Given everything that's happening in the world, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't feel any sense of anxiousness right now. For those with anxiety disorders, this is an especially scary time. And worldwide pandemics and coups aside, anxiety disorders are much more common than you might think. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that around 19.1 percent of Americans over 18 have anxiety, according to data from 2001–2003.
If you're dating someone with anxiety and you're trying to find out how to be a supportive partner within the appropriate means, good for you! You're already making an effort to understand them better, which is one of the most helpful things a partner can do. We asked Bree Jenkins, dating coach and licensed therapist at The Gathered Life and Dr. Sheva Assar, licensed clinical psychologist and relationship coach, to explain some more things to keep in mind when you're put in this situation.
What To Expect
A partner with anxiety can be a loving, wonderful person with whom you can have a healthy relationship with, but it's important to be aware of some of the effects it can have on them and their relationships, explains Bree. Your partner may look to you as a source of comfort or a person they frequently seek reassurance from.
Each person's anxiety can look different, but some common examples might be your partner overworking or being a perfectionist, Bree adds. Their anxiety could be causing them to overthink and try to control or avoid any problems by over-performing.
Anxiety can also affect a person socially, and they might have a more difficult time being in the moment and enjoying things or trying new activities, Bree also says. If your partner finds social situations anxiety-inducing, this may look like them sticking closer to you at social events or not wanting to engage with others for long amounts of time, she adds.
How To Build A Healthy Relationship When Someone Has Anxiety
The healthiest things you can do are to encourage your partner to get professional support from a therapist or mental health source, listen to them without judgment and without trying to fix things for them, and encourage them to develop self-soothing skills, Bree says.
You shouldn't be your partner's sole source of comfort, as that dynamic isn't healthy for either of you.
You also want to be aware of your own limits. To be a supportive partner, you shouldn't let your partner's anxiety take over your life. It's important to have a gauge of your own emotional bandwidth and what is realistic for you to do in supporting your partner, Bree adds. "You need to be comfortable stating that you need some downtime," she explains. You shouldn't be your partner's sole source of comfort, as that dynamic isn't healthy for either of you.
"Everyone has anxiety every now and then and you'd want your partner to listen to your worries and provide some comfort," Bree says, but "you wouldn't expect this every day or multiple times a day or week." No matter how much you love your partner, you are not a licensed, health professional providing treatment to them in that context. Therefore, encouraging them to see a pro and perhaps looking into medication or other forms of treatment is ultra-important. Ultimately, "anxiety is an extremely common issue that doesn't have to be a deterrent to a relationship, but it does take support and accountability to manage its effect," Bree adds.
Communication is also very important if your partner has anxiety. "If there seems to be a misunderstanding within the relationship, it is important for both members to check in with one another," Dr. Assar says. "If your partner is feeling anxious around something that is specific to the relationship, identifying an easy way for them to bring this up to you can also be quite impactful," she adds. This way, no one needs to spiral or make things worse. Open communication lines are a win-win for everyone.
How To Support Someone With Anxiety
Listen to your partner without trying to fix things, says Bree. If you try to fix things for them, it will likely stress you out more, and won't work to actually resolve their worries. If you know your partner's love language, you can try to implement well-aligned efforts as natural ways to calm and support someone who is feeling anxious, she suggests. If your partner's love language is "Acts of Service" and they're feeling overwhelmed, helping them do the dishes even though it's technically not your job could be a good way to show your love and support. If their love language is "Words of Affirmation," you could offer a few heartfelt compliments.
When listening to your partner, remember to be patient and kind in your words.
Checking in with them from time to time is also very effective, Dr. Assar says. Communicating about any potential triggers or just taking a temperature check of the room to see how everyone is feeling can help you demonstrate non-judgmental listening and support. "This can help your partner to feel supported and accepted, as well as strengthen the sense of safety and intimacy within the relationship," Dr. Assar notes.
When listening to your partner, remember to be patient and kind in your words, Bree says. People who have anxiety can be hard on themselves and sensitive to judgment and harsh feedback. Therefore, Bree says "it's important to have a gentle tone, but a clear message and that it's coming from a place of love." If the mood is appropriate and you know it could help, you might also try joking or lightening the mood somehow. "Sometimes people with anxiety also need to laugh and not take all their worries so heavily. A well-placed joke or light levity can also be the right antidote to lift worries," she adds.
And remember, having healthy boundaries will be better for both of you in the long run. You can also be a supportive partner by advocating for self-care and reminding your partner of the tools they have. "Fostering codependency for their anxiety management by you being the only person of comfort will not be the best long term plan," Bree says.
However, if you take care of yourself and normalize self-care along with therapy, this can make it easier to encourage your partner to seek out those sources in addition to your emotional support. "Remember, you are not your partner’s therapist," Dr. Assar says. As tempting as it might be to try to shield someone you love from everything, that's not great for either of you.
Outside of therapy, being a 10/10 listener without trying to fix things, and having healthy boundaries, getting a pet may also help with your partner's situation. Bree says animals, and dogs in particular, are great listeners and can be soothing for people with anxiety. Of course, getting a pet is a big commitment, so no surprise puppies unless you and your partner have talked about it at length and are ready to dive head-first into the world of pet ownership. (But if you've talked about it, gotten the crate and vet on deck already, do list that one down!)
Remember, anxiety is really common! Taking steps to consciously be a supportive and non-judgmental partner will not only help your loved one, it will also probably bring you both closer.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.