E028: How to Help a Partner Who Suffers from Anxiety
Have you ever Googled “how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety?”
Amy: [00:00:34] On this episode of What We're Not Talking About, I'm going to be answering the question, “How do I help my partner who's suffering from anxiety.”
Now, this is an amazing question. And I'm so happy that it was asked because I think a lot of us really focus on our own anxiety or what it is, instead of on how to help either ourselves or our partners.
This is a deep question, and I'm going to do my best to sum it up briefly. So, the first thing I would say is ask. First of all, I would say ask your partner how you can help. Now, I know this seems very simple, but a lot of us get really caught up in the educational aspect of this.
When a lot of the time it's really hard for someone on a podcast or in a blog article to give personalized recommendations on how to help someone. For instance, say your partner doesn't like to be touched when they're feeling especially anxious. This is something that I know I've experienced in the past. So, it's not that, in left field, if you will.
By asking your partner how they would like to be helped, you're showing them that you care about them. Right? And you're expressing to them through words that you're here for them. That you have the foresight to ask how to be of assistance in advance of an anxious episode.
Please do not ask this question in the middle of someone freaking out.
I have had this question asked to me, and it just sends me overboard. And I'll tell you why. I am having a hard enough time managing my own emotions. And when someone comes to me and is like, “Oh, how do I help you? It demonstrates to me that they're probably freaking out as well.”
[00:02:43]They see that I am suffering or I'm in pain and they just want to make it right, better. But they're confused and they don't know what to do. So, they're then looking to me, the expert in anxiety, as I'm the one who was at anxiety for 25 plus years, to help them through the process. And let me tell you that does not work.
It might result in a heightened level of anxiety or other symptomatic emotions, such as anger, or even something as severe as dissociation. So, that's out of the way. You've asked your partner in advance how you can help them. And if they've come back with an answer along the lines of, “I don't know,” or, “Just hold my hand,” listen to the holding the hand aspect, and listen to the rest of this episode. Because I've got a little bit more insight.
So, a lot of the times when it comes to being anxious, what's happening is there is a heightened level of tension in the body. It's a very common fact that when we experience anxiety, we're in our fight or flight mode. Remember that anxiety is fight or flight mode, as it’s important as you figure out how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety.
Cortisol, adrenaline, all that stuff is pumping and we're really trying to survive.
But we don't have that imminent threat in our lives like they did back in the caveman era of a wooly mammoth coming after us. That's not really what's happening. So our anxiety is trying to relieve the tension in our body.
[00:04:19] So with that said, how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety?
If you sit with them and just be with them, that's the first thing you can really do to know how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety. The second thing you can do is educate yourself on some symptoms that people may have when they go through an anxiety attack or something similar. Because we want to minimalize your reaction as much as possible. In other words, we just don't want you freaking out.
If you're freaking out, we're freaking out, everybody's freaking out. That's not good. It's not good at all. So, educate yourself on what anxiety looks like and how it can present itself in different people and individuals. And just get to know what it is. Because if you're with a partner who is anxious, a lot of the time that anxiety may continue to present itself over the period of a few days or a few weeks, or even a few months, or in extreme cases, years.
And if you love that person, you're going to want to know the ins and outs of it.
This is the next step in how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety.
The next step on after that on the road to how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety is to be patient. I myself am incredibly impatient with myself and the healing of my anxiety. And I am someone that is every single day working on trying to manage that tension and reaction inside of me. A lot of people out there don't have that time. It's only a few minutes here and there. Sometimes it's daily. Sometimes it's not. So patience for your partner is integral in this process.
[00:06:09] The next step in how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety is to communicate with them. Something that's really helpful for people who are anxious, who have other issues as well, or, you know, just our breathing is to create a narrative around what is happening. Or in short a story. So if, for instance, all of a sudden your partner's heart starts racing and he or she or they are hyperventilating.
And you're like, “Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness!” They go through that motion. They calmed down, you're sitting with them. You're either holding their hand if they like that, or you're maybe rubbing their back. Or maybe you're not doing either. You're just there with them.
Once that person is ready, ask them to walk you through what just happened. Because what's going to happen there is that's going to help them gain some insight about themselves.
Anxiety is triggered.
It doesn't come out of nowhere. There's something that happens. It can be something as small as a scent or something as big as a confrontation that sends that individual into an anxious spiral. When they are able to start to have insight into their own situation, it allows them to understand what their trigger is. Understanding your partner’s triggers is important when figuring out how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety.
A very common anxiety trigger, at least for myself, is confrontation. It can be something really small too. It can be something along the lines of getting something or doing something wrong in my work. So for instance, in the past, if I made a mistake in my job and my client would be like, “Hey, like I noticed this was wrong. What's up?” Or whatever.
[00:08:00] And remember sometimes people aren't that nice. Sometimes people are like, “Why did you make that mistake? Why did you do that for?” You know? So, also, remember that not everyone's loving as well.
But when that happens, I just go into an anxious mess because what's happening is I'm thinking, “Oh, my god. I'm going to lose my job. Oh, my god. I'm not good enough. Oh, my god. That one time that teacher got really mad at me. One time this happened and this happened.” So, it's also bringing back all these moments in my past in which I had very similar feelings.
What my body and brain is doing, it's trying to figure out what's going to happen.
So, it's taking all those past experiences and saying, “Okay, this time she got in trouble. This time she got into trouble. That time she got fired. This time she got yelled at. This time she did this.” It's trying to decide what the outcome can be. It’s doing the same thing when you try to figure out how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety
Now, this is all mostly subconscious. We don't realize this is what's going on. But with all that going on unconsciously in our body, it's no wonder we start shaking or hyperventilating or have racing thoughts. Because we're trying to figure out if we are going to survive or not. Most of the time our body thinks it’s a survival situation that it needs to actually survive, like death or not. But in this case, it's just maybe survive in our job.
[00:09:17] Unfortunately, people who have anxiety tend to think of the worst case scenario. So, let's say it's the very first time they've ever made a mistake at work. And then they think they're going to get fired. Any person who is coming at that situation with a calm nervous system and a greater perspective on the situation is going to assume that she might get reprimanded for it, but most likely she'll keep her job.
But when it's the anxious person, it's not like that. So, it's complicated. It's hard.
And that's why patience is very important, and building the narrative or the story behind your anxiety or your partner's anxiety is integral to helping them through the process.
Now there's so many other bits and pieces I could share with you, but I would be here all day. But if you work on those few steps, that's going to show your partner that you are there in a way that is actually supportive. You’re going to ask very little of your partner in that situation and that's what you need. You need to be the least amount of burden possible.
And most importantly, it's going to show your partner that you care and love them. Because there's a lot of shame in mental illness, and we're getting better, we really are. But it's years and years and years of this.
And although individually, we might not experience so much stigma, collectively we do. And that collective memory is something that we do actually all hold within us. So, as a friendly reminder, be gentle, be patient, and ask your partner how you can support them.
This is how to help a partner who suffers from anxiety.