As a partner of someone with anxiety, it might sometimes feel like you’re at a loss of how to help. It’s tough to feel like you wish you knew how to make your loved one feel better, but you just don’t. You don’t want to do something wrong and you definitely don’t want to do nothing. Well, you’ve come to the right place! Here’s some ideas to try…
1. Learn about their anxiety.
One of the best things you can do is educate yourself about anxiety so that you can understand some of what your partner’s inner world is like. Anxiety occurs when worrying or apprehension becomes excessive and disrupts the person’s day-to-day life. It can be classified as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or another disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety such as OCD, or panic disorder, but a person can also experience anxiety without meeting all of the criteria of a disorder. It’s important to understand your partner’s experience of anxiety and how it shows up for them. And the only way to do this is to ask.
2. Listen to their worries, but also notice when they need to be distracted.
A powerful component of anxiety is that when you “feed” your worry thoughts by ruminating on them, they get bigger. Focusing too much on your worries will only make them seem more daunting and overwhelming. So, your partner may need to talk to you sometimes about their worries so that they can get them off their chest, and this can be helpful. But when you notice them starting to ruminate, you can help by changing the subject to something positive. Recalling a happy memory, like an inside joke you two have or a fun experience you shared together, not only serves as a great distraction, it also actually changes brain pathways, making your partner’s anxiety decrease.
3. Don’t panic if they have a panic attack.
People who have anxiety are more likely to experience a panic attack at some point in their life. Panic attacks feel slightly different from person to person, but often involve a sudden, intense feeling of fear, pounding heart rate, sweating, dizziness, trembling, and shortness of breath. Though there is no instant cure for a panic attack, there are many things that your partner can do to help the symptoms dissipate quicker. One specific thing you can do if your partner is with you when an attack comes on, is ask them if they would like to be hugged. If they say yes, grab a large blanket (a weighted blanket is best if you have one), wrap it around their shoulders, and hold your partner tightly in your arms while you take deep breaths with them. Always ask first, and be okay with the fact that they might prefer to ride it out on their own.
4. Commit to more time together away from technology.
Research is showing that technology, specifically cell phones and social media, may be affecting our levels of stress. Higher levels of stress correspond with more anxiety. Detaching from technology now and then serves the purpose of keeping stress levels in check, as well as bringing couples closer together. Make a pact not to check your phones when you’re on a date. If you have kids with a sitter at home, you can change the settings on your phone so that even when it’s on “Do Not Disturb”, it will only ring when certain people call. If you don’t really need your phones for any reason, maybe leave them in the car. You will notice that spending long amounts of time away from the phone is difficult at first, but helps you enjoy the present moment more.
5. Don’t say “don’t worry”. Let them feel their feelings.
The least helpful thing for a person with anxiety to hear is “stop worrying so much”. Anxiety can’t be turned off like a light switch. Your partner is already probably feeling guilty or shameful, angry at themselves, or even depressed about their worrying. They know that their worries aren’t founded in truth or logic. But they can’t help how they feel. Rather than add to their negative feelings by telling them they shouldn’t worry, validate their feelings instead. Simply telling them, “it’s okay that you feel this way”, or “I’m here for you and you’ll get through this”, or “I understand why this upsets you”, are powerful ways to let your partner know that you get it, you care about them, and you’re not going anywhere.
6. Practice your own self-care.
Remember that it is not your responsibility to “fix” your partner or make their worries go away. This is unhealthy for both of you because you are putting unfair expectations on your partner and on yourself for things to get better. Recognize when you need to step back and turn your attention inwards. Take care of yourself by maintaining your daily activities, making space in your schedule to de-stress in healthy ways, and checking in with your feelings every now and then. It’s good for your own emotional and mental health, and you’ll be better able to attend to the relationship when your own needs are being met. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
7. Last but not least, remember that they are not their anxiety.
Your partner is so much more than their anxious feelings. They are strong, brave, and resilient. Don’t walk on eggshells around them or baby them. They pick up on this and it can be frustrating. Also, when you focus too much on their anxiety, you start veering into a therapist or parent role, and this is treading dangerous waters. Instead, help them notice and take pride in their strengths and all the great qualities they have. This builds them up, and it allows you to continue being their awesome partner who loves and supports them.