Learning How To Support Someone With Anxiety
While some anxiety is common for most people, anxiety disorders can make it difficult to function and live a normal life. Anxiety can add stress to relationships, too. When loving someone with anxiety, you may have experienced those difficulties firsthand, but there are many things you can do to help your partner. First, it can be important to note that this might involve working with a mental health professional. Many people successfully manage their anxiety with professional help, so a therapist may be able to help you navigate this process, too. Additionally, showing that you're supportive of your partner will likely help them immensely on their journey to improved mental health.
Living with an anxiety disorder
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, various types of anxiety disorders may affect 40 million adults in the United States alone, likely making it the country's most common mental illness.
If you've never experienced severe anxiety, it can be difficult to imagine what it's like living with it. There are common symptoms (like shortness of breath and a sense of dread) and several types (e.g., social anxiety), yet how they manifest is typically different from person to person. Some of these symptoms may not be pleasant to be around, but please know that the behaviors that accompany anxiety typically say little about the person on the receiving end and are more a reflection of the anxious person's fears and worries.
In short, having an anxiety disorder can be mentally, emotionally, and physically overwhelming and exhausting. With this in mind, how can we begin to effectively show love to someone who is experiencing something as challenging as living with anxiety?
Tips on how to offer support
Below, find several tips to help you show love to someone with an anxiety disorder.
In general, anxiety is a real mental illness that deserves attention and acknowledgment. You might read up on anxiety and ask your partner what anxiety means for them and what they wish people knew about it. It may show them that you care, simply because you asked. Other helpful questions might include, "What triggers your anxiety?" and "How do you manage it?" This can help you understand what their anxiety is like when it gets particularly bad for them and what you can do to help.
Do not judge, criticize, or minimize their anxiety
To avoid merging your partner with their illness, it can be important to remember that anxiety is not typically a weakness or a chosen way of being. People with anxiety usually wish to be seen as more than their illness. They're likely aware of the impact they have on others, and that can be difficult in itself. Saying things like, "Chill out," or "You're overreacting," may only increase their pain and make them feel more isolated.
Listen to them and validate their feelings
When possible, it often helps to be completely present for their thoughts and feelings, acknowledging that they're valid and they matter. You might talk about what they're going through with an open mind and let them know that you don’t have any expectations for them to “fix” anything. At the end of the talk, it’s usually helpful to let them know they're accepted and loved as they are with a hug or a simple "I love you, and I'm here for you."
Keep in mind that it's generally not about you
In moments of frustration, it can be easy to make "you" statements, such as "You are irrational," or "You are always disappointing me". This can fuel an argument, stir up unhealthy defense mechanisms, and make the problem about the person instead of the mental illness. In reality, behaviors driven by anxiety are rarely personal. It’s often beneficial to take a step back so you can be calm and compassionate. Responses like, "What you're going through sounds hard. Do you want to talk about it?" or "Is there something I can do to reassure you?" tend to be much more helpful, potentially allowing you to refocus the conversation on the problem and not the person.
Celebrate the small victories
For a person living with an anxiety disorder, completing small tasks sometimes feels like conquering a mountain. Don't forget to celebrate their milestones, no matter how little, such as having the courage to answer the phone or attend a social event with you. By celebrating what they can do, you may divert attention away from what they can't do and potentially motivate them to continue taking consistent steps forward in their recovery.
Invite them to do self-care activities with you
If you have a self-care ritual that you like to do, or if you're thinking of starting one, you might ask them to join you. Options could include yoga, breathing exercises, or taking long walks in the mornings and evenings. Not only may this solidify your relationship and create deeper intimacy, but it can also help to ease and reduce their anxiety.
Ask them helpful questions and reinforce positive affirmations
If you know someone with anxiety, it’s often helpful to ask them, "What can I do to make you feel loved right now?" When they're having an anxiety attack, instead of repeatedly asking, "Are you okay?" when they're clearly not, you can say helpful things like, "Focus on your breathing," or "You've been through this before, and you can do it again". Try to remember to ask yourself if what you are saying or doing is ultimately helpful, kind, and necessary.
