Knowing exactly how to help someone with anxiety can feel like an impossible task. Here are 10 concrete steps that can help both you and your partner cope.
Having anxiety is hard. At least, that’s what I gather. You see, I don’t personally suffer from anxiety. My husband does. And it kind of stinks for all parties involved.
What I do know first-hand is loving someone with anxiety can be hard, too. Not in the same way, of course, not in the slightest. But no one likes to watch the person they love most in the world suffer at the hands of anyone or anything—particularly in the throes of a panic attack.
Most of the information available today focuses on what it’s like having an anxiety disorder, but what I am providing you, dear reader, is information on how to help your loved ones with anxiety cope. Having a partner who is able to help you is an incredible gift. If you have a loved one who suffers from anxiety, you might be surprised to find how helpful you can be!
Learn as much as you can about anxiety.
Anxiety is not a one-size fits all kind of thing. Everyone experiences it differently. Some people will get sweaty and shaky, others will feel afraid of rejection when there is none, and still others may become angry and frustrated. Some people will experience all of these symptoms and some people may have symptoms all their own.
Unlike physical ailments, an anxiety disorder is a battle between two minds. Usually it’s someone’s rational mind trying to combat their irrational mind. When the battle gets out of hand, it moves to the body as a panic attack. The more you understand about anxiety, the more you’ll be able to help.
When doing the research, don’t rely solely on clinical diagnostics. Expand your understanding by reading or watching first-hand accounts of what anxiety feels like. Try joining an anxiety support group and listening to what others have to say. You can even ask what their partners have done that helped, and see if those ideas would work for you!
Ask your partner about their symptoms.
Because everyone experiences anxiety differently, it’s important to talk to your partner about it. This can also be incredibly cathartic for the one who is suffering from it, to simply be able to sit there and explain how they feel during an attack.
This explanation can be incredibly important to you as well. It can give you clues about how they act when an attack is setting in, and you may be able to help call their attention to it. Although excessive worry is a common symptom, it is not the only one. Understanding how they experience it for themselves can help you point those behaviors out to them, which might help stave off an attack.
And remember not to be too pushy if your partner would rather not discuss it as well. Being pushy is the farthest thing from support if it makes your partner uncomfortable.
The best thing anyone can do for an anxiety disorder is seek professional help. It may be the result of things that are going on in their life, or it may be a chemical imbalance in their brain. Either way, it’s a real health issue, and it’s not something that should be tackled at home alone. After all, you go to the doctor if you start running a high, long-lasting fever, right? Going for anxiety is the same thing. The stigma around mental health is diminishing, but it’s still there. Do what you can to encourage treatment, but don’t force it. Your partner has to make that decision for themselves.
Set specific goals.
Just like any other long-term plan, measurable, specific goals can make a huge difference. In some cases, simply getting through a single day without a panic attack might be a huge achievement. For others, facing fears and going out for something that makes them nervous might be reasonable.
Whatever goals you and your partner consider, make sure they fit within a range that your partner feels is doable. Going to the park might not be a big deal to you, but it might be scary and overwhelming to potentially see and interact with strangers.
If it’s agreeable, attend treatment.
If you’re in a serious relationship, and especially if you’re living together, it can be incredibly helpful to attend a few therapy sessions together. Sitting down and getting to speak with a therapist is different from having individual conversations, because the therapist is able to guide the conversation in a constructive direction.
It can also be a good way for you to have someone safe to talk to. Dealing with a partner who is suffering from anxiety can be mentally taxing. If you don’t have a safe person to discuss your end of things with, you can end up feeling over-burdened. Burn out is a real possibility with long-term mental health issues.
Encourage healthy lifestyle changes.
Exercise, meditation, and healthy eating are all likely to help anxiety issues. On their own they won’t cure them, but they certainly won’t do any harm, either! A good diet is important, since a wild swing in blood sugar levels can elevate anxiety. Whole grains, dairy, and fruits are good for you, but most American’s don’t get nearly enough vegetables in their diets. Small changes like taking an evening walk, drinking more water or having salad with dinner can make a huge difference in how you feel. If you can make these changes with them, it’ll be more likely to stick!
There are also aspects that will help you as well as your partner. Things like meditation and deep breathing can help you cope with your partner’s anxiety when things get rough. They’re also a great tool to have just in the course of normal life. Seven out of 10 people report experiencing symptoms of stress regularly—whether or not they suffer from anxiety—so any stress relieving tactics will be beneficial to you and your partner.
Try not to place blame.
There will be times when you get frustrated with your partner because it will be difficult for them to do things that are easy for you. There are also times you’ll be frustrated with yourself for accidentally being the cause of their anxiety. Both of those things are normal, and they are not anyone’s fault. People with anxiety don’t have the ability to simply get over things or “just relax,” otherwise they wouldn’t have anxiety! As difficult as it may be to retain your composure, it’s the best thing you can do.
Mental health isn’t like getting over a cold. You can’t simply “fix” it. It’s called “recovery” because it’s a process, and processes take time. Part of therapy is working to change learned behaviors, as these often contribute to anxiety. Learning new behaviors takes time, it’s not something you can simply do. It’s literally a process of creating new pathways in the brain and rewiring it to respond less to stimuli.
It takes a while to make progress, which is why those small goals are so important. If you need a reminder of the progress, take a look at those goals.
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand.
If you can’t relate to what your partner is trying to tell you, let them know. There is no harm in telling them that, so long as you do it in a way that conveys kindness and an attempt to understand. Inquiries like those will not only show your partner that you care, but also that you are taking the disorder seriously and want to help. Sometimes, just knowing that someone you love is dedicated to helping you can mean more than anything else.
Remember that they love you.
People who suffer from anxiety wouldn’t stay with you if they didn’t love you. They do. Anxiety can take many forms, and sometimes it will come across as rage or depression. Those moments when the disease takes over can be difficult to bear, but they don’t reflect your partner’s true feelings. It’s the disease talking. When they get their heads back on, don’t be surprised to find them pretty contrite about what they may have said or done.
Anxiety is hard, not just for those who suffer from it, but also for those who love them. Take care of yourself, and you’ll be in the best position to help your partner.