Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

When Someone You Love Has Anxiety

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When you love someone with anxiety. Man. Woman. Child.

Anxiety is unpredictable, confusing and intrusive. It’s tough. Not just for the people who have it but also for the people who love them. If you are one of those people, you would know too well that the second hand experience of anxiety feels bad enough – you’d do anything to make it better for the one going through it.

We all have our ‘stuff’ – the things that we struggle with. Ultimately, they are the things that will make us braver, wiser, stronger, more compassionate and better humans. It’s just the way it works. The difference with anxiety is that the struggle is more visible.

Whether we struggle with anxiety, confidence, body image – whatever – there are things that we all need to make the world a little bit safer, a little bit more predictable, a little less scary. We all have our list. When someone you love has anxiety, their list is likely to look at little like this:

  1. It’s no biggie. So don’t act like it is.

    In the thick of an anxiety attack nothing will make sense, so best not to ask what’s going on or if they’re okay. No. They won’t be okay. And yes. It will feel like the world is falling apart at the seams. They’ll be feeling awful, but they’ll get through it. If you’ve seen it all before there’ll be no need to ask anyway – and they’ll love that you know not to. Ask if they want to go somewhere else – maybe somewhere quieter or more private.  Don’t panic or do anything that might give them the idea that you need looking after. Go for a walk with them – physical activity is the natural end of the fight or flight response, which is the trigger point of anxiety. Otherwise just be there. They’ll know what to do. They’ll have done it plenty of times before. Soon it will pass and when it does they’ll be able to talk to you about what has happened, but wait for that. Then listen. We all love when someone is able to just be there.

  2. There’s a bit to know, so if you can understand everything you can … well that makes you kind of awesome.

    It makes a difference to be able to talk about anxiety without having to explain it. On the days they don’t feel like they have it in them to talk about it, it means a lot that you just ‘get it’. If you’ve tried to understand everything you can about what it means to have anxiety then that’s enough. Anxiety is hard to make sense of – people with anxiety will be the first to tell you that – but it will mean everything that you’ve tried. They’ll love you for it.

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  3. It’s physical.

    Anxiety is a completely normal physical response to a brain that’s being a little over-protective. It’s not crazy and it’s not deficient. There’s a primitive part of the brain that’s geared to sense threat. It’s all action and not a lot of thought and it’s in all of us. For some people, it fires up a lot sooner and with a lot less reason than it does in others. When it does, it surges the body with cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenalin to get the body ready to run for its life or fight for it. This is the fight or flight response and it’s in everyone. It’s just that in some people (people with anxiety) the ‘go’ button is a bit more sensitive.

  4. You’ll want them as part of your tribe. (Seriously. They’re pretty great to have around.)

    Because of their need to stay safe and to prepare against the next time anxiety rears its head, people who struggle with anxiety will generally have a plan – and they will have worked hard to make sure it works for everyone involved, not just for themselves. They’ll make sure everything has been organised to keep everyone safe, happy, on time and out of trouble. They’ll make sure everyone has what they need and if there’s anything that hasn’t been thought of, well it’s probably not worth thinking about. Notice the good things they do – there are plenty. Let them know you love them because of who they are, including who they are with anxiety, not despite it.

  5. Anxiety has nothing to do with courage or character. Nothing at all.

    Courage is feeling the edge of yourself and moving beyond it. We all have our limits but people with anxiety are just more aware of theirs. Despite this, they are constantly facing up to the things that push against their edges. That’s courage, and people with anxiety have it in truckloads. Remind them that you see who they are and that this has nothing to do with that anxiety thing they do sometimes. People with anxiety are strong – you have to be to live with something like that. They’re sensitive – they’ll be as sensitive to you and what you need as they are to their environment. That makes them pretty awesome to be with. They’re reliable – to control for the potential of something triggering an attack, anxious people will go the extra step to make sure there’s a plan and that everyone is safe, happy and have everything they need. They’re intelligent – they’re thinkers (which is what gets in their way sometimes). They can be funny, kind, brave and spirited. So I suppose it’s like this – they’re no different to anyone else. As with everyone, the thing that trips them up sometimes (their anxiety) is also the thing that lifts them above the crowd.

