How to cope when the person you love has anxiety

Anxiety issues can be debilitating. For the person who deals with anxiety, it can feel like the world is closing in around them, like their worst fears are just around the corner and they can't breathe from the pressure.

And for the people around them, anxiety can be exhausting. It can wriggle into the spaces between two people who are close and fill those spaces with tension and resentment.

You can't choose who you love, just as they can't choose to just get over it. But you can choose how you proceed and how to keep your partner (and yourself) safe and happy.

1. Educate yourself.

Learn about anxiety and how it impacts your partner's life. Anxiety can take many different forms, and it pays to understand what your partner has, and how it impacts them. Healthline has a list of the different faces of anxiety.

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterised by chronic anxiety and unprovoked exaggerated worry, even if there is no reason behind it. It can feel as those their worst fears are lurking in the least likely places, and they may avoid situations they find triggering such as driving a car or taking the bus.
  • Panic disorder means you partner will have repeated unexpected episodes of intense fear or panic attacks. These will be accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, hyperventilating and dizziness.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder which develops after exposure to a traumatizing experience. Symptoms are varied, but can include flashbacks, angry outbursts, being easily startled and distorted feelings of guilt and blame.
  • Social anxiety disorder causes overwhelming self-consciousness and anxiety in everyday situations. Social anxiety can be limited to events such as public speaking, or it can be as broad as experiencing intense fear whenever they are around other people.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. By doing your research and understanding what is happening to your partner you will be in a better position to empathise and understand why they behave the way they do.

2. Listen to their fears.

Although it may seem helpful to tell your partner there's nothing to anxious or upset about, the reality is the opposite. 

The likelihood is your partner knows there's nothing to be anxious about - but they are anxious anyway and telling them they have no reason to be will just create a sense of guilt and make them feel worse.

Consider asking them why they are so afraid of the thing that's scaring them. Website Psychology Today recommends you unpack their worries alongside them. Do not tell them they're being stupid, do not tell them how ridiculous their fear is. Be there to support them, and listen to them.

3. Don't overcrowd.

Panic attacks. They are scary to have, and they are scary to watch. If someone you love is having a panic attack it is important to understand what it feels like. You can't breathe. Your fingers are numb. You're hyperventilating, gasping for air, your heart is pounding out of your chest and something terrible is going to happen.

Imagine you're running from a serial killer you can't see but you know you have to escape. And now imagine there's someone at your shoulder, grabbing you, hugging you, asking you what's wrong and what's happening and what can they do? It's hard to respond when you feel like you're dying. 

So if someone you know is having a panic attack, don't ask questions. Stay calm and be present. 

Help them breathe. Calmly tell them to breathe along with you.

Dr. Andrew Weil recommends using the 4-7-8 breathing technique.  Inhale deeply through the nose for four seconds, hold for seven seconds and exhale forcefully through your mouth for eight seconds, and then repeat.

Don't bombard them with questions. Asking them "what's wrong?" isn't helpful, because they probably know about as much as you do. Instead, try and talk to them. Remind them this is only temporary; it will pass, and stay with them until it does.

Don't hug, slap or shake them. Touch can be an intensely overwhelming sensation in the midst of a panic attack. Hugs can make the person feel smothered, and slapping someone is literally never a good idea.

Touch can be useful in a panic attack, if it's used with care. Grounding is a technique used in panic attacks.

Ask your partner to name five things they can see, four things they can feel, three things they can hear, two things they can smell and one good thing about themselves. 

This can help the person regain their sense of reality. But if they are in the midst of a panic attack, the best thing you can do is be there.

4. Understand their limits.

It can be intensely frustrating when the person you love can't learn to drive because they are afraid they'll crash and die, or they can't go out for beers with your friends because they are terrified they'll say the wrong thing.

But forcing your partner to do these things anyway won't help them. Instead, it will make things worse. Listen when they tell you they can't do something. Encourage them to do it anyway. But don't force them to confront the things they are afraid of, even if you're doing it with their best interests at heart. Understand that some things will take time, and support them to confront those fears when they're ready.

5. Know when it's time to leave.

Your own mental health is just as important as your partners. If their mental health issues are impacting the way you live your life, and you find yourself walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting them then the relationship is suffering.

If the person you love is refusing to seek help for themselves and leaning entirely on you for support then the situation is no longer healthy. 

If you're avoiding your friends, staying off work or ignoring your family to care for your partner then you need to reconsider the relationship.

You can't set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm. Know your limits. It's okay to leave if you can't handle the pressure.  If the person you love threatens to hurt themselves, contact mental health services immediately but know it is not your responsibility to save them.


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