It can be confusing and even scary when you’re with someone who experiences anxiety, especially if you’ve never experienced high anxiety or an anxiety attack yourself. Dating someone with anxiety can be challenging, but taking the time to understand your partner’s condition and how if affects them can help.
“If you haven’t experienced it yourself, it can be especially difficult to commiserate or empathize when your partner’s thoughts are running away with them, or when a panic attack seemingly appears out of nowhere and it can feel impossible to calm your partner down,” says Katie Krimer, a licensed therapist. “Anxiety can be physiological in nature, it can come as a panic attack, a never-ending string of worries, actual phobias, fear of social situations, etc.”
Knowing what to expect from an anxious person and how to best support someone with anxiety is key in making your relationship last. To help you navigate the complexities of dating someone with anxiety, we asked the experts to weigh in on the best ways to approach a relationship when one partner suffers from anxiety.
Develop an understanding of their anxiety.
“When your significant other isn’t feeling anxious, open up a conversation to try and understand how they experience anxiety, what happens in their body, and what goes through their mind,” says Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Piper S. Grant. “In communication about their anxiety, try to understand what their triggers for anxiety may be. Is it certain places, certain situations, when you’re around certain people, or when particular life circumstances are happening. This will allow you to know if something may be coming up.”
Watch your tone and speak calmly during an attack.
Gently telling an anxious partner to calm down can be difficult. You might want to raise your voice and ask what they want or try and reason them out of it. “Often, due to people’s own discomfort with others’ suffering, your tone can come off as flip or dismissive of your partner’s experience. There can be a lot of shame and embarrassment one experiences if they suffer from anxiety. They’re already in a position where they might feel out of control over their emotional state. In panic disorder, for example, people can actually develop a fear of having panic attacks in public situations, partially for fear of how they will be evaluated. Expressions of compassion and validation will help someone feel ‘gotten’ and less alone in their experience,” says Krimer.
Have a plan for when they have an anxiety attack.
While communicating about your partner’s anxiety, develop a plan of support. “That might mean coming up with a word your loved one says when they are feeling anxious and that means you need to leave the room together, or maybe it’s understood that your partner doesn’t want you to touch them when they’re anxious but rather just sit in silence with them. In a time of high anxiety, or even a panic attack, communication can be difficult,” says Grant.
Don’t take it personally.
This is easier said than done. For example, patterns of avoidance is a common trait with anxious people. They may not be avoiding you, but perhaps a situation that can trigger a panic attack. “Anxiety can [also] often manifest as anger or frustration, but don’t assume he or she is upset with you,” says licensed therapist, Kayce Hodos. “The biggest challenge you’re likely to face is feeling frustrated that you can’t fix it. You can offer support, but your partner is responsible for managing their symptoms, which can range from emotional responses, such as intense worrying and fear, to physical sensations, such as headaches or nausea. Hopefully, your partner has a good therapist, and you may need to find one, too. After all, you both need to be taking care of yourselves for your relationship to be healthy.”
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults each year. That’s around 18% of the population. It’s by no means a rare occurrence to find yourself dating someone who has some form of anxiety, and taking the time to learn more about it can help you in many of your relationships.