HOW TO SUPPORT YOUR PARTNER WITH ANXIETY
If you’ve never struggled with anxiety, anxiety attacks, panic or excessive worry, than it may be challenging for you to know how to support your partner when they do. Being someone that has had GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) for most of my life, it can be challenging to feel understood. Even having an ability to understand GAD from a clinical standpoint, it can still be difficult to explain my experience or know how to self soothe at times.
I self disclose this because I think it is important for people to understand that anxiety and anxiety disorders can have an impact on anyone. Anxiety is complex and there isn’t a one-size fits all remedy or “fix.” Although women are twice as likely to have anxiety disorders than men, during my counseling career I have noticed that many men experience anxiety without realizing it.
People that experience debilitating anxiety may tell you they feel insecure or ashamed. “I would try to hide my anxiety because I was so embarrassed for being stressed out about dying. I’d notice a new birthmark and would immediately dwell and google skin cancer for days. I was convinced in my fear stricken state that I was dying, yet my rational brain would often say, ‘You’re fine…’ It was almost as if I couldn’t trust which voice to listen to, so I just kept searching online for reassurance until I was so physically and emotionally upset that I couldn’t get out of bed. It wasn’t until then that my partner really started to understand how complex and heavy my anxiety really could become. I was so afraid he would minimize my experience and tell me how stupid I was; I didn’t know how to ask for support, let alone confront him with my fears, so I would often just close him off and then we would get into an argument.” – Alexis, 32. This is an example of health anxiety, which many researchers think close to 15% of the population may struggle with this particular disorder. Someone struggling with health anxiety is often misunderstood and can be dismissed by others around them, including doctors or professionals.
Social anxiety is also very common and many people mask their symptoms by engaging in alcohol or recreational drugs to soothe their fears. This can lead to relational arguments and misunderstandings. It is easy to make assumptions that your partner is just being shy, closed off or awkward; they have a drinking problem or they are socially rude. It is important to understand the root cause, because these may be signs that link to anxiety management instead.
If your partner is struggling with anxiety and you don’t quite understand how to support them, please try these tips:
How to support your partner with anxiety: Tip #1
Don’t (ever) tell them to “calm down,” “chill out,” or “don’t worry about it.” Although the intent may be supportive, it comes across insensitive and dismissive for the partner struggling with soothing their nervous system and intrusive thoughts. It may seem counterintuitive but try validating their anxiety instead. Validating their anxiety can actually help them put a name to their experience, while also helping them feel understood. “You’re feeling anxious… It’s ok. I’m here.”
How to support your partner with anxiety: Tip #2
When your partner is not feeling anxious, try to understand what their anxiety is like for them. Ask questions like, “What does it feel like in your body?” “What thoughts do you have when you’re anxious?” or “Do you know what triggers it for you?” or “What helps you when you’re feeling that way?”
How to support your partner with anxiety: Tip #3
During an anxiety attack, remind them to breathe. Deep and long inhales/exhales are incredibly helpful for their nervous system to calm and can distract their mind from continued panic.
How to support your partner with anxiety: Tip #4
If your partner has a particular diagnosis, educate yourself on it. By researching what anxiety is, it can be more helpful for you to understand the symptoms from a more objective place.
How to support your partner with anxiety: Tip #5
Support your partner in seeking a professional help if they aren’t seeing someone already.
How to support your partner with anxiety: Tip #6
Give your partner some grace and always try to exercise compassion. It may be hard to relate to and understand anxiety personally, (or rationally), but the more compassion you can express, the more your partner will feel comforted.