Loving someone with an anxiety disorder can be tough. You may have curtailed social activities. You may have taken on more home responsibilities. Finances may have suffered if your partner's anxiety is severe and they can't work. You may feel angry about changes in your relationship.
A study conducted by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) found that people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) were less likely to consider themselves in a "healthy and supportive" relationship than those without GAD. Although this study looked at GAD, the findings may also be true of other anxiety disorders.
If you love someone with an anxiety disorder, you've been given a special set of challenges. Here's a list of things you can do to help you navigate those challenges.
Learn all you can about anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders can be tricky because your partner may "look" perfectly normal at the same time they're telling you they're having a panic attack. This might cause you to minimize what your partner is going through. "Oh, you're fine," or "Just relax," won't be particularly helpful or well-received comments. Reading reputable books or information on the Internet can help you realize that anxiety disorders are very real, and fortunately, also treatable. See the Resources at the end of this post for places to get started.
Encourage treatment. If your partner is not already in treatment, encourage this as best you can. Obviously, the person with the anxiety disorder needs to be on board if at all possible. Knowing that you're there for support can help. The therapist may also be able to enlist you as a "coach" to help the person deal effectively with anxiety-provoking situations.
Be angry at the situation, not your partner. This can be a difficult distinction to make, but it's important. Attacking a person's character or personhood can further damage shaky self-esteem. Perhaps you're angry that once again, you're attending the employee picnic alone, or not going at all. Your partner is fearful around large crowds of people and is not far enough along in treatment to go even for a little while. It's natural for you to feel angry or even resentful. After all, you're missing out on a lot of fun and the company of someone you care about. So what can you do? You could say, "I really want to go to the picnic and I miss your company," or even, "I feel angry and disappointed when I have to go to social events without you." The important thing to remember is to express your own feelings as I-statements ("I feel this", "I wish that") rather than attributing your feelings to the other person's behavior (you make me feel… )
Focus on accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem. When people are attempting to learn new behaviors, they respond much better to support and positive reinforcement than to criticism. Try to focus on the person's accomplishments, no matter how small they seem to you. For example, driving across a bridge for the first time can be a big deal for someone with panic disorder.
Monitor your own behavior. Sometimes even well-intentioned behavior is actually harmful. For example, if you always answer the phone because you know that doing so is difficult for your loved one, you are enabling the fear to continue. Most likely, you've witnessed your loved one's extreme anxiety in such situations before and you don't want to see them suffer unnecessarily. And yet, for improvement to occur, a phobic person most experience the anxiety in order to work through it. Although this strategy may seem cruel in the short run, it's vastly more helpful in the long term.
Stay on the same team. Acknowledge the fact that the situation is stressful, but that neither you nor your partner is to blame. One way to do this is make "I wish" statements. For example, "I wish things were different for you and me right now." or "We're going to deal with this anxiety together."
Seek couples therapy sooner rather than later. Don't be afraid to seek outside help for your relationship if warranted. This can be a good adjunct to the individual's therapy for the anxiety disorder. Couples therapy promotes better communication skills, which can allow people to feel more at ease in a variety of typically anxiety-provoking situations. In addition, less stress at home creates a better environment in which to work on the treatment of an anxiety disorder.
Recognize your own needs. Don't give up your outside interests or friends. Practice your own self-care. It's not selfish; it's essential.
Practice compassion. Realize that both you and your partner are doing the very best you can at this precise moment.
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia which was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice.