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.

    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.

  12. 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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207 Comments

Tom Barton

Okay…here’s my two cents worth. Everything in the article is excellent and heart-felt. Good advice for those living with an anxiety-prone person.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder is in my family. It has travelled down my mother’s side of the family and into both my brother and me. We get the “panic attacks” (such a horrible term) when we have any symptoms that might relate to cancer or problems with our eyes. Cancer because it has killed most of our family, including our parents and eyes because bother he and I are terrified of blindness.

His wife and my wife both tell us horrible things when the panic strikes. “you’re not acting like a man; snap out of it!; how could you do this to your children?: think of the shame you are causing in our friends”…blah…blah…blah.

1/ People who have panic attacks and GAD cannot control it…yelling at them or telling them to snap out of it will just make them feel worse (and they already feel like crap anyway).

2/ Insulting the person makes them feel even worse. Denigrating them by telling them to “act like a man” can push them to suicide. Don’t go there!

3/ Give them space… Take them to a doctor who will listen to their concerns and reassure them. This WILL help.

4/ Medication like Seroquel can help.

5/ They will come out of the panic…it just takes a little time. Be patient.

That’s it.

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Apple

I would like to add for anyone suffering from panic attacks, many mental health facilities offer programs that teach you to overcome them. These are regular mental health facilities with licensed psychologists and psychiatrists. I attended a 16 week workshop and have been panic free since. The programs have about a 75% success rate and success is greatly based on your participation. It was not easy – but neither is living with panic. In my program, we received one lesson per week and began learning about the fight or flight response and chemical reactions and triggers etc. We had to learn to become objective observers (this took time and happened gradually) of the panic attack such as what was the first symptom, then the second symptom (increase in heart beat, tight chest or sweaty palm etc). We also practiced and desensitized ourselves to the symptoms (example, running up the stairs to increase our heart rate so that a simple increase in heart rate was no longer fearful. Anyway, it is hard to sum it up here – but the programs (and go with someone familiar with these programs not general counseling) … the program works. I got to the point I was getting excited catching the first symptoms and once I got excited about it (yes, smiling in line at the grocery story happy about the panic attack), the fear of the panic was gone and I never had another panic attack. Yes, there are times I have anxiety over things, and that is normal and healthy. But panic is a thing of the past. Well wishes to all.

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hmghmdgjh

I thought that too! I’m trying to put myself more in my ex shoes. try to understand how difficult I can be, what i can do stop, and appreciate them more.

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Juan

The thing with anxiety is its slippery exterior, for me I am always wanting to feel safe, it’s part of the fear, some days it can be all about the things that might happen going to the shops and another day something else. My most dominant fear is of my wife leaving me, she is my ‘safe place’ and being intimate with her is my safest time. For me the rest of the world and my fears with it just dissapear and it is just us. Sadly though this to her feels like I am using her, so she only wants to be intimate when I am not suffering at my worst. As any one with anxiety will know after any relief from anxiety, when it comes back it feels ten times worse until you have hardened to the pain and fear, it is at this point you desire safety and relief the most but for me it is when I receive it least. This is a cycle that goes on and on through lack of understanding and the way neediness is unsexy. If my wife could change her mindset and be intimate with me when I was scared the relief and ego boost would help to the point I probably wouldn’t feel anxious, but instead we live in a perpetual state of misery because of her lack of desire for a clingy person.

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April

Ok I have a question. I am in a relatively new relationship. 2.5 months. We are both falling for each other and everything is great. I’m just looking for someone to help me understand. My partner suffers from anxiety. This past Monday and Tuesday I could tell she was off by her texts. Tuesday she admitted she was tired and worn out because there were more people at the Christmas dinner than she had expected and she needed to recover. Which often takes a few days when she has an attack. Tuesday night she got quite sick. In the hospital Monday for throwing up for 11 hours.. I never heard from her again since early Wednesday morning. I offered to go there and she said no. Yesterday morning I asked how she was. Said exhausted. I asked if I could do anything or come take care of her. She said no and that she just needed to be alone to recover and rest. I asked if she was mad at me and she said no. Just needed to rest as she was throwing up for 11 hours and had not eaten in 2 days. I told her to let me know if she changed her mind about me coming down and I’d be there. Said I missed her. She said, I will and I miss you too. I should be better by tomorrow.. I haven’t heard from her since.. I’m lost on how this anxiety can take a toll on a person, and I’m hurt by the all of a sudden distance from her and not letting me come take care of her. Is this all normal? To break down and hide for days? She normally talks to me about what’s bothering her. I’m falling in love with this woman and any suggestions people can give me would be greatly appreciated

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Anxiety can sometimes drive people to retreat to where they feel safe, particularly if something has happened that has been difficult. What’s important is understanding your partner’s experience of anxiety, and whether or not this is normal for her. Speak with her about what she needs from you when this happens. How often does it happen? What are the triggers? How long does it last? These are the questions that only she can answer. Anxiety can take different shapes for different people. I completely how confusing it can be, but we all have our ‘stuff’. The more you can understand about hers, the easier it will be for both of you moving forward, and the more connected you can be to each other.

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Savannah

I going through the Exactly the same thing as you do. I’m confuse, hurt and extremely worry about him. I read and read looking up all the answers that I can get so I can understand more. I calmly reaching out to him. let him know that I love him and he mean the world to me. but I just don’t know how long he have to suffer dealing with it. I’m scare I might loose him because the time lines none communication.

