8 Things You Absolutely Need to Know If Your Partner Has Anxiety, According to a Therapist
Anxiety can be absolutely debilitating. I know this both from personal experience and also from my work as a psychotherapist.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or about 18 percent of the population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Even more astounding, though, is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 37 percent of those suffering get the treatment they need. Part of the problem is that people often don't recognize what they're dealing with as anxiety, or even if they do have an inkling, they might feel shame about asking for help and try to "power through it" on their own.
The shame felt around both experiencing and sharing these struggles is a long-standing societal issue due to the lack of education around mental health—period. While efforts and progress have been made to combat this shame, there is still a massive stigma in the way. It can be hard enough to experience this as an individual, but bringing it up to your partner requires an additional level of courage. It can be incredibly scary and requires a lot of vulnerability.
If you notice your partner experiencing any of the following signs, they may be dealing with anxiety—whether they know it or not: feeling nervous, tense, or restless; having a sense of panic or impending doom, excessive sweating or trembling, trouble concentrating, GI problems, difficulty sleeping, racing heart rate, urge to avoid things triggering things or people, struggles to control feelings of worry.
These signs of anxiety can be difficult to recognize, especially if they are dealing with physical symptoms of anxiety (i.e. the digestive issues) or an overall shift in mood. While this can be confusing and scary for the person dealing with anxiety themselves, what to do if it's your romantic partner who is grappling is an entirely different story.
If you don't know where to even begin. Know this: Educating yourself on what anxiety is, how it manifests, and what it might feel like can help you better understand your partner and, in turn, support them.
Here are eight things that I truly believe, both as a therapist and someone who has navigated two anxiety disorders, are important to know if your partner has anxiety so you can support them, be there for them, and be the best partner possible.
1. They need you to listen and not assume.
We all know the old expression, "assuming makes an A-S-S out of U and M-E," but what we don't know is that we assume more than we realize. We all need to have a release for our feelings and by listening, you give your partner a safe space to vent or explain what they're feeling. It's also an opportunity for your partner to feel seen and heard without judgment. Listening is one of the biggest gifts we can give another human, whether anxiety is involved or not. When you truly listen to what your partner is saying and understand where their anxiety is coming from, you can have a better idea of their experience and how you can possibly support them. (Related: This Woman Listed Ways Her Boyfriend Can Support Her During a Panic Attack)
2. They're terrified of being judged.
Anxiety can make someone feel insane, but let's be entirely clear, they're NOT crazy. They are experiencing thoughts and feelings that can be jarring, especially if these are new feelings. Sharing these thoughts with someone else leaves that person feeling incredibly vulnerable to judgment—yes, even if you've been a good listener and supportive partner thus far.
So, the last thing that you want to do is somehow judge your partner for how their thinking, feeling, or acting. Saying things like "just get over it," or "that's not that big of a deal," or "you can snap out of this," are all ways of judgemental statements against what someone is experiencing. Unintentional placing judgment on the validity of what your partner is anxious about is not only unhelpful but is a surefire way to make sure you're partner doesn't feel safe to confide in you in the future.
3. They need patience.
Patience is a virtue, but one that is absolutely necessary to be a good partner to someone experiencing anxiety. Anxiety is complicated, and depending on the specific type of disorder, it can be paralyzing. There may be days of various severity—some when it's scary to just think about getting out of bed and others that seem more manageable.
Giving your partner the time and space needed for them to do what they need to get through a particularly tough day or triggering situation is important. It can be difficult to sit back and simply listen or watch your partner be in pain or distress, but it will pass. Conversely, if what they need is for you to come closer (physically or emotionally) make sure you go at their speed and don't try to just "fix" it for them. Remind them that what they are feeling will pass and you'll be there when it does.
