My partner has anxiety. What can I do?
Anxiety comes in a lot of forms: a general sense of dread and discomfort, nonstop negative thoughts, panic symptoms, and phobias are just a few ways that someone can experience anxiety. But what if the person struggling with these issues isn’t you but your partner? How can you make sense of it? How can you support them when they are struggling? And how can you take care of yourself?
Understand your partner's anxiety
If you aren’t clear, ask your partner what anxiety is like for them. Try to get in their shoes and really understand what this feels like. This is really important whether or not you’ve experienced anxiety yourself. Your anxiety experience may be very different than theirs.
Here are some questions you can ask to better understand your partner's experience:
- Are there specific triggers that cause your anxiety or does it happen without any apparent cause?
- Are there physical symptoms or issues that happen when you are anxious?
- Are there any problematic thoughts and beliefs that come into play when you feel anxious?
- How does anxiety get in the way for you? What kinds of challenges does it cause?
As you try to understand your partner, it can be tempting to offer advice or downplay their experience as an overreaction (how can someone get so worked up about something so small?). See if you can refrain from acting on these impulses, stay curious, and ask more questions. Mental health symptoms are just as real as physical health symptoms. Try to understand this from your partner’s perspective.
How you can support your partner
It can be helpful to consider how you can best support your partner. This isn’t a one size fits all scenario and different experiences call for different support. Talk to your partner about what might be most helpful.
One caveat: always check in with your partner to see what it is they need, rather than assume you know what is best for them.
Sometimes just being a good ear is all that is needed. Your partner might feel better if they can just vent and unload. This means that they aren’t looking for problem solving or brainstorming. Ask them if they want feedback or just to be heard. If they just want to be heard, just listen. Or even better, try some active listening.
Offering to problem solve when a situation feels overwhelming to your partner can be really helpful. Often when people are anxious they have difficulty identifying possible solutions and ways to address the issues at hand. You can offer a different perspective as well as creative solutions that may not have occurred to your partner.
When your partner struggles with distressing thoughts it can be helpful to support them by offering some reality testing. This could include checking in on how probable the anxious and problematic thought is, or if there are other possible ways to think about the situation. Often when we discuss the probability of the thought occurring it becomes less distressing. There are a number of questions you can ask your partner to help with addressing anxious thoughts.
Sometimes the best support you can offer is to help soothe your partner’s nervous system. This could include offering a massage, going for a walk or helping with tasks around the house. Ask your partner what might help them in the moment with a goal of helping calm their nervous system.
Provide options and alternatives
Sometimes when a partner is overwhelmed by anxiety it can be hard for them to even consider how they can take care of themselves in the moment. You can support your partner by reminding them that there are things they can do to help themselves. Just this prompt can also often be helpful.
For example your partner may be so overwhelmed but have not considered that they could talk about what’s going on or do some problem solving as a way to address this. You can prompt them and ask them if this would be helpful.
Create a plan
It can be helpful to have a conversation and create a plan with your partner about how you can best support them when they are feeling anxious. Especially if they are overwhelmed your support can make a difference in how they relate to their anxiey.
Take care of yourself.
What about you? Listening and being present for your anxious partner can be really hard. You may feel exhausted or hesitant to check in because you fear being overwhelmed. Decide what kind of support you can provide and what kind of support you need for yourself. Setting limits so that you don't become overwhelmed is important.
This is especially important if you get anxious yourself. It can be easy to become triggered with your own anxiety! Consider what a healthy boundary would look like for you - how can you offer support and still take care of yourself?
Finally, all of the support you provide may not be enough for your partner and their struggle with anxiety. Consider discussing this with your partner and working together to identify additional resources such as therapy.