Lean On Me: How to Support A Partner With Anxiety Disorder (And Yourself)
Loving someone with an anxiety disorder is not hard. Love is never the hard part. Love springs naturally, spontaneously, and fully from us. The hard part is the living. How do you live with a partner who has anxiety in a way that is nurturing for both them and for yourself? How do you offer support that is neither suffocating nor too sparse? Here are some tips for what you can do to create a healthy relationship that ensures both your and your partner’s needs are met:
Often the most profound thing you can do for someone with anxiety is listen. Create a safe, non-judgmental space where they can freely express themselves, articulate their fears, and share their needs. The process of vocalizing experiences of anxiety and being met with love, compassion, and validation can be deeply comforting while also deepening your bond.
Ask your partner what you can do to support them. Some people will want your help when experiencing a panic attack and find it helpful for you to guide their breathing or say certain phrases. Others find that outside involvement increases their anxiety and makes them feel self-conscious and ashamed. Similarly, some will want you to encourage them to do things they struggle with, while others feel it reflects a lack of understanding of their condition. And these needs and preferences may change over time; what works today may not work tomorrow. Be adaptable.
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Understand the Illness
Educate yourself about anxiety to ensure that you have a realistic and accurate understanding of what your partner is experiencing and what can be expected from treatment. Read articles, research, books. If your partner goes to therapy for anxiety, ask if you can come along to help you understand their symptoms and treatment process. Not only will this help you gain a clearer picture of your partner’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, but it will help you to be able to separate their authentic self from their illness.[1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-age-anxiety/201203/what-do-when-someone-you-love-is-anxious-0] Anxiety is not a personality flaw or character weakness, it is a mental health disorder that they did not choose.
While empathy for someone with anxiety is essential, comparison is not. Unless you also suffer from anxiety, don’t say you understand what chronic, crippling anxiety is like because you get nervous when you have to give a presentation or once you threw up from worrying about finals in college.
Cope With Your Frustration
Sometimes anxiety can be incredibly frustrating. No one knows this better than the person who has the anxiety. Find ways to cope with your frustration that do not involve shaming, belittling, or burdening your partner. This may mean that your partner can’t be the one you go to to process these feelings, and you must find alternate spaces in which to express your anger, fears, and disappointments. If you do talk to your partner about it, be sure to do so with love and kindness, making sure they know that your frustration is at the illness, which is separate from them. For many, couples counseling can provide a supportive forum in which to address issues raised by anxiety and allow for open communication that strengthens, not damages, the relationship.
When you have anxiety, even things that seem insignificant to most people can be major triumphs. Going to a party, going to therapy, getting through a job interview, or making a phone call may be a remarkable milestone. Be sure to let your partner know that you recognize their achievements and are proud of them.
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Take Care of Yourself
In any relationship, you must make space for yourself and attend to your own needs. When your partner has anxiety, that can sometimes be difficult. If someone’s anxiety prevents them from going out socially, it is common for their partners to limit their own social activities out of guilt. If you do go out together, sometimes it can feel like you have to be on high alert for signs of impending anxiety attacks, keeping you from being able to enjoy yourself. If they don’t want to be alone, you may stop doing the things you want to help protect them from their fear. While driven by love, these behaviors can be profoundly isolating, damage your ability to meet your own needs for new experiences, social contact, and freedom, and ultimately damage the relationship itself if you come to resent your partner. Remembering to care for yourself and create a life that includes self-nurturing is essential to maintaining your own emotional well-being and being able to support your partner in healthy ways.[2. http://www.adaa.org/finding-help/helping-others/spouse-or-partner]
Encourage Anxiety Disorder Treatment
If your partner is not in treatment or if their current treatment is not effective, helping them connect with resources that can give them care they need can be a wonderful and loving act. For people with severe or treatment-resistant anxiety, a residential anxiety treatment program like Bridges to Recovery can offer the type and intensity of treatment needed to create true and lasting change. By taking a comprehensive whole-person approach to anxiety treatment that combines the finest clinical interventions with holistic therapies, we can guide your partner toward renewed emotional stability and restored function. If your partner agrees, you can be involved throughout the treatment process to further their healing. We also provide couples therapy to help you strengthen your relationship and find ways of coping both individually and as a couple. Together, we can work towards sustainable recovery and richer, more vibrant lives.
Bridges to Recovery provides comprehensive treatment for people suffering from anxiety disorders as well as co-occurring impulse control and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one on the path to healing.