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:
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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?
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.
‘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.
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.
Often men choose to hide their anxiety and bury it in alcohol and avoidance that ultimately manifests in underlying depression – we are seeing more of this during Covid and now more so post Covid.
I have been living with my boyfriend for almost 2 years and in the beginning I had no idea about his anxiety. He hid it very well but there would be odd days where I just wouldn’t be in contact with me for a few days then make an excuse like he wasn’t well.
As our relationship progressed he confided in me about his anxiety and that he has days where is totally consumed by his thoughts and feelings that he just goes into his own head and wont speak or see anyone.
We now live together and there have been some up and down days. There is still the off occasion where he will go off and stay at work for 2 nights if there is something on his mind. I try not to take it personally, from reading posts and books about people with anxiety its not their fault. However I am human with emotions and sometimes feel lost or the feeling he doesn’t want the relationship anymore.
I try to be as supportive as I can and have recently recommended a therapist or speaking with his doctor to try and see if this will help, without pushing him to do anything as ultimately its his choice.
I wonder if anyone else has experienced this, their partner hiding away for days etc and if speaking to someone could really help?
Thank you for addressing this most important topic. Do you know if any books that you could recommend so I can continue learning how to better support my wife?
I have been with my boyfriend for over a year now.
I knew about his anxiety from very early on but he was in a good place he said at the time. A few months in he started to struggle with the lockdown, his workload and said everything felt numb, he found no joy in anything he used to. Despite saying I am the only thing that brings him any kind of relief from this and I mean the world to him he says his feelings just aren’t there. He can’t say I love you as he says he just doesn’t feel anything.
He is on medication for his anxiety which no longer seems to help, his old therapy provider won’t get back to him and new ones are ignoring his requests, his gp keeps giving him new ones to contact but no luck.
I am new to all this and have tried to educate myself as much as possible but can’t deny it hurts to hear he doesn’t love me. He said it was there before things went ‘dark’ but he’s not himself now. Knowing he can’t feel for me what I feel for him is breaking him and I think making things worse but when I try and give him space he panics and says he can’t let me go.
A year on I’m now feeling torn between standing by someone I love and knowing that I also deserve to be loved.
Hello! If anyone comes across this, I could use some help. My best friend and roommate has anxiety and depression. And lately, these feelings/moods come up where she just lays in bed all day and watches tv. Now I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it didn’t go on for months at a time. She gets too depressed to help do anything around the house and it just starts looking like a wreck, even if I try to keep up on cleaning every day but it gets difficult to clean everything all the time because I work full time. I’ve tried talking to her about getting professional help, but when she thinks about seeing a doctor, it gives her anxiety! So then she does nothing again. It’s gotten to a point that I am worn out and drained all the time but then she wants me to entertain her and spend time with her every free minute I have… how do I get her to make the move to see a professional because I can’t carry this responsibility of basically having to take care of someone else.
Mind you, I try to be sympathetic and be there as much as possible like these articles say to do during an attack, but I can only provide and help so much in between attacks.
I want to be there for my husband who has anxiety. It’s not frequent. Maybe rears it’s head every 6-8 months. But because it’s not frequent, I miss the queues. I think he’s withdrawing from me for some other reason. I think he lies about silly little things because he’s afraid of the truth. For example when he was younger, he was the one to always use sick family members or accidents as an excuse to have a sick day at work. Perhaps it’s always been anxiety and a dick family member sounded like a better excuse. I don’t know. He’s seen a therapist and said he got some really good tools from them to help manage. But lately we have had marriage problems with trust. Mostly due to the silly little lies. We have had really good deep and meaningful conversations about it and what we both need, we both agree to support each other but then I feel like I’m the only one who does make the changes. He doesn’t and then can’t recognise or won’t recognise that I am making the changes.
My question is what do you do when your partner acknowledges they are in a state of anxiety but won’t talk to you about it? I have gently reminded him that I’m here for him to support and listen. I’ve never been one to tell him how to handle it apart from suggesting professional help when it was really bad. I held his hand and went with him to the doctor to ask about it. I just sat and listened. I didn’t put my two cents in. I just supported. After the sessions I didn’t ask what they talked about. Just asked how he was feeling. I felt like we were working together through it and he was appreciative of my support. But now he won’t let me support him. With our trust issues I just feel useless and rejected. He talks to friends about it but not me. The most I’ve gotten out of him this time is it’s work related but part of me doesn’t trust it is because he’s so closed off about it. He tells me not to worry. He tells me he’ll be ok and he’s doing the exercises the therapist taught him and he’ll be ok. But I feel like we can’t succeed in our marriage if I’m not his go to person. His safe place. Shouldn’t I be? My gut is screaming at me that I’m the reason for his anxiety or something else is going on that will ruin us.
I am experiencing the exact same thing right now. There is a major health issue in the family which is causing him great stress and worry and his way of coping is to hide away from me. He doesnt want to talk to me or see me and has even stopped saying he loves me. He has been lying about where he goes and who he is with which adds additional stress on us. Eventhough i want to be with him to support him through this difficult time, i couldnt because he pushes me away.
I havent been sleeping the past two weeks abd i cannot stop crying. Though he always says he is ok, I still worry about him. I wish there is something more i can do other than watch him helplessly as he deals with this. I would like to be there but i am pushed away
Karen, thank you so much for your tips on what to do when a person you love has anxiety. I love how you suggest being calm and relaxed around them and be there to support them. I think that it would be very beneficial to help them find a reliable psychologist that can help them work through their anxiety if that is what they want.
My boyfriend has anxiety and depression and it puts a strain on our relationship. Often times, I don’t feel equipped and don’t feel strong enough to go through it when it happens. To keep my own mental health, I have resorted to staying away when it occurs to avoid fights about little things that we won’t be fighting if he didn’t have an anxiety attack. I know that this is not the best way to handle it and I would like to be able to support him better. Is there a free support group for spouses/partners of people who have anxiety and depression?
My partner just broke up with me a few days ago from a 2-year relationship ( 1 year was lockdown ).
The reason she gave me was that she wanted the best for me.
I didn’t understand how this anxiety affected how and now I feel ashamed. But also because she didn’t fill me in on all the details.
I did not take it seriously enough..!! but I was never mean with it.
She had to live with her parents the entire lockdown in a toxic environment for the entire year.
So for that entire duration, we were not together, and also to make things worse, I was a secret and could not fully contact her to give her full support for various reasons.
During this time I encouraged her to go to college as a mature student and following her passion. I did and would support her through everything.!!
She also didn’t tell me, she was trying to get help before lockdown for her struggle…..what do I do…????
I truly want to get back to her and support her for the rest of my life. Even with these issues, she brings out the best in me, and hopefully I for her too.
She now has to live 2 hrs from me, for 1 year ( Internship), and I’m trying to figure out what’s best.
She means the world to me..!!!