Anxiety affects quite a few humans on this planet; more & more as we’re learning with all the furthering research in the mental health field. Maybe even some people that you love and are in a relationship with. It can feel messy to navigate loving someone who struggles with anxiety because the truth is—we are just starting to talk about the tools you need to lovingly and healthily do so.
How do you love someone through their anxiety? How do you cope with seeing your partner anxious and not able to fix it? What are the most helpful questions and approaches to take? We’re going to cover all the ways to best love someone with anxiety and how to navigate a healthy, loving relationship that includes mental health struggles— because most do!
1. You Can’t Fix It
But, you can probably comfort them. One of the most challenging obstacles for the partners of anxious people is feeling helpless in the midst of their partner’s anxiety. The truth is, there isn’t always a go-to solution that will ease your partners’ anxiety at that moment—even if it seems like there is a logical solution to you.
Anxiety is not a behavioral “problem” that “needs to be fixed.” It actually manifests itself in the body as a physiological reaction– it can feel so hard to think clearly and navigate communicating emotions when you are having an anxiety attack or feeling incredibly anxious. Sometimes, the act of trying to “fix it” can even feel like you or your partner are overlooking the pain and struggle of living with anxiety. So as a partner, what CAN you do?
The best thing to do is ask your partner what they need. If they aren’t sure you can, give small, gentle examples such as:
- Do you want to be alone right now?
- Would you like to be held?
- Do you want to talk while I just sit and listen?
- Would you like me to just sit with you in silence?
It can sometimes add to the anxiety of an anxious person to have to decide what they want in the middle of an anxiety episode—being presented with ideas, being shown that you care, and being shown that you want to hold space for them is often more than enough.
Just like we weren’t taught how to help our anxious partners, people with anxiety weren’t taught that their anxiety isn’t hindering or an inconvenience. Being present in those moments by simply just being there—ready for whatever they may need can be incredibly reassuring, supportive, and healing.
2. The Anxiety Isn’t Always Sparked By Something Specific
One of the most challenging questions to be asked when you’re feeling anxious is, “Why are you anxious?” It almost makes it feel like you have to find a specific reason for your anxiety to be valid enough. Even though, in many cases, there may not be a specific thing contributing to it; It generally isn’t sparked by just one thing and sometimes there isn’t anything tangible that sparked it at all.
Reframing the question to something along the lines of, “Is there something specific triggering your anxiety today, or is it just a particularly rough day with your anxiety?” can feel more comforting to your anxious partner. They feel validated that you’re doing your absolute best to understand that there isn’t always a rhyme or reason to what they are feeling and that doesn’t lessen the validity of the anxiety at all.
3. Even If It Feels Like It, It’s Probably Not About You— Have Patience
Intense anxiety feels different to each person and therefore also comes across to the people in their lives in different ways. Someone with anxiety can seem or become removed, angry, upset, sad, hurt—it depends on how it’s manifesting that day and how that person is coping. This can feel confusing to the partner of an anxious person—especially when you want to help them. You may even sometimes feel like it has something to do with you. Know that the large majority of the time it has absolutely nothing to do with you and isn’t your fault in any way.
With that being said, the height of an anxious episode is absolutely not the time to press your anxious partner about if they are upset with you. Have patience until the episode is over and they start feeling calm to bring up those topics— I know that can feel so hard and possibly a bit unfair, but it will only make things worse.
During the episode, meet them with patience and gentleness and, for the time being, try to self-soothe. Remind yourself that your partner is going through something and that their feelings and actions are not always a result of you. It is possible to take care of yourself and your partner at the same time!
Just like anything else in relationship, we NEED aftercare conversations. Aftercare conversations are a way to make sure you and your partner get the love and care you each need after something intense happens. These conversations are necessary–especially if you are in a new relationship, your feelings were hurt, or you need clarification on something.
Often, we don’t know what we need, what didn’t work for us, or what triggered us until after something has happened. For example, if your partner is having an episode and is very snappy and mean towards you, a conversation you could have after the episode would be telling them, “Hey, I know you were really struggling, but I feel really hurt by how you spoke to me. Could we work together to find a safer, healthy way for you to release those emotions? I am happy to give you space, cuddles, or a listening ear, but I can’t let you take your feelings out on me because it hurts me. Let’s find a solution that makes both of us feel safe.”
4. Let Them Know You Care For Them & That Their Anxiety Isn’t Too Much
When someone is in the middle of a particularly anxious episode, it’s common that one of the lies their anxiety tells them is that their anxiety makes them unlovable, that they are too much, that they are upsetting, and that they are an inconvenience. When someone is feeling anxious, they don’t feel like they have much control, so even if they know they are loved, their anxiety tells them they aren’t.
This might look different from person to person— but as someone with anxiety, it is so reassuring to hear that you aren’t “too much” because of your anxiety, that it’s okay to have whatever reaction you’re having (so long as it’s not destructive to yourself or your partner), and that you are loved even when your emotions are messy. Being reassured by your partner or loved one that they want to hold this space for you is one of the most comforting things you can offer your anxious partner.
5. Learn How to Cope
We’ve been conditioned by our society to think that the word “cope” is almost a dirty word— meaning that something has to be horribly wrong, sad, or hard to learn ways to cope. While those are true, we also often cope in smaller, more everyday ways too. Especially if we are in partnership with someone who struggles with their mental health.
Come to terms with the fact that you can’t fix it but it’s not because you are incapable—it’s because it’s not possible. Anxiety can’t be “fixed”— it’s a way the brain protects itself & is a product of biology & life—exactly like a physical illness or injury. Instead, it needs care, attention, and reassurance to be eased and lessened. As the partner of an anxious person, that is the kindest, most helpful thing you can do: Not fixing, but existing.
Figure out what self-soothes you best. It’s hard, in the moment, to figure out what will help you cope, so try to figure it out ahead of time! Whether it’s a mantra you say to yourself, journaling about it, exercising, or breathing exercises— find something that helps you feel better in your body and provides you a safe mental place to process. When you aren’t able to help your partner it can feel like jumping through confusing mental hoops—but remember, you can help yourself (and by helping yourself, you help your partner!). Keep reminding yourself you aren’t helpless and you are needed. Even if it’s not in the ways you expect or feel initially natural.
When your partner isn’t feeling anxious anymore, talk about what each of your needs are. They likely won’t be able to meet them when they are feeling anxious, but just because your partner has anxiety, doesn’t mean your needs aren’t just as important. They also usually have a hard time communicating their own needs and negotiating how you can help meet them during an anxious moment. The answer? Communicate, communicate, communicate.