  6. Make sure there’s room to say ‘no’. And don’t take it personally.

    Sometimes plans might need to be changed to steer clear of anxiety stepping in unexpectedly. People with anxiety will be sensitive to your needs (they’re pretty great like that) and changing plans isn’t something they’ll do lightly. Your flexibility will never be taken for granted. There are many things in the environment that most people think nothing of, but which can be the beginning of an anxiety attack for a brain on hyper-drive. Things that are ambiguous or neutral can sometimes be read as a threat – not by the person, but by an overprotective brain. People with anxiety are super-aware of everything going on – smells, sounds, people, possibilities. It’s exhausting when your attention is drawn to so many things. Don’t take ‘no’ personally – they’re never meant like that. Know that just because they might not want to be doing what you’re doing, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be with you. Keep offering – don’t assume everything you offer will be met with ‘no’ – but be understanding and ‘no big deal’ if you aren’t taken up on your offer. They are saying no to a potential anxiety attack. Not to you.

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  7. Loads of lovin’ never hurt anyone.

    Be compassionate and be there. Talk up the things you love about them. There will be times that people with anxiety will feel like they are their anxiety and that they are a source of difficulty. (Who hasn’t felt like they’re making things harder than they need to be? C’mon be honest.) Specifically, I’m talking about when plans have to be changed, when you need to book a few rows back from the front row, turn the radio down, take the long way. If this is the worst you have to deal with in a friend, sign me up.

  8. Anxiety can change shape.

    Anxiety can be slippery. Sometimes it looks the way you’d expect anxiety to look. Other times it looks cranky, depressed or frustrated. Remember this and don’t take it personally.

  9. Don’t try to make sense of what’s happening.

    People with anxiety know that their anxiety doesn’t make sense. That’s what makes it so difficult. Explaining that there’s nothing to worry about won’t mean anything – it just won’t – because they already know this. (Oh boy do they know this!) They would have told themselves not to worry a billion times the number of times you’ve said it to them. If it hasn’t helped so far then one more won’t make a difference. Be understanding, calm and relaxed and above all else, just be there. Anxiety feels flighty and there’s often nothing that feels better than having someone beside you who’s grounded, available and okay to go through this with you without trying to change you. Telling them not to worry is as effective as asking you not to think about pink elephants. Really try not to think about pink elephants swinging from a vine. With flowers in their hair. Just stop thinking about them, those crazy big pink babes. See how that works?

  10. Don’t try to change them.

    You’ll want to give advice. But don’t. Let them know that to you, they’re absolutely fine the way they are and that you don’t need to change them or fix them. If they ask for your advice then of course, go for it. but otherwise, let them know that they are enough. More than enough actually. Just the way they are. 

  11. ‘You just need to get over it,’ said the person who doesn’t get it.
  12. Anxiety just happens and often there’s no real target. So if you’re suggesting they just need to ‘get over it’, the obvious question is get over what? If people with anxiety only needed a bit of direction to ‘get over it’, they would have given it to themselves and been over it long ago. Telling them to get over it is like telling them they’re doing something wrong. You don’t tell an asthmatic just to breathe. Tough love isn’t love. It’s just tough. Actually it isn’t even that.

  13. Don’t confuse their need to control their environment with their need to control you. Sometimes they look the same. They’re not.

    The need to control for everything that might go wrong is hard work. For the same reasons that drive anxious people to make sure that everyone has what they need, everyone is looked after, that things are under control and the likelihood of anything turning bad is minimised – for the same reasons you’re looked after – you might also feel controlled. See it for what it is. It’s the need to feel safe and in control of the possibility of anxiety running the show – not the need to control you. You might get frustrated – that’s okay – all relationships go through that. Having compassion doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything put in front of you, so talk things out gently if you need to. Don’t be critical though. Nobody likes that.  Just remember, while your resistance might look more like a ‘won’t’ theirs looks more like a ‘can’t’.

