Every relationship comes with its share of challenges. And when your significant other has an anxiety disorder, one challenge could be that you feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster with unpredictable highs and lows.
To make those ups and downs easier to decipher, 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 compassionately. Here are eight 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
To you, anxiety may seem a normal emotion that everyone experiences at times. But it's a whole different beast when it's all-consuming, seeping into every action and interaction that someone makes.
That's why learning about anxiety disorders can help you understand what your partner goes through every time their anxiety levels spike.
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, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. 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 particular fears like flying, being in small 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 symptoms of anxiety include difficulty breathing, sleep problems, digestive issues, and rapid heart pounding. 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. Just as there are different types of anxiety, within those diagnoses, 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 incidences.
For example, something as simple as inviting your partner to get drinks with your coworkers could turn into an 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.
3. Do show you care without reinforcing the cause of their anxiety
If you see your partner getting tense or worrying, 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; anxiety levels are often heightened by inaccurate worries and unhelpful thinking patterns, which are best not reinforced. 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.
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 anxiety probably isn’t about you. Rather than get offended by their behavior, 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 example, 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. You may even want to practice together with your partner.
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. 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; and learn how to support each other in a healthy way.
It can also help to address any issues related to your relationship that may be the subject of your partner’s worry or contribute to their anxiety.
Maybe your partner feels the need to reply instantly to all your text messages and is alarmed if you don't do the same. Or maybe they get disproportionately upset when you leave for trips.
It could be an anxiety rooted in attachment issues, which your counselor would help you both understand and address.
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; 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.
Keep communicating openly and honestly, and don’t let the anxiety win. It’s likely that you’ll grow a deeper bond and develop a more meaningful relationship in the process.