My Partner Has Anxiety. How Can I Help?
My Partner Has Anxiety. How Can I Help?
Have you ever had to miss a party or event because your partner has social anxiety? Do you often find yourself trying to reassure them or trying to alleviate their worries and fears? Have you ever had to help your partner through a panic attack? If your partner has an anxiety disorder, one or more of these scenarios might sound familiar. Anxiety symptoms vary between individuals, and their intensity can differ from day to day or in response to certain triggers. But no matter how it shows up, anxiety doesn’t just affect your partner — it impacts the relationship as a whole. If your partner has anxiety, you may be wondering how to best support them. While you can’t “solve” their anxiety, there are things you can do to help them cope while looking out for your own well-being.
Here are 10 tips on how you can best support a partner with anxiety.
1. Take care of yourself.
Being in a relationship with someone who’s struggling with their mental health can be stressful and require a lot of flexibility and patience. But also taking care of yourself is essential for the sustainability of the relationship. “Let your partner know that you are also going to be taking time to take care of yourself,” psychologist and relationship expert Dr. Brenda Wade recommends. “You have to make sure you are meeting your own mental health needs too.” Self-care can mean reaching out to friends and family for support, making time for hobbies and activities you enjoy, eating nutritiously and moving your body, getting plenty of sleep, or whatever else helps you to feel centered.
2. Seek resources to help you understand anxiety.
Although everyone’s individual experience with anxiety is different, taking the time to educate yourself about common anxiety symptoms and triggers can help you support your partner. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have resources to help you learn more about anxiety. You can also seek out blogs and podcasts to give you a broader range of perspectives on what it’s like to live with anxiety.
3. Ask your partner about their experience.
It can be difficult to understand what your partner is going through, especially if you’ve never struggled with anxiety yourself. But being curious and asking your partner about what anxiety is like for them can help you respond more effectively when symptoms arise. Dr. Wade recommends asking questions like: “What are the things that help you feel better? Are there certain parts of the day where you feel more stable? Is your disturbance related to fatigue or hunger? Then ask if there is anything else you can do to be supportive and helpful.” Ask what type(s) of anxiety they experience as there are several, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and others.
4. Tailor your support to your partner’s specific needs.
Identifying which type(s) of anxiety disorder(s) your partner experiences can help you strategize the best way to help. For example, if your partner has social anxiety, you could offer to attend larger events on your own or with friends; you could also come up with a word or signal they could use to let you know they’re reaching their limit in a social situation. If your partner experiences body dysmorphia, a type of anxiety related to appearance, you could help them to learn about and practice body neutrality.
5. Learn what to do if they experience a panic attack.
Not everyone who has anxiety has panic attacks. Those who do, however, often experience frightening physical symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, and a pounding heart, as well as feelings of overwhelming fear. If your partner experiences a panic attack, staying calm and nonjudgmental, reassuring them that their symptoms will pass, making sure they’re physically safe, and asking directly what might help them feel better (it’s ok if they don’t know) can help.
6. Encourage them to seek support outside of the relationship.
Even if you’re totally committed to supporting your partner, getting help from a caring mental health professional can be beneficial for them and the relationship. Dr. Wade tells O.school that telling your partner, “You need to go get help” can create defensiveness. Instead, she recommends taking a collaborative approach by saying something like, “Why don’t we go and see what a professional can help us with?” She adds that “Joining someone is more helpful and successful versus saying someone has a problem.”
7. Be gentle when they’re struggling.
It can be frustrating when your partner’s anxiety causes them to behave in ways that don’t make sense to you, especially if their symptoms interfere with everyday life — if their anxiety, or anti-anxiety medication, causes sexual changes, for example, or makes it hard to socialize or do activities together. But Bashen-Walters encourages partners to remember that “There are good days and bad days. Thus your partner's mood, interest, or energy level may change. Instead of getting frustrated or judging them, ask if they think they are experiencing symptoms of anxiety.”
8. Take time to do things you enjoy together.
When your partner is struggling with a mental health condition, it can be easy to focus on the challenges and stressors. But taking time to nurture your connection can help you to enjoy each other’s company and strengthen the relationship. “Think of your relationship as a bank,” says Dr. Wade. “Your account is made up of the deposits you put in and how much you take out.” Making an effort to do activities you enjoy together — even something as simple as taking a walk, having a two-person dance party, or cooking a meal — can be ways to replenish your “bank.”
9. Give yourself a break.
Dr. Wade says that people with partners who struggle with anxiety need to know that “it is not their fault. Their partner has an illness, and they didn’t create it, didn’t cause it, and they can’t cure it.” Bashen-Walters encourages partners to “Set boundaries. Do not be the primary problem-solver for your partner. Instead, encourage your partner to learn ways to manage their mental health independently.”
10. Know that choosing to end things doesn’t mean you don’t care.
Whether or not your partner experiences mental health challenges, sometimes staying in a relationship isn’t the healthiest choice. If you find that your own mental health is suffering, or if you simply no longer wish to be in the relationship, it’s ok to walk away. Prioritizing your own well-being doesn’t mean you don’t care; rather, it demonstrates self-compassion and healthy boundaries.
The bottom line
If your partner experiences anxiety, you can support them using a collaborative approach that centers compassion while giving you room to take care of yourself. Reaching out for support for you and your partner, learning more about anxiety, and maintaining your own wellness are all steps you can take to strengthen the relationship and cope with challenges.