And finally …

Know how important you are to them. Anyone who stays around through the hard stuff is a keeper. People with anxiety know this. Being there for someone during their struggles will only bring the relationship closer. Nothing sparks a connection more than really getting someone, being there, and bringing the fun into the relationship – because you’ve gotta have fun. Be the one who refuses to let anxiety suck the life of out everything. And know you’re a keeper. Yep. You are. Know that they are grateful – so grateful – for everything you do. And that they love you back.

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278 Comments

Shelly

Great article! I’m just seeking some advise … my partner – we have an amazing relationship fell in love very quickly. We both want the same things in life his family and friends love me and vice versa.. he’s sufferes with chronic anxiety. We broke up for 5 months down to his anxiety and us acting like kids. We both trust eachother completely nothing ever happned like that. We got back together and now over something he mentioned during our brake up his anxiety is in complete over drive, I never knew how to handle someone with this and reading up has made me understand a lot and makes sense of what he’s saying. He is now saying “were not going to work, I can’t be with you with my anxiety like this, what if this happens what if that happnes” he loves me but down to his anxiety he is thinking the worst. I have told him I will be here I’m not going anywhere and it’s very conman for him to think and feel the way he does when he’s anxious. I said I will support you through anything and I will not let this destroy us. Am I doing the right thing?

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Shelly

He’s said he doesn’t want to be with me anymore and blocked all contact .. it’s pretty disgusting how’s he has behaved as a grown man. Anxiety or no anxiety you don’t treat someone you love this way who’s has been there for you … never mind 😔

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John

Shelly – when a person with severe anxiety insists that the relationship won’t work, consider it a gift. Your boundaries are a healthy sign. Plenty of happiness ahead for you with a better match.

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Ashley

My boyfriend and I were together 14 months he has severe panic attacks and he text me and told me he was done he couldn’t handle the stress I’m really lost without him

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Kayla

Shelly i understand that. Been in the same situation before. Hard to deal with sometimes but i do for him

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kemi

yes dear you are. my husband is in same situation. just be calm and say those things looking directly into their eye ball

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Enrique

This is a great article. I have one question and I could be selfish for feeling this way. My wife has been dealing with anxiety for the past 5-6 months now. I’ve been doing everything I can to be as supportive as possible. On of the difficult parts is that we have a child together. When she needs to get out of the house to be somewhere quite or see friends, I let her go and I have no problems with it. I can’t go with because we can’t leave the child home alone. She also goes to therapy and seems to help when she has it. The part I am having a difficult time with is whenever she needs support she’s reaching out to her friend more often lately than me. Her friend, she has some issues as well so they seem to help each other out. But I feel as if our relationship has taken a step back and her emotions towards me have gotten more numb. I haven’t spoken to her about this because I want to make sure she gets all the support and this issue I won’t understand. So I don’t feel right talking about this and creating more of an issue. What are you’re thoughts?

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Karen Young

Try speaking to your wife and ask her whether there is something you can do that would make it easier for her to speak to you about what’s happening. Sometimes, as much as people love the person they are with, they might look for support in others. We can’t be everything to everyone, but I can hear how confusing this for you. Speak to her and try to get some clarity around what’s happening. Make sure when you speak with her, it isn’t in an accusatory tone, but done more with open-hearted curiosity.

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Stacy

My husband and I are split up right now. He is the one with anxiety. We have gone to counselor after counselor. He has read books, I have read books and we have read books together. All of the info that I have gathered says that we have to work on this daily. We will get a plan together and he will do it for a couple days, possibly a week and then quit. Sometimes spiraling back to the worst scenarios. When I try to help him he feels like I am attacking him. He then gets angry and frustrated with me and sometimes turns to hurting himself to get out of the anxiety attack. I have been married to him for almost 23 years and I am broken hearted! I have left him before and as soon as I leave he starts to get better causing me to feel that I am the cause of his anxiety. I am at my whits end! I am very close to not going back this time and am asking for any resources that anyone can give me to help. I feel alone but I know I am not….thank you for anything you can do.

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kelly

I’m sorry.. But I don’t think you should go back at least for awhile anyway. He needs to learn to stick with a plan. My spouse is like that with medication and he needs to stay on it as it’s a night/day difference. I may have to leave to get his attention.