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Katie

I feel like there is never a solution and each time something happens that triggers a loved ones anxiety everything else is up for rehash and/or the littlest misspeak is taken totally out of context creating something else to be aggravated about adding to the pile. The taller the pile the harder it is to get to the bottom and begin again. His positive has gone negative and that leaves me lost and struggling for air

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Jessica MATCHETT

Exactly my sentiments. Living with a spouse who suffers is hard. I’m exhausted of having to walk on egg shells to make sure that I give enough space and understanding as not to contribute to the problem which I seem to do unintentionally at every corner. At the same time, the expressionless looks or depressing face creates an atmosphere of darkness for the rest of the family.

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Lisa

I am currently in a relationship with a father of 2 girls. We have been living together for 8 months now. His girls reside with us weekly alternating weeks. One of the girls has recently been diagnosed with moderate depression and anxiety and was advised that she see a psychologist. She had her first appointment a few days ago, and we were just informed by her mother that during the session she had a complete panic attack or breakdown and it came out that his daughter has extreme anxiety about me, and is even scared to be at our home when I am present. I’m not sure how I am supposed to deal with this? I feel I should talk to her but I don’t know what to say. The thing is, when she is around me she acts completely normal and happy and has even started giving me hugs before bed, so I am very confused.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Lisa I completely understand why this would be so confusing for you. What you are describing though is not really that unusual in stepfamilies. Something that all stepchildren are vulnerable to is a ‘loyalty bind’. This isn’t anyone’s fault and it can happen in any stepfamily. A loyalty bind is when the stepchild feels as though they are betraying the other biological parent (in your stepdaughter’s case, her mother) if they show loyalty or love to the step-parent. When you think about it through the child’s eyes, it’s very understandable how it can happen. They don’t do this to cause trouble or to make things difficult for the new step-parent. It’s just a really confusing situation for them. Feeling stuck between two people they care about is understandably going to produce anxiety in certain situations. It explains why, when she is just with you, she is really happy and affectionate. When it is just you, she doesn’t have to worry about her mother feeling displaced or as though she loves you more. Of course, the adults in your stepdaughter’s life know that this isn’t about you competing with her mother, or that you have no intention of ever wanting to replace her mother, and even if her mother feels completely okay about you being in your stepdaughter’s life, for kids it can be confusing.

When kids are in loyalty binds, one of the reasons it feels so awful for them is because they might feel a need to ‘prove’ their loyalty to the biological parent by talking about their dislike of the step-parent – even if they adore the step-parent. Again, it’s really important to remember that this isn’t bad behaviour, or wanting to cause trouble, and it doesn’t mean that your stepdaughter’s mother is doing anything at all to encourage this (though that can sometimes happen inadvertently) – it just means that your stepdaughter feels a great need to let her mother know that she is loyal and loves her and that you won’t change that.

If you suspect this may be happening, the best thing to do is to work with her mother and gently give your stepdaughter the following messages:

>> From you: that you are never going to replace her mother, that you never want to replace her mother, and that she can have relationship with you and her mother at the same time – both loving, but different.

>> From her mother: that she (the mother) loves that you are in her (her daughter’s) life, that she knows how much her daughter loves her, that she absolutely 100% supports a relationship between you and her daughter.

>> From both of you: that you both understand how difficult it can be when you are in a stepfamily; that you understand it can be difficult sometimes because she doesn’t want her mother to feel ‘left out’ or replaced; that you both understand and would never let it happen that her mother is replaced.

I hope this makes sense. Here is an article that might also be useful http://www.heysigmund.com/being-a-stepparent/. As I said, without knowing more I can only speculate that this might be going on, but it’s not at all unusual in stepfamilies for loyalty binds to happen, and behaving one way in front of you and expressing different feelings about you when she is with her mother is a classic sign. I also really need to be clear that it dosen’t mean anybody is doing the wrong thing – it’s just something that happens sometimes, and it’s just one of the things that stepfamilies have to work through. Sometimes it’s just about weathering the storm and trying not to take it personally.

Your thoughtfulness and open heart towards your stepdaughters will help to make this work and will help you to be a wonderful presence in their lives.

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Laura

Thank you for this article! It is good to read about a few tools that I can use to understand how I can deal better with having a boyfriend with anxiety. I’m happy that we’ve talked about it a lot before and he tries to explain things about it to me. It is still something I struggle with and sometimes I don’t know what to do. Ever since we started dating he has been leaning a lot on me emotionally and i’ve been taking up part of his fears, which was very exhausting and has given me a lot of stress. We now know that I can’t fix his problems and he has been seeing a therapist. It now goes a lot better with both him and me, but I am still afraid that I won’t have enough energy to be a support for him everytime it gets rough for him. No matter how much i want to help him and care for him, I notice that i takes so much of my own energy. I love him very much and really want to be with him, but I worry his fears will always be there and I will always have to take care of things we should actually be doing together or things he should be taking care of himself. Is there anyone in a similair situation who has some advice?

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John

My partner and I have been together for 8 years. We recently bought our first house together, during which process my partner began experiencing extreme anxiety around our relationship. She has previously suffered with more general anxiety. There was nothing ‘wrong’ in our relationship she could point to, but she felt she wasn’t in the ‘right place’ for her. Shortly after buying the house, her feelings became so intense that felt she had to move out and stay with relatives. I love her more than I can express, and not having her next to me at the beginning and end of each day is so hard. We have tried to maintain distance to give her space, and she has begun seeing a counselor. We both still love each other, but she has told me that she no longer knows whether that is enough. I think neither of us know any longer whether these feelings are simply those of a person growing apart from a relationship, or manifestations of an anxiety disorder focused on the what means most to her.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

John this sounds so confusing for you. It’s a healthy step that your partner is getting counselling. This will hopefully help her with strategies to manage her anxiety so it is less intrusive into your relationship.

Reply

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