Having a mental illness is tough, but loving someone with a mental illness can be difficult, too. Here's how to be supportive while dating someone with anxiety.

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Updated: April 20, 2018
Photo: Shutterstock

Zayn Malik showed true courage when he recently announced he was bowing out from performing at the Capital Summertime Ball because of high 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 when you're dating someone with anxiety. 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, Lombardo says there are ways to be supportive when you're dating someone with anxiety. Best part: You don't have to sacrifice your own self-care. (Related: Science Says These Apps Can Really Fight Anxiety and Depression.)

1. Acknowledge your limits.

You can't help someone else if you feel like you're drowning yourself, says Lombardo. So be honest about how much time and energy you have, and carve out plenty of me-time for healthy habits like exercising, eating right, and meditating. (Bonus: Here's a Guided Meditation Designed Specifically to Help with Anxiety.)

2. Avoid temporary fixes.

When you're dating someone with anxiety (or dealing with any situation or relationship that could cause stress), a quick and easy way to cope is to turn to alcohol, drugs, or other addictive substances that help take the edge off. But that doesn't fix the underlying problem-it simply trades one problem for another, says Lombardo. When you're feeling overwhelmed in the moment, try more natural options, like these breathing exercises or essential oils that can help relieve stress.

3. Encourage them to seek professional treatment.

If your significant other is feeling anxious about one particular event, you may be able to help them through it. (These Anxiety-Reducing Solutions for Common Worry Traps May Help.) But if you're dating someone with anxiety that's become chronic, they may need a professional therapist. Not sure how to have that conversation? Lombardo suggests saying something like, 'I'm worried about you, you seem really anxious lately and I want you to to know you don't have to suffer alone'. Would you consider talking to someone?' (PS: These Tips Can Help You Find the Right Therapist.)

4. Offer to go 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, says Lombardo.

5. Give them space.

Sometimes we need to talk things out to get over them, and other times talking about a topic only makes the anxiety worse. So if your partner asks for space, respect their need for quiet. That said, if they're clearly in pain and never want to talk about it, you may have to force the conversation for their own good, says Lombardo. This should be done in a professional's office, so they can help guide the conversation in a productive manner. You also don't want to have the conversation in the midst of an anxiety attack, as it's unlikely they won't be able to focus on what you're saying.

6. Don't pathologize them.

It's easy to get frustrated yourself when you're dating someone with anxiety. But asking them, "What's wrong with you?" or saying, "You just need to man up" is never helpful, says Lombardo. All it does is layer guilt and shame on top of everything else they're feeling. Instead, be honest about your frustrations-without being demeaning-and encourage them to figure out what type of anxiety treatment may be best for them.

7. Ask them what they need.

Each person copes with mental illness differently, so what helped your friend-or even you-may not be good for your partner. Instead, ask them what they need and really listen to their answer. If they're not sure, suggest professional help, and do your research about possible treatment options. Example: These Tips Can Help You Overcome Social Anxiety, These Help with Night Anxiety, and Here's How Clean Eating Can Even Reduce Anxiety Symptoms.

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