in danger during a conflict,” explains Cazcarra.

Moreover, Susana Ivorra says that “it may happen to us for the first time after we’ve already had other relationships that weren’t like that, and then we can even start to question if we have ever fallen in love before.” The opposite can also be true: a person may not know how to value a healthy bond, because of past insecure relationships. “There are those who’ve have had one or more relationships like that and then confuse a calm, secure relationship with boredom.”

Let the butterflies fly away

The million-dollar question, then, is how to let those butterflies in our stomachs fly away so that they don’t afflict us any longer than necessary. The ability to communicate with our partners and achieve emotional security is the answer. Like everything else, people can work on their relationship attachment styles.

“A person’s attachment style is malleable. We can learn to establish more secure bonds and control our decisions in a relationship instead of letting our fears and insecurities decide,” explains Montse Cazcarra.

“Conflicts in a relationship are to be expected, as are differences in emotional needs and bonding styles. However, that should be understood within the context of each partner feeling emotional security more often than not,” argues the psychologist.

Thus, “if we are secure with our bond, we won’t be thinking about the relationship constantly and worrying about the relationship’s fragility; we will know that we can count on our partner’s presence and support; we can show ourselves just as we are; we know that our limits are respected; and while keeping the relationship healthy and secure does require work on our part, it won’t cause major headaches,” the expert concludes.

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