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.

  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.

  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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325 Comments

Joan

All I can say is living with someone with anxiety is very very hard. I get tired of always walking on eggshell. It was’t bad at first. He would have infrequent bouts of anxiety, he would snap and ask for a time out sometimes it would take as long as 30 minutes to get some control and he wasnt really medicated when we started dating and now he is medicated on another chemical cocktail and I might get 5-10 minutes out of him of pleasant behavior on work nights and a little more on the weekends. I walk on eggshells most of the time when I am around him now because I can feel the anxiety simmering in his voice when he talks. Tonight was a perfect example of irrational behavior, we went to dinner, he became impatient with the service, snap at me asking if I was done, I explained I just took my last bite, he requested the check and we left. Our Saturday night date including transportation to and from the restaurant lasted 70 minutes.
In the past he use to apologize for being an ass, and tell me I do not deserve to be treated the like that, well that hasn’t happen in a while. It did help when he did that. I also watch him struggle. He wishes he could turn off his brain. He describes it as being in prison with an occasional furlough for good behavior. Sad thing is he had a PET scan that confirms his description of his anxiety state. The pyschiatrist said his brain never really turns off. So what am I to do??? It is not his fault but jeez this is hard. And this is from someone whose husband died from a chronic debilitating illness that required daily dialysis at home the last three years of his life. Any insight would be helpful

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Joshua B

I’m a 48 year old male who was diagnosed with ADHD at 47. I was misdiagnosed for times. The last time, I was diagnosed with generalized Anxiety disorder. ADHD does bring with it a lot of anxiety particularly if there hasn’t been a proper diagnosis. Because the person has been living with ADHD their entire lives. I know this is an old post, but your husband symptoms sound like mine. Once I got proper treatment and proper medication… All the anxiety left.

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Maxima

Hi Everyone.

I’ve been reading up a lot lately on living with a partner who has anxiety.
In most articles, there is mention of ‘just being there’ for them. I’m not exactly sure of what this means.

I spend a lot of time talking to my partner. I actively listen to my partner (diagnosed with anxiety as a child) when they seem anxious or frustrated. But I never really know what to say to make it better. I’ll listen with all my time and attention but I just feel lost with trying to respond in a way that allows my partner with anxiety to feel comfortable or consoled. I don’t know what the right words to say are, if there are any at all.

How do you all think I can be there for my partner in a more effective and sensitive way?

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c g

my spouse has severe anxiety kicks. i learnt that being quiet and nodding is the key. but later he would argue with me for not caring enough to react to his actions. it feels like a cycle of never ending frustration.. it feels like he just wants to take it out on whatever is near by. the fan , the heater , the window, me.. i have learned to brush it off… with anxiety comes grumpiness , frustration , argument fight .

little things like room temperature , noise of clock ticking seems to give him anxiety and he becomes very irrational . he becomes violent and throws the remote on the ground . i got hit by remote as he was frustrated. i am helpless and speechless. you can control yourself and not the world. perfect example is when hes driving he gets triggered by someone making mistakes on the road. he once chased a guy who made wrong turn. when it rains, he talks about how the slipper road causes accident for 2 straight hours and blames me for being ignorant an not knowing or understanding his ordeal. i just dont know what to do or say because everything i say or do is gonna be blamed and he would point all fault on me . pour all his frustration on me . its like walking on egg shells.

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Karyn

He sounds very abusive. Anxiety is a horrible thing to deal with, but I think it does not excuse violent behavior. You sound like a lovely person, who is scared and frustrated too. Would you consider getting help for yourself, to build up your strength to set boundaries? Constant criticism and living in fear are not OK. You don’t deserve that. It’s not your fault. It’s ok if you’ve reached your limit and need to go. You matter too. Your happiness matters too. He sounds like he needs serious CBT and anger management. I wish you all the very best of luck xx

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Reed T

Hello. I am a 21 year old college student that has suffered with anxiety for the majority of my life. As a young child my mother would tell me stories about how impactful my anxiety could be to my everyday life. I have been in a committed relationship for about a year and a half now. We have a beautiful bond, goals, personalities and the like, but my anxiety causes terrible arguments. I am learning more about my anxiety and how to control my reactions, but I feel like he doesn’t understand me completely. If he does, he responds in a very negative way. He usually becomes very hostile, shuts down, makes me feel like a crazy lunatic. When I tell him to just give me a hug or comfort me in situations like this he replies, “He shouldn’t have to “‘baby”‘ me.” I don’t know how to help him understand. Sometimes I worry that these arguments will eventually break us apart. To think that is devastating, considering that my anxiety is the only culprit.

