Originally published at https://ideapod.com/loving-someone-with-anxiety/
Dealing with your own anxiety is already a challenge.
How much more if you love someone who experiences anxiety?
According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people who suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) have trouble considering themselves in “healthy and supportive” relationships compared to those who don’t have it.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
You can have a loving and healthy relationship with someone who has anxiety.
Here’s how you can love someone with anxiety.
Anxiety definition and symptoms
According to Anxiety.org’s Sanne van Rooij, Ph.D. and Anaïs Stenson, Ph.D.:
“Anxiety disorders are characterized by a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. worrying about a future threat) and can have negative behavioral and emotional consequences.”
There are different kinds of anxiety, but the most common one is Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Here are the symptoms, according to Anxiety.org:
- Excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of events or activities, even when nothing is wrong or when the worry is disproportionate to actual risk.
- The worry is difficult to control
- The worry is associated with at least three (adults) or one (children) of the following physical or cognitive symptoms:
- Impaired concentration or feeling that mind is going blank
- Increased muscle aches or soreness
- Difficulty sleeping (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep)
- Sometimes associated with other physical symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea
You may also notice signs in how your partner interacts with people.
According to research, people with GAD have 4 interaction styles:
People with GAD manifest these styles in different ways. For someone intrusive, they may have trouble with boundaries and respecting your privacy.
It’s important to know your partner’s interaction style and the underlying issues behind it so you can know how to properly react and handle the situation.
What to do when you learn they have anxiety
Two things can happen; either your partner comes out to you about their anxiety, or you’ll start noticing the signs yourself.
Either way, your actions and words will have a big impact on your partner’s feelings.
It takes a lot for a person to show their vulnerability, so be sensitive about the things you say. Thank your partner for trusting you with the information.
According to clinical psychologist Todd Farchione:
“It’s important not to diminish their experience. Being supportive is about being willing to hear what they have to say and to be understanding.
“But in order to reach that level of understanding, that involves validating what they’re going through.”
Realize that it’s a real thing. It’s not made up to seek attention. And you need to acknowledge that it’s real so you won’t hurt your partner unnecessarily.
10 things you can do when you love someone with anxiety
The road ahead will be tough, but it doesn’t mean it will be absent of love. In fact, it will be filled with it. Here are some things you can do, when someone you love has anxiety.
1. Educate yourself
The first thing you need to do before anything else is to educate yourself.
Because anxiety is something so easy to disregard. Yet it can be so damaging to someone you love. For that reason alone, you need to be equipped to handle it.
And how could you care for someone with anxiety if you know nothing about it?
According to psychologist Barbara Markway:
“Anxiety disorders can be tricky because your partner may “look” perfectly normal at the same time they’re telling you they’re having a panic attack.
“This might cause you to minimize what your partner is going through. “Oh, you’re fine,” or “Just relax,” won’t be particularly helpful or well-received comments.”
Learning all you can about anxiety will make everything easier for you and your partner in the long run. More importantly, it can be the first step toward healing.
2. Just listen
The most difficult thing about loving someone with anxiety is the feeling of helplessness. It’s easy to feel like you can’t really do anything to take their suffering away.
But the truth is, being there is enough. Simply listening helps. A lot.
According to Farchione:
“Be willing to offer your time to that individual.That’s such an overlooked component between two individuals.
“Sometimes what’s the most helpful for someone with anxiety is just having someone listen to their experience and that’s it.”
So when you’re feeling useless, remember that all they really need is someone to hold them.
3. Stop “enabling them”
There’s a thin and dangerous line between being supportive and becoming an enabler to your partner’s anxiety.
It can be difficult to find the balance in both, but you still need to try.
“Be careful not to be an accomplice of their fear. Being understanding doesn’t mean we have to accommodate their fears, which families do quite often. It could just be feeding the idea that there is something to be afraid of.”
So what do you do? Take the next step:
4. Empower them instead.
According to mental health counselor Tanya J. Peterson:
“Empowering someone is different than enabling the person. Empowering lends appropriate assistance and support without taking responsibility for the person’s recovery.
“Empowering supports in order to build someone up and help them regain a sense of control over their life. Empowering is motivating, and it leads to self-confidence and autonomy.”
Instead of giving their fears and anxiety any credit, give credit to your partner’s strength instead. Encourage their healing, not their fears.
4. It’s you and them against the anxiety, not against each other.
Don’t ever forget that you’re a team. You’re fighting against the anxiety, not against each other.
So don’t be mad at your partner. Remember that it’s the anxiety speaking.
“Attacking a person’s character or personhood can further damage shaky self-esteem. It’s natural for you to feel angry or even resentful.”
It’s even more important to know how to express your frustrations correctly.
“The important thing to remember is to express your own feelings as I-statements (“I feel this”, “I wish that”) rather than attributing your feelings to the other person’s behavior (you make me feel… )”
5. Encourage them to seek help.
Let’s make something clear:
It’s not your responsibility to give your partner treatment.
Don’t act like their surrogate therapist.
According to Jim Folk, founder of Anxietycentre.com:
“While self-help information can be beneficial, a professional anxiety disorder counsellor/therapist is almost always required to overcome problematic anxiety because many of these behaviors are invisible, and therefore, unknown to the sufferer.”