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PSW

After being with someone for 3 years who suffers high anxiety along with its friends, jealousy, insecurity, hearing loss and mistrust it has changed me. I just am not the same person I used to be. I was feeling very isolated from my friends because his needs were so great. I have finally broken away and I am feeling I am getting my own self back after 3 years of struggles and good times. He is never going to be different because this is who he is to the core and I can’t be a caregiver at my age.

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kelly

Good for you! It won’t get easier as time goes on. My spouse has anxiety and I”m not the same person anymore. I do take care of myself but still I’m just different. Hopefully, I will be strong to break away and be free!! : )

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Catherine

I am 18 years old and I have had anxiety for at least 11 years, I was 7 when I was diagnosed with both anxiety and depression. This link is a blessing because me and my highschool sweetheart are going through a rough patch due to his response to my anxiety and my anxiety’s response to college due to the fact that we will be attending different colleges. My boyfriend is very upset and frustrated because he wants to understand but can’t because he feels helpless. When I honestly don’t need help at all. I just need him to be there to hold me if I cry and to laugh with me on my good days. Because we actually have good days and bad days. He has definitely seen it at it’s worse, ( I hyperventilated ) and he was so confused. So we nearly broke up because I felt like a failure and he felt detached. So my mother sent me this is hopes that he’d try to find a way to see anxiety in a different light. Thanks for posting this.

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joe

My girlfriend suffers from severe social anxiety and depression and after a solid year and a half of trying to get her back to a normal confident woman through a range of different methods i feel like i have failed. I don’t know what to do i really need some guidance myself in which direction i should take this next. I love the girl to pieces we are complete soul mates i just wish she would get better in some sort of way. Please can someone help me

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Eric

After 16+ years she had enough of my anxiety and my wish to sometimes wanna die… I can understand that, but the way she ended it was just utterly ruthless and cruel and I think in a big part of her mental abusive father… a real bully.
The nonsense and shame bashing was something that hurt me the most.
Now trying to hang in there 50+ years… I wish I knew about this much sooner.
I wish she would read this article.

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Shonti

My boyfriend has anxiety and he always think I’m cheating on him or is seeing someone else he gets upset when he sees someone walking down the road passing our home on the high way. We have been together for 4 years now and nothing hasn’t change. I wa strying to find a better way to solve our problems but hasn’t nothing change what can I do

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Caroline

Hi, I am suffering from depression and anxiety that has developed from suppressing trauma from being rape at age 15. I have a therapist and I hope this works. I had a very scary attack and we are not dating anymore. We want to be friends but with my current demons I’m not ready for a relationship. I feel very guilty for terrifying him. I hope he can understand some day that he didn’t trigger it and honestly despite him seeing me at my worst having him there saved my life.

My approach is to love and forgive myself. And his love was a crutch for me to feel loved outwardly. I pray that I can overcome my past and believe I’m capable of and deserving of love. Maybe if our friendship may return to a partnership again but healthier and stronger than before

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Stella

My husband of 2 years has severe anxiety. He shuts down and I mostly never know what the trigger was. I know its not in his control but it’s a constant accurance and I don’t know how to help him or how to go on like this. Its frustrating but I just make sure he knows that I’m here and it will pass and try to change topics. It never works :(. I know he is doing the best he can but I don’t know how much more i can handle. I definitely lost the person i used to be. Our life is surrounded by anxiety wherever we turn. We have a daughter together and it worries me that she won’t have a happy life

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Lucy

My boyfriend suffers from anxiety. I believe it’s cognitive behaviour disorder (CBD).
Our main issue is that he just does not trust me. Everything I do is a threat to him. For example, if we are walking or go somewhere and a guy is in my passing and I happen to look, I get told that I was deliberately staring at him and that staring at someone is the same as cheating on someone.
I have been nothing but faithful to him and I would never cheat. But this is just getting too much for me and it’s affecting my everyday life and we are just going round and around in circles arguing about this. It is putting my life on hold. I can’t do anything with my friends or go on holidays because I will just get accused of staring at other men (when I’m not staring and they’re just in my passing or direction I walk).
I do not understand why he just doesn’t trust me. I have read this article over and over again and also reading the comments but it just doesn’t seem to be enough to try and help him to fix things.

