According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorders affect about 30% of adults in the US during their lifetime, making them the most common mental health disorder.
Typically, anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, panic, or fear that can manifest itself in physical symptoms such as trembling, breathlessness, sweating, numbness, or having hot and cold flashes. When someone is experiencing a panic attack, they may also feel like they can’t breathe and that they are going to die. All of these symptoms range in severity and can be a challenge for a person who is anxious.
While approximately 1 in 5 Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, most people suffer silently. Statistically, women are more likely to suffer from anxiety than men. The internet is full of advice and articles for how to cope with anxiety, but not as much is written about how to aid the partners of anxious people.
Truth be told, an individual who is in an intimate relationship with someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder may feel helpless, isolated, and overwhelmed. Being in a relationship with someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder can also be frustrating. If you are the partner of an anxious person, you know that reassuring your significant other with words such as “everything will be okay” is often ineffective. You may find yourself annoyed and challenged by your partner’s inability to resolve his or her anxious feelings. As a result, you may find yourself feeling stressed and your own life may become impacted by your partner’s struggles.
If you’re reading this article because you want to help your partner, and you want your relationship to improve, you are already on the road to success. An interest and willingness to support your partner and find tools for recovery are essential to sustaining your relationship. If your partner’s anxiety has begun to affect his or her everyday life, a combination of therapy and medication may help. Keep in mind that even if your spouse has not sought treatment, these strategies will still help you.
5 Ways to Cope When Your Partner Has An Anxiety Disorder:
- Express empathy. Empathy is a powerful antidote to most shameful emotions. Even if you don’t suffer from anxiety yourself, you’ve undoubtedly experienced other uncomfortable and difficult feelings. Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and share in his or her struggles. Let them know you understand and can imagine the distress she or he feels. Saying something like “It must be scary to feel you can’t control your fears,” is a way to express empathy.
- Focus on improving your communication skills. Improve your listening skills and try not to make assumptions about why your partner feels a certain way. If he or she is experiencing a flood of anxiety, ask them questions about why they feel the way they do. Do your best not to make judgments and ask questions about their triggers such as “Do you know why you felt so much panic? If not, let’s explore it together.”
- Be direct and set boundaries. Make specific requests. For instance, your anxious spouse may call you frequently while you are work to get reassurance. When this behavior becomes disruptive you can ask him or her to stop calling you at work, or to wait for you to return their calls. Although it may be hard to set these boundaries at first, you will actually find it makes it easier for them to manage their anxiety and learn how to self soothe.
- Encourage your partner to be resilient and develop coping skills. When your significant other is anxious, your instinct is probably to do whatever you can to reassure him. For instance, Chris, Deanna’s husband suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder . He checks to make sure the front door is locked at least ten times before leaving the house. After leaving the house, he will frequently ask to turn around to check the door again. After five years of marriage, Deanna is trying not to enable him by telling her husband: “Chris, I watched you check the door and I am certain it is locked. We will not be turning around and end up being late for a family event. I love you and we will get through this.”
- Promote opportunities for your partner to maintain healthy sleep hygiene. Developing a regular sleep routine will lessen a person’s anxiety and poor sleep habits are linked to anxiety disorders. You can assist your partner in going to sleep at a regular time and sleeping more soundly by encouraging them to go to bed on time (turn off technology, lights, and stimulation) and not disturbing them when they are resting.
Although all of these strategies are important, deciding not to enable your partner’s anxiety might be the most important gift you can give them. Practicing empathy and improving your listening skills alone will not go far enough to help. But choosing to set boundaries and re-directing your partner away from anxiety helps immeasurably. In Deanna’s example, if she agreed to turn around and allow Chris to check the door again, she would end up perpetuating his anxiety. She may think she’s helping him, because once he sees the lock is off, he might feel better. But the goal is to get Chris to not check the door at all. Only by confronting his compulsions, offering gentle reassurance, and not giving into them, will they improve.
Finally, remember that asking for support is a sign of strength, not weakness, when you are dealing with someone who has an anxiety disorder. This is especially true if you are married or living together. So if you find that being in a relationship with someone who has an anxiety disorder is taking a toll on your own mental health, be sure to seek support. You do not need to be alone in your struggle. You can contact your personal or family doctor (or insurance company) for a referral for counseling. You need not suffer silently or needlessly.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.