Couples often struggle with all sorts of challenges, but being half of a couple struggling with anxiety offers a unique set of problems.
In those cases, experts say patience and understanding are key.
“It’s good to learn about anxiety to be able to understand what’s going in with the other person,” says Tamra Paolillo, a family therapist at Mosaic Counseling Center. “It’s difficult to know what’s going to set a person off, even they don’t know.”
People with anxiety report they they feel like their blood pressure is off the charts, and many will reach for their hearts, feeling like it’s going to jump out of their chest, Paolillo says.
“What’s happening is they’re having a physiological response,” she says. “They’re on hyperdrive similar to the fight or flight trigger.”
Paolillo says anxiety could occur because of a crowd in the mall or a long line at the movie theater. Spouses can get frustrated because their partner may start to limit activities. Those with anxiety may express a lot of fears about going places and want to avoid family functions.
The best thing spouses can do when anxieties are triggered is be supportive. Breathing with him or her, maintaining your calm and finding your own center are helpful. Holding the person’s hand or going on a walk with him or her also may reduce anxiety.
“The things that aren’t helpful are yelling ‘stop it’ or ‘calm down.’ That’s like telling a person with asthma to breathe,” Paolillo says. “You just want to remind yourself to be patient and understand it’s not intentional.”
Experts with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America say partners of those suffering from bouts of anxiety often take on more than the normal share of domestic, economic, parenting and other responsibilities. That can cause additional strain in a relationship and may require outside help.
“If it’s starting to affect your relationship and you’re starting to distance yourself or feel resentful toward your spouse you may want to get some help,” Paolillo says. “If your world is starting to feel smaller, you’re avoiding things, having frequent anxiety attacks. I would definitely get some help.”
Couples also may need to compromise, including sometimes doing things solo.
“Some say it’s uncomfortable to leave their partner at home or to do things without them,” Paolillo says. “I encourage folks to go ahead and do things without their partner.”
One option for figuring out the next social gathering is to consider driving separate cars. Or if there’s a shared vehicle, then the more social partner can make other arrangements to get home. The partner struggling with anxiety should understand he or she doesn’t have to stay for the entire time.
It’s important for those not experiencing anxiety to find time to rejuvenate. Everyone needs to make time to recharge their batteries. Experts recommend not giving up your own life and interests, maintaining a support system and setting boundaries.
“You might feel selfish in taking time out for yourself,” Paolillo says. “That doesn’t mean don’t do it. It just means that you have to learn it doesn’t mean that you are selfish. Feelings sometimes betray us. I encourage people to stay in their logic and not so much in their feelings.”