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Lucinda

I’m married to a man that has anxieties he tells me I don’t understand what he’s going through yes and I have made the comment that what do you want me to do cradle you I’m trying to understand what to do for people with anxieties. Some of the things you have written i have seen in our relationship.
My husband has the mood swings I thought he might be bipolar I see now it the anxiety.

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Elena

Thank you so much for sharing this information ❤️
I hope that you know this has changed lives and helped others understand what people with anxiety go through.
God bless you❤️

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Kate

Sooooo I’m wondering how to navigate my new life style, my 28 year old step daughter moved back in with her daughter who’s 5 my husband and I understood that this was needed because she has anxiety , my granddaughter was tested in school and found to be on the autism spectrum ( she’s just now starting to develop language) also shortly after they moved in my husband had what can only be described as a mental break ie sudden onset anxiety disorder. So I’m having a lot of difficulty seeing to all their needs and wants while trying to maintain my own damn sanity….. any suggestions would be appreciated.

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Ann D

i might have missed it but i dont recall the idea of the person seeking proffessional help for their issues. If all you do is support by enabling how does anything ever get better for the sufferer and their partner. Surely you should be there to support them but by doing that isnt it possible to move forward with proffessionals. People wear out after a while, no matter how much you love them.

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S.

I 100% agree. You can accept a Person without accepting their Behavior. People with anxiety need HELP. They need help for their own comfort, sure, but also to keep their behavior from ruining their lives. Just read these comments. Many of them sound less like an anxious partner (although they might well be that), and more like a person who rationalizes and excuses abusive behavior by saying they are anxious and can’t change. Which is a LOAD OF SH*T. Get some Therapy (DBT is good for this stuff), learn to meditate, and stop treating people like some kind of thing that is there only to support you. You don’t get to outsource your mental health, and if someone else tries to do that To you, LEAVE THEM.

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Lurd-TK

Hi Karen,

What an amazing post. I have learned a lot of ways to to cope with an overly anxious partner. Especially, when you talked about trying to change them. (Anxious partners)

I totally I agree with you that letting them know that they are fine the way they are is far more better than trying to change them in any way.

Nonetheless, I would like to add 3 more things to avoid while dating someone with anxiety and they are: #1 Don’t criticize them for having anxiety. #2 Don’t  lose your temper or patience every time the anxiety flares up. And finally, #3 Never recommend drugs for their anxiety because, you are not a psychiatrist.

Doing any of them would hurt One’s partner, making the anxiety worst and creating more stress in the relationship.

Thanks.

Reply
Lurd TK

Hi Karen,

What an amazing post. I have learned a lot of ways to to cope with an overly anxious partner. Especially, when you talked about trying to change them. (Anxious partners)

I totally I agree with you that letting them know that they are fine the way they are is far more better than trying to change them in any way.

Nonetheless, I would like to add 3 more things to avoid while dating someone with anxiety and they are: #1 Don’t criticize them for having anxiety. #2 Don’t  lose your temper or patience every time the anxiety flares up. And finally, #3 Never recommend drugs for their anxiety because, you are not a psychiatrist.

Doing any of them would hurt One’s partner, making the anxiety worst and creating more stress in the relationship.

Thanks.

Reply
Mary D H

I have anxiety, the only time it flares up is when I know someone is not being honest with me or the circumstances around are not professional. Please don’t talk to me in a different tone than someone else. I am a human being, don’t talk about me behind my back. Don’t tell me what I see, is not correct. I am not blind, but your setting off my anxiety.

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Bryan

What you describe sounds like normal human behavior. I am no doctor, but everyone does and should expect a certain level of respect.

