Every relationship comes with its share of challenges and sometimes it’s hard to know what to do and what not to do. This is especially true when your significant other has an anxiety disorder. You might feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster with unpredictable highs and lows, all while watching your partner struggle.
To decipher those ups and downs, it's helpful to learn how your partner's anxiety manifests. Such a shared understanding of anxiety can even help make your relationship stronger, since you'll be able to see your partner's internal struggles clearly and react to them patiently and compassionately. Here are 8 tips that will help you wrangle with the anxiety together, rather than let it take over your relationship.
1. Do research to learn about anxiety and understand your partner
Doing your research on anxiety, as with any topic, pays off in spades. Occasional anxiety may seem a normal emotion that everyone experiences at times. But it's a whole different beast when it's all-consuming and seeps into every action and interaction that someone has. Anxiety becomes a mental health condition when it makes it difficult to complete the routines of daily life.
That's why learning about anxiety disorders can help you understand what your partner goes through every time their anxiety levels spike. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder and experienced by nearly 30% of all adults during their lifetime. Sometimes anxiety stems from traumatic events, often in early childhood, or some long-term illnesses result in anxiety disorders. Understanding the symptoms and how the anxiety is triggered is important to know how to avoid situations that precipitate a panic attack (the physical embodiment of anxiety) or relieve the symptoms of one.
You may wish to search online for information, ask friends about their experiences, or read first-person narratives about anxiety. Here are some starting points:
- There's more than one type of anxiety. Different types include social anxiety (social phobia), specific phobias, separation anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). If you know the type(s) of anxiety your partner is facing, you can do some specific research. For example, generalized anxiety disorder entails excessive worrying that can cloud someone's perception of almost any situation. Phobias, on the other hand, pertain to specific fears like flying, being in enclosed spaces, or riding the subway.
- Anxiety often takes on a physical form, since the fight-or-flight mode it stems from is a physiological response inherited from our ancestors. Physical anxiety disorder symptoms include difficulty breathing, sleep problems, digestive issues, and rapid heartbeat (like a pounding sensation in the chest). If your partner experiences physical symptoms due to their anxiety (such as a panic attack), you can be there for them by comforting them or guiding them through a calming breathing exercise.
2. Don't forget that your partner is the expert on their own anxiety
While research will certainly be helpful, you can’t gather everything you need from external resources -- in the end, your partner is the expert on their own anxiety symptoms. Just as there are different types of anxiety disorders, each person’s experience of anxiety is unique.
Your partner may have certain triggers that you’ll only learn about by asking or by observing over time. Take social anxiety: it's not always so obvious as someone getting nervous before a major event. It may flare up in different ways over seemingly minor incidents. One day, your partner might be fine meeting with a friend for coffee, another day it might make them feel intense fear of external judgement.
Another example is something as simple as inviting your partner to get drinks with your coworkers. This social situation could turn into a social anxiety episode. Your partner might follow up multiple times to make sure they have the correct time and location details; to ask who will be there; and other questions you don't think relevant for such a casual get-together. They might even get nervous and cancel at the last minute.
Essentially, this simple invite might have spurred a whirlwind of self-doubt in your partner. By checking in with them, you might discover that they're excessively worried about making a good impression on your colleagues, or not coming across as "good enough" for you.
Knowing how your partner feels about these situations can help you be a better source of support for future scenarios to avoid social anxiety.
3. Do show you care without reinforcing the cause of their anxiety
If you see your partner getting tense or worrying, it’s important to show them that you care without making them feel more stressed. Sometimes, your partner may even worry about not making you worried! In these moments, ask if a) they're feeling okay; and b) if there's anything you can do to help.
They may say no, especially if your relationship is a relatively new one. And that's okay! Stay warm and supportive, so they know they can come to you when they're ready. Listen non-judgmentally to whatever they do say.
You don’t have to agree with the content of their worries; excessive anxiety levels are often heightened by inaccurate worries and unhelpful thinking patterns, which are best not reinforced. Often based on past traumatic events, when talking with your partner about what triggers their anxiety, avoid confirming statements like "Wow, that sucks! I can't believe they did that!"
Instead, show them you care without perpetuating the topic that's spurring their anxiety. This can be as simple as saying something like, “Would it help if I sat with you?" or "I'm right here if you need me."
4. Don’t mistake anxious behavior as directed towards you
You meet your partner at a restaurant for dinner, and while you're waiting for your table, they're half-answering your questions about their day and typing frantically on their phone. When you're finally seated at your table, rather than perking up, your partner seems distracted and quiet.
