Living with anxiety can be tough — your thoughts might race, you might dread tasks others find simple (like driving to work) and your worries might feel inescapable. But loving someone with anxiety can be hard too. You might feel powerless to help or overwhelmed by how your partner’s feelings affect your daily life.
“We often find that our patients’ … partners are somehow intertwined in their anxiety,” says Sandy Capaldi, associate director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania.
Anxiety is experienced at many different levels and in different forms — from moderate to debilitating, from generalized anxiety to phobias — and its impacts can vary. But psychiatrists and therapists say there are ways to help your partner navigate challenges while you also take care of yourself.
Start by addressing symptoms.
Because an anxiety disorder can be consuming, it can be best to start by talking with your partner about the ways anxiety affects daily life, like sleeplessness, says Jeffrey Borenstein, president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in New York. Something as simple as using the word “stress” instead of clinical labels can help too. “Often people may feel a little more comfortable talking about stress as opposed to … anxiety [disorders],” Borenstein says.
Don’t minimize feelings.
“Even if the perspective of the other person absolutely makes no sense to you logically, you should validate it,” says Carolyn Daitch, a licensed psychologist and director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Farmington Hills, Mich. Try to understand your partner’s fears and worries, or at least acknowledge that those fears and worries are real to your partner, before addressing why such things might be irrational.
Anxiety doesn’t have an easy solution, but helping someone starts with compassion. “Too many partners, particularly male partners, want to fix it right away,” Daitch says. “You have to start with empathy and understanding. You can move to logic, but not before the person feels like they’re not being judged and … misunderstood.”
Help your partner seek treatment — and participate when you can.
If your partner is overwhelmed by anxiety, encourage your partner to seek therapy. You can even suggest names of therapists or offices, but don’t call the therapist and set up the appointment yourself, Borenstein says. You want the person to have a certain level of agency over treatment.
Capaldi says she often brings in a patient’s partner to participate in therapy and to bolster the patient’s support system at home. “The three of us — patient, partner, therapist — are a team, and that team is opposed to the anxiety disorder,” she says.
But don’t talk to your partner at home the way a therapist might. For example, don’t suggest your partner try medication or ways of modifying behavior. “Let the recommendations about treatment come from the professional” even if you yourself are in the mental health care field, Borenstein says. “I personally am a professional, and I wouldn’t [prescribe anything] to a loved one.”
It can also be helpful to do some research on whatever form of anxiety your partner might be living with, Capaldi says (The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ guide to anxiety disorders is a great starting point). “Many times, people with anxiety feel as if they’re misunderstood,” she says. “If the partner takes the time to research it a little bit, that can go a long way.”
For tips on how to help your partner pick the right type of therapy, check out this guide from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Encourage — don’t push.
When your partner suffers from debilitating anxiety and you don’t, your partner’s behavior can be frustrating, says Cory Newman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. But you should never patronize or diminish your partner’s fears. Comments such as “Why can’t you do this? What’s your problem?” will probably be ineffective.
Instead, try to encourage your partner to overcome the anxiety. “Channel your encouragement in a positive direction,” Newman says. “Say something like ‘Here’s how it will benefit you if you can face [this] discomfort.’ ”
Daitch cites the example of someone with an immense fear of flying: “Start off saying, ‘I really understand how scared you are of flying. It makes sense you’d be scared. You can’t get off the plane if you have a panic attack, [you’re] afraid you might embarrass yourself … or it feels like you’re out of control when there’s turbulence.’ See things from their perspective.”
Then you can try to gently push your partner to overcome those fears.
Cultivate a life outside your partner’s anxiety.
To maintain your own mental health, it’s important to cultivate habits and relationships that are for you alone, such as a regular exercise regimen or weekly hangouts with friends. Have your own support network, like a best friend or a therapist (or both), for when your partner’s anxiety overwhelms you.
Partners definitely need support of their own, Capaldi says, “whether that means their own therapeutic relationship or just friends, family [and] other interests or activities that set them apart from the world of anxiety they might be living in.”
And don’t let your partner’s anxiety run your family’s life. For example, someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is closely linked to anxiety disorders, might want family members to keep everything very clean or organized in arbitrary ways. Newman says it’s important to restrict how much you will organize your household around your partner’s anxiety — and not to indulge every request or mandate.
“Try to be respectful, but also set limits,” he says.
Help your partner remember that the goal is to manage anxiety — not to get rid of it.
“A lot of people with anxiety disorders understandably view anxiety as the enemy,” Newman says. “Actually, it’s not. The real enemy is avoidance. Anxiety causes [people] to avoid things — like applying to schools, flying to a cousin’s wedding — [that can lead to] an enriched life. … And that causes depression.”
It can also reduce the number of life experiences you and your partner share.
“You can have an anxious life, but if you do things — you’re doing that job interview, you’re saying yes to social invitations, you’re getting in that car and driving to the ocean even though … you don’t want to drive 10 miles — you’re doing those things still,” Newman says. “OK, you might need [medication] or therapy, but you’re still living life.”
Susie Neilson is an intern on NPR’s Science Desk. Follow her on Twitter: @susieneilson.