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Paul

As the partner with anxiety, I can reassure these things are true. I have been diagnosed with a form of childhood PTSD from the father that didn’t care about me and emotionally/mentally abused me. My mother has tried her best to be my dad and mom and has created, what I think, a very well rounded man.
That being said, I haven’t faced my problems head on until last year through therapy and that’s when all my 24 years of pent up stress and anxiety came out. I have made great progress but I’m still recovering and have anxiety and depression at times. It comes in waves and when I have my episodes, my partner holds me still, tells me that everything is going to be okay and we talk about it. This is the best way to help someone with anxiety; unconditional love and communication. I reassure her that i’m sorry and I wish she didn’t have to go through this too, even though I know it’s not my fault, but she’s always there in the end. The best way I have been able to describe the experience is
the fear you get in your nightmares of instant gloom and angst, like somethings chasing you but no matter how hard you run, you remain in place. You can’t breath, you are irrational and negative and as a man, it makes me feel like less than because I don’t feel strong or manly. I’m slowly learning that it doesn’t matter, all that matters is being me and working through it.
It takes a strong person with anxiety to live a normal life but it takes and even stronger person to love them.

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Moira

It’s good to read the comments from those living with a partner with anxiety. The phrase “walking on eggshells”! That is my life. My husband’s anxiety is ramping up as he gets older. I am constantly on alert and it’s affecting my health. Perhaps meditation and more physical activity is the key because I MUST find a way to rise above what’s happening.

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Veronica

My partner has anxiety. And the article is on point, however I feel like I have exhausted all that I can do. I need some light shed my way so that I may continue to help and not to give up on us. We have been together for over 10 years and have a 5 year old. His anxiety has morphed into many stages and I am now at a point were I am struggling to want to be in the relationship. When we began dating, my partner had said he suffered from anxiety in his past. He had received treatment at a facility in Encino and it had worked for him. As time passed, his anxiety came back and he had stopped his treatment sessions. I encouraged him to go back, however he is at a point where we he cannot travel far without panic attacks. I hate saying this however, my son and I are like prisoners. We are unable to do things without my partner’s approval, just feeling trapped. I want to help, however I feel exhausted and just at the lowest point of unhappiness. We have tried neurofeedback system delivered at home however money became an issue. What can I do to help?

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Ellie Davis

It’s interesting to know that anxiety is a physical response to a brain that is being over-protective. My husband and I will be having his sister over for a couple of months, and we are looking for advice because she suffers from anxiety problems. I will pass this information to him to make sure we both understand how anxiety works and how to help her.

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Oscar

Living with someone with anxiety is a pain in the flippin arse. If I had my time again I would never have opted into it. He can’t get a driving licence because it would make him too anxious, so I do all the driving, and we live miles from anywhere. He can’t go to the supermarket, so I have to do all the shopping (we live in a remote area and shops are miles away). He won’t travel anywhere on holidays or attend any events whatsoever (parties, weddings, etc), so I go alone to those. Obviously we never go out, to restaurants or the cinema or anything. He can’t get even himself to the doctor or the dentist, let alone take our son to the doctor or dentist, so I have to take our son to all appointments and then practically trick him, an adult, into visiting either in an emergency. It’s been nearly 20 years. I’m demoralised. I feel like I’m a parent to him, which is deeply unsexy. He refuses to seek any help. And yet all I ever see is articles telling me how I can do more for him, when in fact I’m the one who’s been making his life possible for two decades. What I’d like to see for once is an article entitled something like: ‘So you suffer from anxiety? Here’s an inkling of what your partner might have been going through because of it’. That’s all. Sorry for ranting. I’m flippin exhausted

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Vinny

My partner is dealing with GAD and it gets triggered often by things which might look pointless but it does.it gets worst sometimes and leads us to argument fight and abuse . I always try to be calm with her most of the time.

I most of the time fail to help her get out of it and find myself helpless but I really need to learn someways to support her during those worst episodes and bring her back to normal . She is highly intelligent and creative and likes to be appreciated for every thing she does.

She is as described in the article very over protective and highly caring and plan things in advance .

But when it triggers her it definitely makes her feel sick and I need some advise and inputs as in what way I can make her feel better.

Reply

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