Dating someone with anxiety is a little bit like living in a mystery novel. There are twists and turns in your partner’s occasionally unpredictable state: Sometimes, they’re calm and upbeat but then suddenly, without warning, they recede into themselves and start to panic. As much as this can be a roller coaster of emotions for you, imagine what it must be like for them.
You want to be supportive and even make the anxiety “go away,” but it’s just not that simple. This doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless, however—far from it. Sometimes a little physical contact is all it takes to show someone experiencing a bout of anxiety that you’re there for them, and sometimes you need to know when to call in reinforcements (like professional help). To help us figure out how and when to show your partner some support, we reached out to Signe Simon, Ph.D., a therapist at Alma, a New York-based practice, and therapist Antoinette Collarini-Schlossberg Ph.D., for their best pieces of advice.
1. Understand what anxiety is
Before you can help someone get through something, you have to learn as much as you can about what they’re experiencing. This doesn’t mean you’ll become an overnight expert on all things anxiety—or that you can say “I understand how you feel,” (more about that later)—but you should at least have a general idea. Luckily, we’ve done the research for you.
“Anxiety is a feeling that something bad is going to happen,” says Collarini-Schlossberg. “A person with anxiety can sometimes have this fear that’s hard to name because there’s no distinctive object that’s causing the feeling, which can be so frustrating and even add to the anxiety itself. Anxiety can also be a variety of disorders stemming from a traumatic incident in the anxious person’s past or from a social situation that made them uncomfortable and continues to trigger the same feeling.”
2. Imagine what it’s it like to experience anxiety
You might be thinking, I’ve felt anxiety before, and I’ve gotten through it. What’s the big deal? We’ve all felt anxious about something: a big test in school, a sit-down with your manager, sitting in traffic while running late. But having routine anxiety—the type psychologists would call a disorder because of how regularly and seemingly without cause it appears and disrupts a person’s life—is different. It can come from nowhere, without warning, and it can cause real, physical symptoms.
“Some people with high levels of anxiety might express their worry through asking a lot of questions and seeking reassurance,” Simon tells us. “Other people may get quiet and say very little or nothing at all, even though they are experiencing high levels of anxiety internally.”
“At times,” Collarini-Schlossberg adds, “when the anxiety is really bad, we see panic attacks that can make [a patient’s] heart race and cause shortness of breath. These symptoms can be so severe that they convince a person they’re having a heart attack.” Yikes. That’s no run-of-the-mill anxiousness.
3. Figure out what works best for them
It’s important to understand that, while your concern and willingness to help will be appreciated, a person’s anxiety can’t necessarily be “fixed.” Anxiety is something that needs to be managed and can be happily lived with thanks to the appropriate treatment and techniques. As your partner’s support system, there are ways you can show up for them—it’s just a matter of figuring out what works best for them.
Verbally: “You can show your partner you care simply by listening and acknowledging their experience,” says Simon. She suggests saying something like, “I hear that you’re feeling very worried right now,” and providing reassurance that you’re available to support them, like, “I can hear that you’re feeling anxious and I want you to know that I’m here to listen.”
Physically: “Try to help them calm down by slowing their breathing,” says Collarini-Schlossberg. “You can do this together by both breathing in slowly and holding it for a count of five, then releasing the breath for a count of five, and doing it over and over until they feel relief. This technique lowers symptoms of anxiety and can bring them back to a more neutral feeling. Something else that’s helpful is muscle relaxation. In a slow and controlled way, you tighten and release your muscles from the bottom up. Clench your toes and feet for three seconds, release and breathe. Repeat with other muscles and body parts.”
Collarini-Schlossberg also recommends exercise as a way to reduce stress and anxiety. She says you can get some fresh air at the same time by going outside for a walk or a run (if you’re one of those people), or stay in and use a yoga app on your phone (like the free version of Yoga Studio) wherever and whenever you need it.
4. But don’t forget about yourself
It’s dangerously easy to get caught up in someone else’s mental health. When this happens, it’s more than likely that your own mental health will eventually suffer and that this effect will breed resentment and hurt feelings within your relationship—the exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here. Take breaks from helping your partner and check in with yourself to make sure you’re handling their anxiety well and that you’re in a healthy enough place to be a support system for someone else.
“It’s not your job to resolve your partner’s anxiety,” says Simon. “Feeling pressured to fix your partner’s anxiety is likely to lead to helplessness. Instead, focus on being supportive and taking care of yourself. When your partner is not in a heightened state, talk to them about what they think would be helpful and what you feel you are available for. Sometimes you might not be available to provide comfort to your partner, and it’s important that you let them know how you can show up for them.”
In other words, you can’t be everything for someone else, especially if you’re not first taking care of yourself. Reflect on your own mental needs, tweak where necessary and don’t forget to breathe.