Remind them that you're in this together
It will likely mean a lot to them to know that you're there to support them. It can be discouraging to think you must endure a mental illness alone. Using "we" statements may remind them that they don't have to do it by themselves. "We can get through this together," and "We will figure out what to do next," may be examples of positive and effective reinforcements of togetherness.
Take care of yourself, too
Loving a person with anxiety can be emotionally and physically depleting, so it can be vital not to neglect yourself and your well-being in the process. This may mean setting boundaries where appropriate. For example, you might be careful not to allow any threats or insults, and try to make sure you have a life separate from your partner. Having your own set of friends can be a key ingredient in any healthy relationship. Codependency, especially when one partner has a mental illness, can lead to resentment and bitterness, which may further weaken and erode the relationship.
Seeking help for anxiety
When you love, know, or are dating someone with anxiety, being that person by their side who is willing to help can be comforting, life-affirming, and encouraging for the person.
Anxiety is highly treatable, especially when people who are going through it reach out for professional help. You might gently encourage your partner to seek help to support and guide them. As valuable as your help may be, you shouldn't have to be their therapist or their entire support system.
The symptoms of anxiety may make it difficult to seek help, however. Factors like scheduling, convenience, and financial concerns can be deterrents. Some people experiencing anxiety may feel anxious or uncomfortable waiting in an office around other people or seeing a therapist face-to-face, as well.
Many of these barriers can be overcome by speaking to a mental health professional online. With online therapy, you generally won’t have to encounter the potential added stress of driving to an office, dealing with traffic, or facing scheduling restrictions.
Studies show that internet-based therapy platforms can be useful in helping those with anxiety manage their symptoms. A study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry concluded that therapist-guided online therapy can be an effective method of treating anxiety. Researchers specifically utilized cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), finding that it could significantly decrease participants’ feelings of worry related to generalized anxiety disorder.
The licensed professionals at BetterHelp likely know how to help you and your partner navigate difficult issues related to anxiety, so you can both live with less stress. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.
"Jennifer has helped me learn how to manage my anxiety so that I can enjoy life the way I used to. She always makes time when my schedule doesn't line up with hers. And she never makes me feel like I'm a burden to her."
"She came at the perfect time in my life. I was in a tough place but most importantly I didn't know what my issues were or how to address them. But the insight and compassion and kindness that Merissa gave me was so powerful:) I will live everyday thinking of what she taught me about myself and my anxiety. Thank you, Merissa!"
- Educate yourself
- Don’t judge, criticize, or minimize their anxiety
- Listen to them and validate their feelings
- Remember their anxiety symptoms are generally not about you
- Celebrate the small victories
- Practice self-care activities with them
- Ask them helpful questions and reinforce positive affirmations
- Remind them that you’re in this together
- Take care of yourself
- Consider seeking the help of a professional, such as an online therapist
You may find that your love and support can enable your loved one to take steps toward improved mental health and decreased anxiety symptoms.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How do I calm my partner's anxiety?
If you have an anxious partner, you might tell them that you love them and ask what you can do for them. Something that might help when they have a panic attack is to be with them physically. You can say, “Let’s breathe together and get through this together”. This can send a strong message that you support them, you’re not judging them, and you won’t leave them because of their anxiety disorder. Suggesting that your partner find a therapist to talk to might also be beneficial. You can be extra supportive by offering to come to a few sessions.
Do Hugs help anxiety attacks?
Some people with anxiety may not mind being, while others may desire space. The best you can do may be to ask the person having the anxiety attack how you can help. This might be escorting them to a quiet place free of other people or talking to them soothingly. It may help to breathe with them, slowly taking in breaths from the belly and then exhaling.
What should you not say to someone with anxiety?
Examples of things to avoid saying to someone with anxiety can include:
- Everyone feels stressed.
- Get over it!
- Quit being such a wimp!
- What have you got to be anxious about?
Some things you could say instead are as follows:
- I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I believe you when you say…
- What can I do to help?
- Is there someplace we can go now that would make you feel more comfortable?
Showing your support and trust in your partner or loved one who is experiencing anxiety may not only strengthen your relationship and show your emotional maturity, but it could also be an opportunity for personal growth.
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