7 Little Ways To Help When Your Partner Has Anxiety
I'm a continual raw nerve of anxiety. That anxiety rarely rests. I'm even anxious in my sleep. That makes me a walking wiki of tips on ways to deal with an anxious partner and to actually be helpful about it. Because the standard ways people try to help are nothing short of maddening.
For example: the classic "stop worrying so much" or "don't worry about it." I may say "OK" but I'm actually thinking, "Brilliant! Just stop worrying! I've never thought of that before! You've solved all my problems!" Honestly, if I could stop being anxious, I would. I want to. I just can't.
Or there's the classic "toughen up." That one's especially hurtful, because it takes a lot of strength to do basically anything. And it implies, more than other suggestions, that you're broken and that you're just not trying hard enough. It's almost as offensive as asking, "Did you take your pills today?"
Anxiety isn't a switch you can turn on and off. It's an uncontrollable process that stems from a differently wired brain. One of the worst things you can do to anxiety sufferers is to treat them like their anxiety is an invention that they can simply chose to ignore. Here are some more (and better) and less offensive ways to support a partner with anxiety.
1. Pick A Code Word Or Phrase
This is my favorite thing ever. It's super helpful. Basically, whenever I'm out and about, and I get too anxious or overstimulated, I speak or text the code phrase to my partner, who knows it's time to begin the leaving process. I don't have to explain in front of other people that I'm not doing so well and I don't have to face a bunch of questions about why I want to leave. Knowing that I can use this out at any time makes it easier to go somewhere in the first place.
2. Imagine The Worst Case Scenario Together
Part of my anxiety is a non-stop flow of worries and negative thoughts. My brain likes to go to a lot of scary places. Something that's particularly helpful is when my partner helps me think my worries through in terms of the worst possible scenarios. When I do that, I usually discover that the worst thing that could happen is actually not that bad. Or, it's at least something I could survive and deal with. And she reassures me that she's there to help me survive and deal.
3. Remind Them To Breathe And Comfort Them
My partner isn't able to reach into my head and stop the flow of worries. Nor can she stop my shaking hands, nervous fidgeting, or overall general uncomfortable feelings. But what she can do is remind me to breathe. To hold me close when I need it. To take my hand when I'm uneasy. People with anxiety need support and comforting, not suggestions and criticisms.
4. Keep Asking
Sometimes I go through long stages where I don't go much of anywhere. I work from home and I feel safe and happy there. I can take care of myself just fine without going outside. But that doesn't mean I don't want to hang out with people or go somewhere with my partner. It makes people with anxiety sad when others stop inviting them to hang out. Trust me, we really want to, we just can't sometimes. My partner never stops asking me out on dates or to social functions, and that makes me feel good.
5. Play Social Defense
If you have a partner with anxiety, you need to be a clever socializer with a more heightened awareness. For example, when I'm at a gathering and I'm surrounded by a bunch of new people, my partner will come rescue me. When I look like I've reached my limit, she'll make sure I have an opportunity to step outside and take a break. She respects the code phrase. She comes to my defense when people say things that upset me, like how I never hang out. It's a great help.
6. Push Them Just A Little Sometimes, If That Works For Them
This may seem counter to the above advice, but sometimes I need a little push, especially when it comes to socialization. Sometimes my fear of anxiety causes an anxiety all its own. It's like a weird anxiety inception or one of those pictures of Justin Timberlake wearing a shirt of Justin Timberlake wearing a shirt of Justin Timberlake wearing... anyway, sometimes when I'm pushed into social situations, and supported once I'm there, I have a great time and I'm so glad I went. Of course, everyone's anxiety is a little different, so be sure to talk to your partner about things before pushing the idea.
7. Trust Them
For me personally, a little pushing is very helpful, but you also have to trust me when I say I can't handle something. It may be something I handled just fine last week, which makes it look like I'm just being lazy or trying to get out of something. But if your partner says they really need to leave, or stay home, or take a minute to themselves, trust that they know what they need when they can or can't be pushed.
Most importantly, if you love someone with anxiety and you don't know what to do, just ask. We will probably tell you what we need, as best we can. And if we can't, that's OK, too. You don't have to fix us.