Seeking professional help will not only be good for your partner, but it will also be good for you, too. In fact, many people go through couple’s counseling, even if only one person is suffering from anxiety.
There is no shame in asking for help, especially if it means being able to maintain a healthy and loving relationship.
6. Don’t make it any bigger than it is.
One mistake you can make is to create a big issue about your partner’s anxiety.
Remember: Yes, they have anxiety, but it does not define them.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the anxiety and help your partner overcome it. But it doesn’t mean it should take up the whole relationship.
Your loved one is still a person outside of their illness. They would like to feel normal, wanted, and loved.
Don’t make them into a project or someone that needs saving. Focus on the other things on your relationship, too.
7. Set boundaries.
There’s only so much that a person can compromise. In this case, you are allowed to think of your needs and expectations, too.
In the process of supporting your partner, it’s easy to set aside your boundaries. But that is actually not helpful.
According to therapist Kate Thieda, author of Loving Someone With Anxiety:
“You have the right to have a life, too, and this may mean telling your partner on occasion, and in a loving way, that you are going to do what you want and need to do.”
Accommodate their needs, but never forget yours.
“Always consider whether a compromise is possible, but also recognize that you have the right to do things independently.”
8. Remember, it’s not about you.
Don’t take your partner’s anxiety personally. If they are exhibiting behavior that might seem careless or thoughtless to you, remember that it’s their anxiety that gets the better of them.
Anxiety doesn’t give anyone the right to hurt you, but you should be able to know when to take things personally.
It’s easy to get offended, though. Especially if you’ve only started dating.
According to psychologist Paulette Sherman:
“It could be easy to feel rejected if they aren’t present or seem distrustful, but if this is what happens to them when they are anxious, it may have nothing to do with you.”
9. Don’t neglect self-care
You have your own life, too. Perhaps you are even battling with your own mental health issues yourself.
Don’t forget that your well-being is important, too. Don’t get caught up on your partner’s anxiety. You can’t help anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself.
According to Pamela S. Wiegartz, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Illinois:
“When someone you care about is struggling with anxiety, it is all too easy to focus on helping them and to forget about your own needs.
“Be sure to stay well yourself—talk to friends for support, get your own therapist, consider joining a support group or an online discussion board.”
10. Just love them
Showering your partner with love and affection might not be the most direct treatment for their anxiety. But it doesn’t hurt either.
In fact, it will give them the security they need—especially because anxiety comes from a lack of security.
According to Mike Bundrant, co-founder of The iNLP Center:
“Anxiety sufferers need trust to be earned while dating, as it’s never automatic for us. This can cause problems in new relationships, but it can work if the person you’re dating is good at being reassuring and attentive.”
Making them feel loved and cherished will go a long way to making them feel secure. People with anxiety live with the fear that they are not good enough to be loved.
So just love them. That’s something you’ll never be wrong in doing.
What if your partner refuses to take treatment?
Anxiety is a real mental issue, but it is very treatable. However, it is sometimes hard to convince someone to get treated.
There are different reasons why. They might have tried before and found that it didn’t help. Treatment can fail because they are not the appropriate type for the kind of anxiety a person has.
According to Thieda:
“It is best to work with a professional who uses cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques and is specifically trained in working with people who struggle with anxiety.”
Another reason could be that they find professional treatment daunting and intimidating.
For this, Thieda suggests:
“Maybe they need to approach their treatment in a different way, breaking down the challenges into smaller, more manageable pieces.”
But whatever you do, Thieda urges you not to resort to pleading or manipulation.
“No amount of begging, pleading, or threatening is going to be effective, and will likely make things worse.”
The truth is, you cannot help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. You can certainly explain to your partner how treatment can help them. But ultimately, it will be their decision.
What they need
The most useful thing you can do going forward is to understand what your partner needs.
Just like the Language of Love, people with anxiety suffer because of fear that their needs won’t be met. They are also scared that simply asking will result in problems.
In short, they fear that you’re going to leave them if it becomes hard.
“Unfortunately, a big reason why anxiety sufferers don’t properly explain all of this is that their anxiety is met with fear that should they explain what they need, they’ll be viewed as ‘more trouble than she’s worth’ by their partner or ‘needy’ or ‘too damaged.”
If you really love them, make it your job to assure them that you’re not going anywhere. You need to be patient at first because they probably won’t believe it.
But if you stick at it long enough, they’ll start trusting you. And when that happens, it’s already an easier rode.
An anxiety sufferer needs a partner who is extremely consistent in their words of affirmation, actions, and behaviors.
Anxiety sufferers need consistency. They’ll often attempt to explain this, but it’s not taken seriously, and then they’ll give up attempting to explain their needs.
There are millions of people out there who, despite having anxiety, are able to maintain happy relationships.
So what you are trying to accomplish is not impossible, even if it might feel like it sometime.
Ask yourself: Do I want to be with this person, even if it gets too hard?
If the answer is no, it’s best to be honest about it now. You don’t want to keep hurting someone who is already dealing with so much.
But if you can’t see your life without this person, then you are already doing better than you think you are.
Anxiety or not, all anyone ever needs is someone who would choose them. Even if they might not be the easiest choice.