Being in a relationship is often about helping to take care of another person, whether that's their physical or emotional wants or needs. But if you're trying to help and support a partner with anxiety, the level of care required is often amplified. No matter how much you love your significant other, that can become an overwhelming task. But according to experts, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure you're supporting your partner's mental health — and your own — in a productive, healthy way.
And that can be important for myriad reasons. According to licensed therapist Jordan Green, LCSW, anxiety often causes people to either become overdependent or to withdraw and isolate, both of which can place strain on the relationship in different ways. "Becoming overdependent on your partner can look like needing them frequently for co-regulation, soothing, support, and reassurance," she says. "It may create a need for constant communication or the need to 'check up' on your partner for reassurance."
Alternatively, a partner who tends to isolate may have difficulty being open, sharing feelings, or showing vulnerability. "Others can perceive this as emotional unavailability or lack of empathy, even though you ultimately desire closeness."
Anxiety's effects can reach much further as well. "Anxiety can also cause you to be afraid of being alone, fear rejection and abandonment, overthink, question decisions, be indecisive, be overly critical, get irritable with your partner, feel like you need to control your partner, or have difficulty supporting your partner and attending to their needs," explains Green. All of which can cause stress on a relationship, she continues, especially if someone doesn't understand what an anxious partner is going through or how to help.
So if you are looking to support a loved one who struggles with anxiety, what exactly can you do? While Green says it's important to gently encourage them to find a therapist so that you're not their sole support person, there are a few additional practices you can try to both help your significant other and keep your relationship strong. Experts break them down, ahead.
How To Support A Partner With Anxiety: Be Patient
Both Green and Tracy Nathanson, LCSW and founder of Pace of Mind Therapy, say that being impatient with a partner who has anxiety is a common "mistake" people make. "They may get frustrated with their partner’s inability to control their anxious thoughts and feelings," says Nathanson.
Because as Green explains, "It doesn’t help to tell someone to 'just get over it,' 'move on,' or 'stop worrying about it.'" Instead, you should try to understand your partner's anxiety, continues Nathanson. "At times, we can personalize our partner’s behaviors and take it personally. It is important to be patient and recognize that it is our partner’s 'anxious brain' that is influencing his or her thoughts, feelings, and behaviors."
How To Support A Partner With Anxiety: Practice Good Communication
According to Nathanson, good communication is critical. "Ask your partner what they need from you to help them manage and cope with their anxiety."
This can also ensure you're able to understand more of what your partner is going through, says Green, who explains that it's important to get curious about what they're experiencing and how anxiety affects them. "Listen without criticizing or fixing, and talk openly and directly with them about anxiety and how it affects your relationship," she says. "Let them know you’re here for them."
Green also explains that talking to your partner can help you avoid making assumptions that you know how best to support them. "Ask your partner, 'How can I support you when you are feeling anxious? What do you need from me?'" she says. "Some people find reassurance helpful, others find physical touch helpful, and other people may need space when they’re feeling anxious."
How To Support A Partner With Anxiety: Engage In Helpful Activities Together
When it comes to managing anxiety together, Nathanson says it can be helpful to do an activity "that grounds them to their present or distracts them from worrying," and suggests something active.
Similarly, Green suggests learning exercises for co-regulation that you can practice together. "For example, holding hands and doing breathing exercises, listening to calming music, or hugging," she says. "You can also do a mindfulness or grounding exercise together." And, if your partner is open to it, Green explains that you could invite them to join you in your own self-care practices throughout the week as well.
How To Support A Partner With Anxiety: Identify Your Own Needs
You may feel like a partner with anxiety has needs that should come first, but according to Nathanson, it's just as crucial to take care of your own. To do that, though, you must acknowledge that being in a relationship with someone who often experiences feelings of anxiousness can be quite stressful and overwhelming for you, too.
"Recognizing this is a [key] first step because it is important to be self-aware and realize the emotional and psychological toll it can have on you," says Nathanson. Then, she says, identify exactly what your needs are separate from the person you're taking care of. "What are your emotional, psychological, physical, social, and spiritual needs and how much are you sacrificing to take care of your partner? What helps you to feel energized and mentally healthy and strong?" Having self-awareness and insight into these thoughts and then taking steps to ensure you're not feeling drained or resentful will help you be a more compassionate and supportive partner, Nathanson continues.
Green provides similar advice, as well as a reminder not to give up your life to support them. "Remember what they say on airplanes: 'Put your own oxygen mask on first,'" she says. "Make sure you take care of yourself so that you can be of help to them when they really need you."