If you suffer from anxiety, you know the situation all too well:
You’re worrying about company coming over in 10 minutes and the house isn’t ready. You remind your partner to help you take care of some clutter that hasn’t been picked up yet and your partner states, “I got it, relax.”
But you don’t relax. You never do. In fact, you do the exact opposite and panic more. Not only that, but now you feel shame about your anxiety as well as anger towards your partner. Because what you hear is this:
“What’s wrong with you? Get it together.”
As the partner of somebody with anxiety, you are also familiar with this situation, albeit in a different way. You love your partner and want to help them during these moments when you feel they are overwhelmed with stress over something you feel is irrational, unwarranted, or blown out of proportion. You want to reassure them that, logically, this is not that big of a deal and it isn’t something they need to get worked up over. So you might say something along the lines of:
“It isn’t that big of a deal.”
“Everything is going to be okay.”
“Let it go.”
“Stressing about it isn’t going to help.”
“Take a deep breath.”
Sound familiar? It makes a lot of sense why you would automatically use these words. You love your partner and you really want to help them. You want to “fix” the anxiety, but instead you find that your partner lashes out at you and their level of anxiety is just exacerbated. You wonder where you’re going wrong.
Emotions Aren't A Logical Thing
The problem is that when it comes to our emotions, especially ones as strong as fear and anxiety, logic doesn’t work. If it did, your partner would be able to tell him or herself these things and not feel anxious, or they would respond positively to these statements, right?
Contrary to popular belief, emotions don’t work the same way other problems in our lives work and the more we try to control or avoid them, the more powerful they tend to become. It’s an interesting paradox, but it can be helpful to be aware of it so we don’t unintentionally make someone’s anxiety worse.
Let’s be honest, as the partner of somebody with high anxiety, you might not always be making these statements in an attempt to help. It’s very likely that you might be responding from a place of guilt, frustration, or defensiveness. When you feel powerless to help your partner, you may feel frustrated and take your partner’s anxiety personally. You assume you are the reason they're feeling this way, so you rush to defend yourself by projecting blame onto your partner and his or her anxiety.
Instead of thinking “he’s really struggling right now, what can I do to help him in this moment?”, you might think “he’s stressed because of me, but it’s not my fault, he just needs to calm down.” Our partner picks up on that through the tone we use, and it triggers their own feelings of guilt and shame, subsequently heightening defensiveness and resentment between the two of you.
How To Effectively Respond to a Partner's Anxiety
The answer is a lot simpler than you might imagine:
Just be there. Listen. Ask how you can help.
Don't make their emotional experience about you. Just because they feel out of control of their environment does not mean they want to control you or you're to blame.
Don't give advice or try to "solve" it. It will pass, as it always does. Remind yourself that their anxiety is not in your control, but by listening and showing empathy and validation you can be a source of support without making it worse. By saying something like "This is really stressful for you, what can I do to help?" your partner can feel like his or her experience is of importance to you and you are there for them.
Of course it's much easier said than done in those moments, but like anything, the more you do it, the more automatic it will become. And don't think your partner won't be grateful for you and the amazing partner that you are.