Our thoughts are powerful architects of our anxiety. For many people, just the thought “What if?” can trigger a slew of anxious ruminations and nervous reactions.
What if I get jittery? What if I trip? What if I have a panic attack? In public? What if I miss my stop and get lost? What if I’m not good enough? What if I screw up? Everything?
Many people who struggle with anxiety don’t even realize they’re having these thoughts. Before they know it, they’re worried, worn out, sticky and overwhelmed.
Journalist Daniel Smith talks about this in his book Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. He writes:
“…It starts with a thought – a what if or a should have been or a never will be or a could have been — and metastasizes from there, sparking down the spine and rooting out into the body in the form of breathlessness, clamminess, fatigue, palpitations, and a terrible sense that the world in which I find myself is at once holographically unsubstantial and grotesquely threatening.”
If your partner struggles with anxiety, you can help them spot these automatic thoughts and redirect them. Again, this is incredibly helpful because your partner might not recognize this vicious cycle or realize that they can stop it.
And that’s the good news about anxiety: We can identify thoughts that perpetuate our angst, learn to question their validity and restructure our thinking.
Our thoughts are not true blue facts, and you can help your partner realize that very fact.
In her excellent book Loving Someone with Anxiety: Understanding & Helping Your Partner, psychotherapist Kate N. Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, shares exactly how you can help.
For starters, when you notice that your partner is anxious, ask them to articulate their thoughts or to write them down. Then help them create alternative thoughts, which they can repeat instead.
Thieda gives this example of alternative thoughts for the thought, “I’m so anxious that I’m going to panic when I go out in public”: “I have succeeded in overcoming this situation before, and I can do it again,” or “I have the skills to not let this anxiety get the best of me.”
These thoughts may not feel “true” to your partner at first. But with practice, over time, they will, and they’ll help them reduce their anxiety and get better.
Thieda also suggests asking your partner these questions about their thoughts:
- “What is the evidence that what you’re anxious about will actually happen?
- On a scale of 0 to 10, how strongly do you believe what you’re thinking about will happen?
- Are your thoughts taking the whole picture into account? Is there anything you might be missing?
- How does thinking this way help you? Can you let it go?
- How can we work together to make this less anxiety-provoking?”
Think of yourself as an encouraging coach, Thieda writes. You’re helping your partner challenge their anxious thoughts and replace them with more realistic, healthier thoughts that actually serve them.
There are plenty of other ways you can support your partner. Learn more in this piece.