As easy as it is to rush to judgment about your partner's "ignoring" you or get annoyed with them for not being fully present, try to take a step back and question whether anxiety is at play. These physical signs may be indicative of stressful events causing an emotional response to feel anxious and play out in your interaction.
Is it possible they were fielding a stressful email, and they're nervous about performing well at work? Or maybe they received a text message from a family member that made them uneasy, and now they're ruminating about its repercussions.
While it’s easy to personalize your partner’s behavior in such a situation, try instead to remind yourself that the intense anxiety probably isn’t about you. Rather than get offended by their difficulty concentrating, overwhelming worry or panic symptoms, ask if there's anything you can do to help. For some people, airing out the issue (rather than sweeping it under the rug) can even help alleviate the accompanying anxiety.
5. Do hone in on ways to keep your own anxiety in check
One of the best things you can do when you notice your partner’s anxiety intensifying is to avoid becoming reactive and stressed out yourself.
Experiment with yoga or try a progressive muscle relaxation exercise. Simple meditation practices can work wonders in reducing anxiety, too. For instance, imagine overwhelming and anxious thoughts as separate from you, like a parade or a storm passing over you.
Figure out what works best for you, and then make time to practice your anxiety-management strategies every day to avoid troublesome feelings. Find relaxation exercises to decrease muscle tension, avoid caffeine and alcohol when you feel anxiety symptoms come on, and seek out daily activities that boost health. You may even want to practice together with your partner — you can be a good role model for handling your stress or anxiety in healthy ways.
6. Don't absorb all their stressors or sacrifice your own support systems
When you're showing up every day to be there for your partner, you might find yourself starting to let go of your own social or emotional support systems as a result.
While you absolutely can be there for your partner in a healthy way, if you don't also tend to your own mental health it could lead to codependent behavior. Don’t let other mental health conditions arise while you are practicing your own stress management process. For example, canceling plans to soothe your partner during a sudden panic attack is one thing. It's another to forgo your daily workout class because you're worried your partner might possibly need you after work.
Keeping your personal life balanced with your own sources of support will prevent you from getting overwhelmed by your partner's stressors. That might mean weekly sessions with a therapist, waking up early to fit in 30-minutes of daily meditation, or seeing your friends every Thursday for book club.
7. Do consider seeing a couples counselor if you’re both having trouble navigating the anxiety
As much as you care about your partner, you can’t be their entire emotional support system. It can be incredibly draining over time... and may even wind up damaging your relationship. For instance, you might feel like you make extra sacrifices to soothe your partner's anxiety, which can lead to resentment down the line.
Seeing a couples counselor can help in a multitude of ways. It can enable you to understand each other in new ways; contend with the anxiety itself; identify triggers; cope with anxiety symptoms; and learn how to support each other in healthy ways. You can also grow your bond with one another to make your relationship better than ever before, all with the help of an experienced, credentialed couples counselor. A couples counselor is a mental health professional that knows how to hold a neutral, calm atmosphere during sessions that lets each person talk about their feelings, irrational fears, frustrations, anxiety disorder symptoms, possible treatments for anxiety, and more. This talk therapy means that it could be a suitable space for you to address any issues related to your relationship that may be the subject of your partner’s worry or contribute to their anxious feelings.
Couples counselors can also provide psychoeducation about attachment styles and how different attachment styles play out in adult relationships. If your partner needs you to reply to all your text messages as soon as you get them, this may be a sign of an insecure attachment style. While this isn’t a judgement on your partner, it can be worked through with the support of a high-quality couples counselor. Find a vetted couples counselor near you by filtering Zencare’s therapist directory by Specialities. There are so many excellent couples therapists that can help you and your partner adjust to everyday activities with anxiety and find ways to move past it.
While a couples counselor as a mental health professional can diagnose people with intense anxiety disorders and other mental health issues, a couple’s visit may not be the best time to suggest anti-anxiety medications unless there are other indicators that anxiety symptoms are worse, and other types of therapy and treatment are not showing relief.
8. Do separate your partner from their anxiety
At the end of the day, the partner that you love is still there. They're still the same person who makes you laugh so hard that water comes out your nose, or who is always the first to thaw the ice and apologize after a fight.
It’s just that sometimes, they might feel buried beneath their anxiety. It can help to remind yourself, and them, that they are not their anxiety. The anxiety is just an intense experience that can overwhelm your partner at times and affect how they behave. Try to be patient and compassionate to relieve symptoms; this means being gentle with yourself as well as your partner.
It might not always seem obvious from your partner’s behavior, but chances are they’re deeply grateful that you’re willing to support them through the difficult times. It’s also essential that you remind yourself that showing up for them in their times of anxiety is a love language and a testament to your caring, supportive nature. Don’t forget to show yourself some of that same love!