4. They want feel grounded.
You may have heard someone refer to their partner as their "rock." Helping your partner stay grounded while experiencing anxiety is the literal interpretation of that sentiment. Keeping someone "grounded" is the method of helping them stay in the present during an overwhelming time period. (Related: Emma Stone Revealed Her Go-to Strategies for Managing Anxiety)
One of the classic ways anxiety can manifest is through a "what if... spiral." For example, my brain used to get stuck in a cycle of, "Well, if I do this, then what if this happens, and then if that happens, then this won't work and then I will.... " and it continues on and on and on. It can feel almost impossible to get out of this spiraling black hole on your own. So, try talking to your partner about possible techniques to use in the future when this inevitably happens again. What helps your partner come back to the present moment? Asking questions? Stating facts? Touching something? Talk about it and come up with a plan so, next time, you feel empowered to just help your partner rather than asking what they need.
5. You can help them identify their anxiety voice.
In a practice called "narrative therapy," it's encouraged to give a name to your anxiety and write a story or draw a picture of it. And while that may sound like kid's therapy, it's really helpful for adults too. Helping your partner name their anxiety in some way can then make having a conversation about it later easier, especially if they are experiencing an episode where they can't seem to separate themselves from the anxiety at hand.
Gently reminding your partner of what might actually be happening rather than what the anxiety "voice" is saying can be really helpful. Just make sure this is done in a kind, loving, non-judgemental way. This helps remind your partner that they aren't their anxiety. Anxiety is the emotion they're feeling, not the person they are.
6. They're likely craving simplicity.
It can be really hard to make decisions while anxious. Decision fatigue is a real thing for everyone, and it's even more real for those with racing thoughts. So, in the event that your partner is having a panic attack or a high-anxiety day, one of the best things you can do is give them an option A and option B for how to move forward toward resolution.
An example of this would be: "Babe, let's either go into the bedroom and talk or we can sit on the couch and talk. Which would you like?" You don't want to overwhelm them with a million options, as that can just make things worse. Limiting the number of options helps the person experiencing the anxiety to choose with more ease and less compounded stress.
7. They rely on you to nudge them in the right direction.
As long as your partner is not actively having a panic attack (in this case, don't push them to do anything), getting some fresh air is really important. Going for a walk outside—where you might even run into some puppies!—can often help relax anxiety. A walk around the block is a great option if your partner is feeling particularly off. This change of scenery can do wonders for their mind and to help calm their nerves. (These grounding yoga poses may help too.)
The hard part of this is, when someone is feeling anxious, it doesn't typically feel great to leave the house. Their anxiety brain is trying to keep them 'safe,' which for many can mean staying in the place they feel the most grounded and have the most control. However, the benefits of going outside are profound, so try to encourage them (without being forceful) to go on a walk with you creates a safe space for them to get the benefits while feeling contained and supported.
8. They probably feel guilty.
If you don't have an anxiety disorder or haven't experienced anxiety in a consistent way, understanding what it feels like can be a real challenge, especially when it gets in the way of plans you might have. Depending on the person, almost anything can bring on anxiety, regardless of outside circumstances or previous interactions, so while it might not make "sense" to you, all that really matters is that your partner feels safe, secure, and loved. This might mean canceling or postponing obligations or something you were looking forward to so you can truly be there for your partner.
The catch is, even when the person can name what they need (sometimes they just don't know or can't express it), they're probably going to feel guilty for the impact that their anxiety is having on you. When you make a decision to change a plan or stay home, remind them that you're choosing it because you want to.
The biggest takeaway: While some of these insights and tips might have resonated with you, others could have made you even more confused about how best to approach your partner with anxiety. So know this: This is not an exhaustive list. Anxiety works in ways that can be impossible to predict, solve, or help. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for being in a relationship with someone who has anxiety. Sometimes just being there quietly with your partner is what they need most. At the end of the day, that might be all you both need.
In my experience, I've found that anxiety can actually be a gift that alerts you when something is out of whack in your life (whether brain chemistry or something external), and it kind of gives you the nudge to figure it out. With your help, your partner can feel like they have the support and security to go digging, no matter what they find.
Rachel Wright, M.A., L.F.F.T., is a psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and sex and relationship expert. She's a co-host of the relationship podcast The Wright Reasons.