If your loved one lives with anxiety, you may not always know how to help — but you can do plenty to support them.
Anxiety symptoms can cause the most distress for the person who experiences them. All the same, watching a loved one have a hard time with anxiety can prompt a different kind of pain, especially when you feel powerless to make a difference.
Anxiety disorders are common. In fact, according to
Conditions falling under the anxiety umbrella include:
- generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
- panic disorder (which sometimes includes agoraphobia)
- separation anxiety
- specific phobias
Maybe you can’t banish your partner’s anxiety, but you’re not powerless.
Supporting a partner or spouse with anxiety can go a long way toward easing their distress. You can remind them they have someone to turn to in difficult moments and empower them to seek professional guidance.
Looking for concrete ways to help your loved one? Consider these 7 ideas.
All anxiety conditions involve excessive and persistent worry and fear, but these emotions can show up in different ways.
Physical symptoms — trouble sleeping, stomach distress, and muscle and head pain, to name a few — also frequently accompany the emotional ones.
Maybe your partner has a panic attack while driving. At first, they feel uncomfortable driving alone. But after they have a second panic attack, they stop driving entirely and begin to avoid riding in cars as much as possible.
Or perhaps their anxiety relates specifically to social situations. They feel self-conscious around other people and have difficulty interacting with co-workers, which makes it challenging to request needed help at work. Before long, worries about judgment and criticism begin to affect their sleep and appetite, and they start finding reasons to stay home.
Anxiety might also reflect existential concerns or worries about physical health.
There’s also pandemic anxiety to consider. Anxiety in the time of COVID-19 may not represent an actual mental health diagnosis, but that doesn’t make it any less significant.
Understanding more about anxiety can help you offer more effective support.
You can learn more about the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders here.
Open communication may strengthen relationships. Assumptions, on the other hand, tend to do the exact opposite.
Maybe they don’t mention their anxiety. You believe they don’t want to talk about it, so you say nothing, either. Their distress becomes something you skirt around, if not outright ignore.
“Ask them how you can show your support,” recommends Roberta Alves, a licensed mental health counselor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Some people like hearing advice, while others just want their feelings validated.”
It always helps to ask what they do and don’t feel comfortable with.
Some people may not want to talk about their anxiety in front of others, or hear “How do you feel?” every single morning. It may be enough to know they can share feelings as they come up.
Your partner’s fears may not seem at all logical to you — but they’re valid to them. You can still offer compassion and understanding.
Anxiety, by its very nature, isn’t logical or rational — something they probably already know. Hearing “That doesn’t make sense,” or “That won’t happen,” can leave them feeling frustrated and ashamed of feelings they can’t help.
Instead, try validating statements:
- “I hear you’re feeling really scared and overwhelmed.”
- “I totally get why that makes you feel so worried.”
- “That sounds very upsetting and stressful. What can I do to help?”
- “I understand why you want to use a lot of caution. COVID-19 is a scary illness.”
- “I know the possibility of breaking up scares you. I don’t want to lose you, either.”
Remember, validation doesn’t mean agreeing with their anxiety or encouraging it. You can acknowledge any distress they experience without reinforcing irrational thoughts.
You might want to do everything possible to heal your partner’s pain and improve their everyday circumstances. That’s an entirely natural response.
Yet mental health conditions, as a general rule, don’t disappear. They can be managed and treated, though.
Support from a mental health professional can do a lot to ease symptoms, but it’s also possible that anxiety may never entirely go away.
Rather than going forward with a “Let’s beat this” attitude, it may help to approach things from an “I’m here to help you through this” mindset.
- starting a meditation routine together
- asking whether they’ve learned any breathing exercises or other helpful techniques in therapy
- making a habit of getting regular physical activity, such as walking, jogging, or cycling. — exercise can boost serotonin production in the brain, which may help ease anxiety
Practicing self-care yourself can encourage them to do the same. Self-care might include:
- making regular time for your hobbies
- spending time with family and friends
- getting enough sleep
- eating regular meals and staying hydrated
- making time to unwind before bed
Healthy boundaries set limits around things you will and won’t do for someone else. They help you protect your physical and emotional needs in relationships.
A few examples:
- You say you can text if they’re having a rough time while you’re at work. You can’t, however, leave work or talk on the phone.
- They don’t feel up to joining you for a night out. You agree to stop by for a visit (or return home, if you live together) by 11 p.m. — but you still go out as planned.
- They decide to take a leave of absence from work and get professional support to better manage their anxiety. You support their decision and agree to offer some temporary financial support, but you also explain you can only cover their share of the rent and bills for 1 month.
Anxiety can have a pretty big impact on relationships.
Your partner’s anxiety might center on their doubt and insecurity around the success of your relationship, for one.
Alves also notes that anxiety often involves irritability, which can lead to more frequent disagreements and a rift in the relationship.
“When one partner has anxiety, the other may feel overwhelmed and helpless because they don’t quite know how to offer aid. They might start to distance themselves in order to get some relief.”
Recent research suggests these mental health symptoms can negatively affect the quality of future relationships.
Relationship counseling can go a long way toward:
- easing relationship tension
- helping you learn to resolve conflict productively
- promoting better communication
- focusing on problem-solving
In most cases, therapy can have a lot of benefits for anxiety.
Reaching out to a professional is typically the best option when anxiety symptoms:
- disrupt everyday life and routines at school, work, or home
- begin to affect sleep or physical health
- negatively affect relationships
That said, everyone has to make the choice to connect with a therapist on their own. Forcing someone to go to therapy generally won’t work, Alves cautions.
“Ultimately, people come to counseling once anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms start to affect life in unbearable ways. If they’re not ready now, try practicing patience and offering support.”
Researching nearby therapists who treat anxiety and giving your partner a list to consider can be a helpful first step, she says.
You can also offer to join them for therapy. This won’t just help them feel less alone. It also provides the opportunity to learn productive ways to offer support.
If they have a phobia, pushing them to face their fear might backfire — but helping them avoid it completely may not have benefit, either.
Similarly, helping them cope with panic disorder, or frequent panic attacks, may not mean encouraging them to avoid every possible trigger. Instead, you might learn ways to help them navigate distress in the moment while reminding them they’re safe.
Alves also recommends reaching out to any friends or loved ones who’ve had success with therapy (after getting your partner’s permission) so they can offer more insight on what to expect.
Also keep in mind that pressuring them to try one particular treatment probably won’t help, either.
Maybe medication works well for you, so you think they should try it, too. You can always ask them to consider something you believe will help, but remember you’re two different people. Respect their right to pursue their preferred treatment, even if you disagree with their approach.
Anxiety often improves with treatment, and there’s a lot you can do to support your partner living with it in the meantime. Remember, though, it’s essential to take care of your own needs, too.
Working with a therapist is a great way to work on your own well-being so you can better support your partner. Therapy for yourself becomes even more important if you also live with anxiety or any other mental health condition.