He now wants to break up with me saying that being with him isn’t “safe” and that he will never ever change.
However, what scared me the most was that he gets suicidal thoughts (that’s how severe it gets) and tries to end his life. This really scares me and I really don’t know what to do any more. People’s comments are “yes if you can end the relationship and walk away then it’s a positive thing”. Is this true? Karen, someone, anyone please help!? :'(

Any advice or guidance would be very much appreciated and I would be eternally grateful. Please.

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Karen Young

Lucy if your boyfriend is trying to end his life, he needs professional support. You can’t force someone to do this – it is his growth and he is the one that needs to make it happen. You can only do what you can do. If you are worried about his immediate safety, speak with his family, a doctor or a crisis line in your state for guidance. If he is not in immediate danger, there is little you can do to get him the help he needs, aside from encouraging him and speaking with him about your concerns. In relation to your relationship, it is for you to decide what to do. If he wants to break up with you, and if he doesn’t want to do the work to make the relationship work, listen to that.

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John

Lucy – yes you can walk away, but from what you have described I would suggest running. And while you will miss the positive aspects of what you shared, your life will improve immediately. This isn’t going to get better and this isn’t a dress rehearsal. You can spend years in the wrong relationship. I have posted similar comments here before, but no one ever seems to agree with me. I think this is more or less a compassionate crowd trying to work things out, but hear this, life doesn’t have to be this way and the sooner you get to it, the better. These are years you can never get back. If you have children with this partner your home will likely be an unhappy one. Believe me, it’s one thing to suffer yourself, but when it affects your kids as well it devastating and infinitely more difficult to leave.

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IcyVeins

Yes. I do agree with you John. Sometime, being too much there for the person is not the right way too. Instead it might just making their anxiety worse. They will be too depending on you and you will be devastated from it.

I understand how hard it is to allow yourself not to be there for him too much especially for someone for the one you love is screaming on suicidal.

The only thing i can advise is to think further and from my own experiences and sharing from others, Some time we need to be firm and discipline them for at the right time.

In order to take care of the person, you really have to take care of yourself first. Walk away for awhile, give yourself some space and self love. Give them some space too. When you are able to pick yourself up, you are able to pick the person up too.

If you allow him to continue to drag you down, it’s no help at all or it may become worse.

I hope I did help in anyway.

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Tina

My best friend, whom I love dearly has been struggling with anxiety for many years, and was diagnosed about 3 years ago. She’s in therapy, but drinking (which makes her either mean or completely distraught). I’m trying to be supportive but I don’t know when to be an ear and when to use “tough love”. Any suggestions would be appreciated, as I am emotionally exhausted with this.

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anand

“emotionally exhausted..” I think you are giving too much than what you should. Don’t be so very close to your friend. Distant yourself a little to see her from a different angle and take things lightly when your friend leaves you alone / make you feel sad / never being there for you. They can’t provide back what you give. Its never done on purpose but they are busy fighting a battle with their own mind.

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Jennybell

My 19 year old granddaughter has severe anxiety and I’ve always felt so inadequate when she’s troubled. Reading this amazing article shows me I’m doing ok in the why I try to help/comfort/support her and at the same time support her mum, my daughter.
What an amazing insightful article, thanks x

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Karen Young

Your welcome. When you love someone with anxiety, it can be difficult to know whether or not you are doing enough, or whether you are doing the right thing. It sounds as though you are a wonderful strength to your granddaughter and your daughter. Keep doing what you’re doing x

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Kaleb

My girlfriend of 3 to 4 months we connected on a deep level been there for eachother and all the good stuff. I’ve been digging deeper in the relationship to help us grow and i noticed her anxiety was there the whole time but added a life changing moment to her and her anxiety is getting worse. She’s got a solid hold of it but its not that easy is it? What else could i do? Im on the side lines it feels like. Does distance help anxiety depending on the person, or make it unable to control?

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Karen Young

Everybody will have different things that will help them to feel more calm or safer. Ask your girlfriend what will help. It will mean a lot to her that you care enough to ask.

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