Having a mental illness is tough, but loving someone with a mental illness can be really hard too. Here's how to help them without losing it
Zayn Malik showed true courage when he recently announced he was bowing out from performing at the Capital Summertime Ball because of extreme anxiety. Unlike other celebs who go to rehab for "exhaustion" or have their publicists issue statements that everything is just peachy, Malik unapologetically explained his mental illness.
"Unfortunately, my anxiety that has haunted me throughout the last few months has gotten the better of me," he tweeted. "With the magnitude of the event, I have suffered the worst anxiety of my career." He ended with a plea for empathy from his fans and others who've suffered from the paralyzing condition. (Malik isn't the only celebrity opening up about mental health; Kristen Bell recently shared What It's Really Like to Live with Depression and Anxiety.)
Malik's bravery and honesty were refreshing, but the icing on the cake was the reaction of his girlfriend, model Gigi Hadid. She tweeted her public support, writing,"Your honesty last night proved what you're all about, being real. Human recognizes human... Those who can find compassion now are the ones that deserve to watch you continue to grow. We are all here to support you and make each experience easier." (Hadid is never afraid to speak her mind—did you read what she had to say about Instagram body shamers?)
Hadid's reaction was spot-on, says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Steps to Crush your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. Having a mental illness like anxiety can be incredibly difficult, but it can also be very hard being in a relationship with someone who has a mental illness. Being the main support person for someone who is ill can be exhausting, and their ever-changing moods can make you feel like you're walking on eggshells. But you love them and you want to help them, even if it's tough, right?
Thankfully, there are ways to support someone with anxiety while still taking care of yourself, Lombardo says.
1. Acknowledge your own limits. You can't help someone else if you feel like you're drowning yourself, Lombardo says. So be honest about how much time and energy you have and make sure you're practicing good self-care as well by exercising, eating right, and taking some time alone.
2. Avoid band-aid fixes. A quick and easy way to cope with the stress of having anxiety or the stress of loving someone with anxiety is to use alcohol, drugs, or other addictions to take the edge off. But that doesn't fix the underlying problem and just trades one problem for another, she says.
3. Encourage them to seek professional treatment. If your significant other is depressed or anxious about a certain event, you may be able to help them through it—but if it becomes chronic, they may need a professional therapist. Not sure how to have that conversation? "Simply say, 'I'm worried about you, you seem really anxious lately and I want you to to know you don't have to suffer alone'," Lombardo explains. (Here's How to Find a Therapist to Deal with Your (or Their) Issues.)
4. Consider going to therapy with them. If your loved one is deep into an anxiety attack, they may not be capable of making rational decisions, much less remembering things like appointment times or medications. You can be an integral part of their treatment plan and the therapist can also help you balance the needs of your partner with your own needs.
5. Allow them space to process. Sometimes we need to talk things out to get over them but sometimes talking about something only makes the anxiety worse. Respect your partner's need for quiet—up to a point. If they're clearly in pain and they never want to talk about it, you may have to force the conversation for their own good, Lombardo says. Just try not to have the conversation in the midst of an anxiety attack or they won't be able to focus on what you're saying—wait until they're relatively calm and then bring it up.
6. Don't pathologize them. "Asking someone, 'What's wrong with you?' or saying, 'You just need to man up' is never helpful," she says. All that does is make the person feel broken and layer guilt and shame on top of everything else they are feeling.
7. Don't enable them. Sometimes helping can go too far and end up hurting them and you in the process. Remember, your role is to support them in their healing, not to do it for them, Lombardo says. If you're not sure how to draw that line, a therapist can help you.
8. Ask them what they need. Each person and each illness are different so what helped you when you had anxiety may not be what your partner needs. Instead, ask them what they need and then listen to their answer. (P.S. Is Anxiety In Your Genes?)