I, along with 6.8 million American adults, have generalized anxiety disorder, and it’s not going away anytime soon—in fact, I imagine it’ll always be part of who I am. I take medication for it, and while some days I feel in control, on other days it controls me. Since it’s something I personally struggle to deal with, finding a supportive significant other is especially tough.
I spent the last few years of my life in a relationship with someone who never fully supported that part of me the way I needed. And in retrospect, this was totally fair; I didn’t communicate effectively. It’s hard for me to articulate how a partner can best be there for me, so of course it’s hard for them to actually do it. Being a mindreader is obviously not a prerequisite for being a great partner.
Thankfully, two accredited mental-health pros (who apparently moonlight as relationship superheroes) have come to the rescue with a checklist of ways to support an S.O. who struggles with anxiety.
Check out 4 must-know tips for supporting a partner with anxiety.
1. Do the research
First, give into to your cravings, and log online. “Do the thing we all love to do: Google,” says licensed mental health counselor Jessica Feldman, services director of New York City’s National Alliance on Mental Mental Illness chapter. Researching your partner’s condition is a great way to ensure you can empathize and provide worthwhile support to an often-confusing condition.
Licensed therapist Dawn Wiggins adds that on the information-gathering front, attending your partner’s therapy sessions can provide some super-valuable insight about the specific case of anxiety and how to handle heightened instances of it or panic attacks. “There needs to be a willingness to be an accepting partner, to support and encourage them like you would if it were any other medical condition,” Wiggins says.
2. Know you can’t cure it
When I’m mid-anxiety attack, the last thing I want to hear is “you’re going to be okay” or “just calm down.” Yet, this is such a common response since. As Wiggins says, “people have tendencies to want to minimize, not encourage, the full expression of the anxiety.” Even if their unsolicited suggestions stem from an honest-to-goodness intention to be helpful, in effect, such couldn’t be farther from the truth.
So when your partner is experiencing a bout of anxiety, let them know that you’re here for them, and you will help them get them whatever care they need.
3. Don’t—for lack of a better term—mansplain their anxiety to them
It’s often the case that anxiety triggers are anything but rational. So, you reiterating that reality by sharing what should or shouldn’t make someone anxious is simply not a way to stoke a productive dialogue—rather, it’s just a way to instill a sense of shame. “They may think that they’re helping, but what it says to the other person is that there’s something wrong with them,” Wiggins says.
4. Help in a way that is legit helpful
Ask how you can help, and then follow through. It’s possible you might be asked for support in a way that doesn’t make sense to you. But in lieu of supplying what you think your boo needs, support, emotionally, how they ask.
Furthermore, have a plan in place before anxiety attack hits, so you can essentially play offense. Wiggins recommends creating a Google Doc full of tips and tricks that the person with anxiety has learned works for them. “That way, all the info is there, wherever you are, and it’s easily accessible and shareable between the two of you,” she says.
And if your S.O. experiences a panic attack—which 2 to 3 percent of Americans experience every year—Feldman says to sit at the same level as them and speak calmly. “When somebody is having a panic attack, there’s all kinds of things going on in their body. They have shortness of breath, sweating, they aren’t thinking straight. There might be speaking very quickly. The heart feels like it’s going to jump out of their skin.” Remind them that panic attacks only last for a few minutes, and even though it feels like it will never end, it will actually be over soon.
And most importantly, always act with empathy—not sympathy. Try to understand your partner’s journey, because a great way to not be helpful at all is to simply feel badly for them. You may never fully understand a partner’s anxiety, but it’s certainly possible to recognize that you can be helpful and loving.
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