Anyone who has anxiety can agree on one thing: It’s a bitch. Having panic attacks or living in constant fear isn’t exactly fun, but those of us with anxiety know that we’re not the only ones who suffer because of it — our family, friends, and significant others are also affected by the mess happening inside our heads. When you’re dating someone with anxiety, knowing how to be a good support system is what will help you both.
Anxiety comes in many different variations and affects up to 18 percent of the entire United States population, making it the most common mental disorderaccording to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. My anxiety started cropping up when I was about 13. Throughout the years, I’ve tried countless things to try to get it to shut up, including professional therapy, more exercise, a healthier diet, and writing. Although all of my little tricks have helped in their own way, I still get the occasional panic attack, and I am pretty much in a constant state of worry over something.
To be honest (and, yes, a bit corny), what has helped me more than any therapy session is the support of the people I love. My family has stood by me from day one, but they’re kind of obligated to love and support me, so, you know, they don’t really count. Just kidding. But really, having a significant other who chooses to love you day after day and supports you through the battle with your own brain can help more than any medication on the market.
You’re going to get frustrated, you’re going to get confused, and you might even wonder if all of this is even worth it. But if you know how to help, you can make the battle a whole lot easier for both of you.
1. Listen to them.
Many people with anxiety have a million thoughts running through their heads at once, and many times, they’re so jumbled that we don’t even knowwhy we’re freaking out. Actually saying what’s on our minds can be incredibly helpful, and if you’re willing to provide an ear, it can make all the difference. We might ask for advice, but most of the time, we just need to know that someone is actually willing to try to understand what we’re going through.
2. If they attend therapy, offer to go with them.
I don’t even understand the reasons for half of my own panic attacks, so I could never expect someone who has never had experience with anxiety to understand them for me. Therapy helps us piece everything together and figure out how we can help ourselves, and if you come along with us, you can get a glimpse into what we’re going through and what we need, too. Just offering to go will mean a lot to your partner, and if they specifically ask you to come along, take them up on it! You can learn a lot from a single session, and you’ll be making major progress in your quest to be the Best Significant Other Ever. Keep in mind that some people may want to attend therapy alone, so make sure to respect your partner’s wishes if they don’t want you to tag along.
3. Be patient.
Deep down, we know that the reason you haven’t answered our last nine calls is because it’s 2 a.m. and you fell asleep and not because you’re lying dead in a ditch somewhere. But that doesn’t stop us from assuming the worst. In fact, a 2006 study by the Journal of Personality has proven that people with anxiety are more likely to jump to conclusions, and that even though they make correct assumptions more frequently than non-anxious people, they’re less likely to perceive other people’s emotions correctly. So if we constantly think that you’re angry at us when you’re really quite content, it probably not entirely our fault. Rather than getting angry with us, keep your voice low and provide that all-important listening ear. We know that our behavior isn’t always healthy, and enabling us won’t help, but working together to find a solution for next time is far more effective than telling us we’re crazy.
4. Support them through their treatment.
Despite the fact that so many people suffer from anxiety, only about one-third actually go through treatment… and it’s such a shame, because this mental illness is actually very treatable! Whether it’s making sure we don’t forget to take our meds, talking us through our breathing exercises during a panic attack, or helping us research some bizarre meditation ritual we found in the weird part of the internet, just knowing that you’re willing to help us do anything possible to get better means the world to us. As long as it’s not dangerous (leeches are generally on the “nope” end of the safety spectrum), helping us with whatever strategy we’re working on can show us that we don’t have to fight this battle alone.
5. Don’t trivialize what they’re feeling.
Even if you don’t understand what we’re going through, telling us that that the reason for our anxiety is “silly” or “stupid” is one of the worst things you can do. Most of us know that our fears are irrational or exaggerated, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling them. Just as you expect others to sympathize with you when you’re sad or happy, we feel better when you try to understand our anxiety rather than trivializing it. Of course, that’s not to say you should tell us that we’re correct in being terrified, but making us feel crazier than we already do is only going to make our anxiety worse.
6. Be sensitive to their triggers.
If you know they get an instant panic attack at the sight of vomit, close the bathroom door when you need to puke. If the idea of death makes them hyperventilate, give them a heads up before they decide to get into Game of Thrones. Basically, don’t be a jerk. The ADAA says that 8.7 percent of the US population suffers from a specific phobia, so if your partner suffers from any type of anxiety disorder, chances are good that they also have something specific that terrifies them. While you shouldn’t feel like you’re walking around eggshells around your partner, taking reasonable steps to make sure they’re as relaxed as possible will keep both of you much happier.
7. But don’t be afraid to put your foot down somewhere
There’s a fine line between being sensitive and babying us. Work with your partner and, if possible, their therapist to learn where that line is. Telling us that it’s totally fine if we never leave the house again is obviously not going to benefit anyone, but neither will forcing us to progress much faster than we’re ready to. It can be a tricky balance to achieve, but if you can pull it off, you’ll be helping us on their way to recovery.
8. Take care of your own mental health.
We know our anxiety can affect others, and if you’re spending a lot of time around us, it’s going to take its toll on you. Even if you feel perfectly fine now, the Mental Health Foundation reports that adults between the ages of 35 and 59 have higher levels of anxiety than any other age group. Thankfully, though, taking care of yourself now can help prevent you from feeling anxious down the road. Make sure you have effective ways to deal with your own stress. If you need some “you” time, take it. Find what helps you to feel better, and do it. If you’re stressed while you’re around us, we’re going to be even morestressed, and it’s going to create an unhealthy chain reaction that isn’t good for either of us. We love you, and we want you to be happy, too!
9. Be there for them.
Right next to us, on Skype, or through telegram, anything you can do that lets us know you’re here for us will instantly make us feel calmer. You’re our Chosen One, and believe it or not, we like having you around. All the little things people do for each other in relationships, like “good morning” texts or dropping off some Chipotle, are twice as special for someone with anxiety because it lets us know that you still care.
10. Ask them how you can help.
All of these tips have helped both me and many other people I know who suffer from anxiety, but (surprise!) everyone is different. Asking your partner what they need is the best way to ensure you’re being the best support system you can be for them, and they’ll appreciate whatever effort you make. They don’t expect you to be perfect. They don’t need a hero—they can save themselves. But having an amazing sidekick certainly helps.