Love, Lindsay

'Do You Have Any Tips For Being A Supportive Partner To Someone With Anxiety?'

All your relationship questions answered — right here, right now.

Lindsay here, A Plus's resident relationship guru/columnist. While I may not know everything, I do know a lil something about love and our seemingly endless pursuit of it. Having written dozens of A Plus articles about dating, relationships, and sex, I'm ready and willing to investigate all of your romantically-inclined questions (submit here!) — because I've asked them myself. What I hope to bring to A Plus's readers is a sex-positive, body-positive, and most importantly, you-positive perspective on modern love. Consider Love, Lindsay your digital Cupid. 

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Dear Lindsay, 

My boyfriend struggles with anxiety. We've been dating for several years and it seems to flare up occasionally during work or highly stressful family situations. In the past, he's felt this way for a few days and then it passed. Recently, though, he started a new job that's more challenging than his previous positions and it has caused his anxiety to feel constant for weeks at a time. It's gotten so bad that he sometimes feels physically sick. [...] I try to talk him down and encourage him, but honestly, I have no idea if what I'm saying or doing is the *right* way to help a loved one with anxiety. 

I should mention that he does see a therapist once or twice a month and has been for years. I don't know how much it's helped him, but at least he has a professional to work some of it out with. 

Do you have any tips for being a supportive partner to someone who struggles with anxiety? What are the "dos and don'ts"? How can I help him to encourage him to start to really treat his condition this time instead of run from it? 

Thanks, 

Jackie

Dear Jackie, 

The good news is there's no one "right" way to support a partner with anxiety. That's good news because there are many. Overall, think of this as a learning process for both you and your boyfriend as circumstances change and needs arise. 

A new job, for example, is a pretty significant change that can certainly be anxiety-inducing, so it makes sense to reexamine what you've done to help in the past to make sure it's still beneficial now. Just as your boyfriend is taking some time to adjust to his new job, you both may need some time adjusting to new support strategies in your relationship. It's important to remember that no matter what works and what doesn't, everything you're doing for your boyfriend comes from a place of love, so it's OK if you don't get it exactly 100 percent right every single time. 

That said, there are some "Dos and Don'ts" I recommend as general guidelines. While I invite you to give all of these tips the good 'ole college try, every relationship is different. Over time, you'll learn which guidelines work best for you and your partner, and which to leave in the dust. 

1. DO listen to your partner.

This is a great place to start because it helps ensure your partner feels safe in confiding in you. Open and honest communication is essential to every relationship, but that can be easier said than done. When supporting a partner with anxiety, "listening" isn't just hearing them talk about their day. It can also mean asking them specific questions about the root of their anxiety and what they think may help alleviate it. In your situation, you know the recent increase in your boyfriend's anxiety stems from work stress, but there could be additional underlying factors even he isn't consciously aware of. 

"I don't believe anxiety is something anybody should live with… The first step for overcoming anxiety is identifying what the source of it is," relationship coach and psychologist Sam Owen tells A Plus. She explains that asking a partner questions can help encourage them to identify the true source of their anxiety. If you're not sure where to start, Owen and I recommend these questions to open up a non-judgmental conversation:

1. Do you feel like you might have too many things to achieve each day?

2. Is there a bigger life goal you want to pursue? Does it feel like it's out of reach?

3. Is there someone you work with who might somehow, knowingly or unknowingly, be sabotaging your mental health?

4. Are there any particular work tasks that trigger your anxiety more than others?  

Once you've asked these questions, listen to his answers and let them guide your next steps together. 

2. DON'T try to fix him.

While you can certainly offer advice if your boyfriend asks for it, remember your most important role is to offer support. "Let him know you are there to help him if he needs help... [such as] taking on a few extra chores for him in his personal life, temporarily," Owen advises. The key, here, is "temporarily" because any kind of dependence on you is not an effective long-term solution. So it's not your job to "fix" your partner. Doing too much for him could actually hinder his efforts to work on himself. 

Instead, focus on being his biggest cheerleader as he figures out which methods, like therapy, help him manage his anxiety effectively.  "Be compassionate and patient with him, even if the situation or his lack of focused action frustrates you at times," Owen adds. Of course, it's understandable to feel helpless when a loved one is going through a difficult time, but you're not. Simply being there is often enough to reassure your partner you care. 

3. DO prepare for when his anxiety flares up.

Aside from assisting your partner in figuring out the exact cause of his anxiety, you can empower him to develop a management plan whenever it flares up. Suggest he and his therapist work together to set up a plan detailing specific actions you both can take when a stressor triggers his anxiety. For example, if monthly sessions are no longer enough and/or he needs to talk it out with a professional ASAP, many therapists now offer virtual sessions via video chat or phone. 

Even better, Owen says, "Encourage him to find a therapist who actually does produce results, e.g. an anxiety specialist with a track record of success in helping clients." If that isn't the best way for your boyfriend to manage his anxiety, he'll tell you. Then, he and a licensed professional can discuss other management strategies, such as breathing exercises, meditation, or something that involves you in the healing process. Once you all agree on a plan, you can write it down (even as a smartphone "note") and refer back to it whenever you need. 

4. DON’T forget your own self-care.

Loving someone with anxiety often comes with its own set of challenges. It's important to acknowledge the additional day-to-day effort you're already putting into your relationship and remind yourself not to put your own needs on the backburner. Just as your boyfriend recognized a need to seek out professional help to take care of his mental health, you may want to consider doing the same. Talking to an objective, trained professional about what you're going through can alleviate your own stress and anxiety, which will only help you feel better equipped to support your partner. 

Besides looking into therapy, make time for the small, everyday acts of self-care. After all, you can't help another person take care of themselves if you're not already doing that for yourself. While you're asking your partner what helps alleviate his anxiety, answer that for yourself, too. Some common self-care practices include reading a good book in a quiet place, drawing a relaxing bath, or going on a long run. If you're not sure where to start, think back to the activities you gravitated toward as a child. Coloring, for example, may seem silly, but it's a popular way for adults to relieve stress while still doing something productive and creative.  

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, these are guidelines — not hard and fast rules — you can (and hopefully should!) feel empowered to implement into your relationship. They're a place to start, butthere are many more to explore with your partner as you grow together. 

With whatever changes you do and don't incorporate into your relationship, check in with each other. And yes, that does mean your boyfriend checks in with you, too. While you may need to carry more of the load sometimes, your relationship is, at its core, a partnership. He can't do it without you, and you can't do it without him. You both benefit from not only remembering, but finding strength, in that fact.   

Love, 

Lindsay 

Cover image via Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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