3 Tools For Coping With Anxiety In Your Relationship
How Is Anxiety Affecting My Relationship?
A few years into dating my husband, he took me on my first overnight backpacking trip. I had camped dozens of times before but I had never hiked miles to a remote location in the wilderness for an overnight adventure. At the time of this trip I was also overcoming persistent upset stomachs (which were later diagnosed as a gluten allergy – that’s another story).
We ate dinner at the trailhead, strapped on our heavy packs, and began the nearly 4 mile hike to our campsite destination – a beautiful waterfall site I was sure to love… or so he told me… because I never made it. Three miles into the hike I was so anxious about potentially being sick on the trail that I broke into a puddle of anxious, overwhelmed tears.
My husband explained that we were less than a mile from our campsite. I told him I would rather hike 3 miles back to the car for the mental security of my familiar car than hike 1 mile more to an unfamiliar place with an upset stomach. He told me he’d support me no matter what. We hiked 3 miles back to the car, just 1 mile short of our final destination.
You, Me & Anxiety – A Hurtful Partnership
This one story is just one of many examples of when anxiety busted in between me and my husband. The impact of anxiety on romantic relationships is real. First and foremost – it’s an unwelcome guest. You didn’t choose to be anxious – this isn’t your fault. But there are things you can do to reduce or shift the impact of anxiety on your relationship.
First, let’s identify some of the ways anxiety may be hurting you and your relationship. Tanya J. Peterson of TheHealthPlace.com writes that anxiety, “affects someone’s thoughts, emotions, and actions, clouding perceptions and leading to misinterpretations and misery,” leading to stress and misunderstandings between you and your partner. She goes on to point out that, “Anxiety ruins relationships because it intrudes. It creates negative thought patterns and beliefs, and it makes them larger than life (as in bigger and more believable than reality). These issues erode feelings of connection and the ability to trust.”
Further, the anxiety can also interrupt physical intimacy and closeness due to the inability to relax, overstimulation, lack of focus/preoccupation, fear of disappointment, pressure to perform or please and a sense of lack of safety (especially if you’ve experienced intimate partner violence or sexual violence in the past).
What Can I Do To Manage Anxiety With My Partner?
As a mental health professional, I want to set a realistic expectation before we dive further into this conversation. Notice the title just above. We are talking about “managing anxiety,” not getting rid of it forever. Not curing it. Not avoiding it. Managing it.
This is important because anxiety comes in many shapes and forms. For some people it’s isolated or situational. For example, occurring specifically in social settings or with tests/exams. For other people, it’s generalized. Generalized anxiety can be experienced out of the blue or in a range of non-anxiety-inducing settings such as trying to go to sleep. Anxiety can also be a normal, natural reaction to a big event and will pass when the event is over.
So what can you do to manage your anxiety? It depends on your experience of your anxiety. The goal of this blog is to give you tools for addressing and coping with anxiety in your relationship and for enhancing the overall health and wellness of your connection. In other words, these tools are meant to help you cope with life-long, clinical generalized anxiety as well as spot-treat a temporary anxiety–inducing experience.
Now that we have managed some expectations (which in and of itself is a good way to cope with anxiety), let’s cover three tools to help your relationship cope with this unwanted visitor.
Tool #1: How To Tell Someone You Have Anxiety
In a safe, supportive relationship it’s important to let your partner know if you are struggling with anxiety. This is important because anxious symptoms can “look like” you being avoidant, angry, disappointed, uninterested or unable to commit. We certainly don’t want these un-truths to impact the vibe and flow of the relationship, or your partner’s experience of being loved by you.
Simple statements such as, “I know I seem frustrated, but I’m just really anxious,” can go a long way to bring you and your partner on the same page. But doing this takes a level of self-awareness that you’ll need to cultivate.
For example, I became aware that during anxious moments I was less receptive to my partner’s affirmations (e.g. “I love you.” “You look beautiful this morning.”). In my anxiety I would shrug off his compliments which led to him feeling rejected and unappreciated. So I had to train myself to say, “Thank you for that. I’m learning to let that in.” It was a way for me to challenge my anxiety, bring me back to the present moment and also support my partner.
But above all else, know that you do not owe anyone an explanation of why you feel anxious. You also do not have the responsibility to convince others of your anxious experience. I mean really, you might not even know why you are anxious. In fact, with generalized anxiety there often is no present-moment trigger or “good explanation”. It’s simply that your nervous system is dysregulated in that moment and our bodies literally have minds of their own.
The next time you are shaming yourself for not explaining it well or you feel pressured to justify your anxiety to others, try this affirmation:
“I have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying my behavior or emotions.”
Tool #2: How To Ask For Help, The Right Kind
Getting help from your partner while you are living with or experiencing anxiety is critical. Without this, it’s like you are both living with an unwanted visitor in your home while both ignoring that he’s between you on the couch, crowding the kitchen or knocking on your door during sex. It’s time to be real and acknowledge this unwanted visitor so you can manage it together. Remember, this may be your anxiety. But this is “our” relationship. Let your partner help.
Having said that, asking for help might look like “non-help” or indirect / no-contact behaviors. For example, many clients have told me that the best thing their partner can do during an anxiety attack is to NOT talk to them and NOT touch them. It’s more helpful for their partner to go make dinner, distract the kids or make it easy for them to get away for some time outdoors with girlfriends or a massage. Don’t be afraid of asking for this kind of indirect help.
Further, acknowledge any help that’s not helping. This sounds obvious but, if the help is not helping, then it’s not really help. I’m reminded of a time in highschool when my struggle with math was R-E-A-L. And my loving, supportive father (who was an engineer and a whiz at math) would encourage me by saying, “‘This is so easy!” I know he meant it to cheer me on, to make the task in front of me seem manageable. But nothing felt more invalidating in that moment or could bring me to tears faster than hearing those words. The help wasn’t helping. It was hurting.
If your partner is helping in ways that hurt or unintentionally make you feel worse, I challenge you to tell them. Help them love you better by being honest and guiding their efforts. Here’s another affirmation to help guide your communication:
I am independent from others’ desire to help me.
I have a right to be honest about what helps and what hurts.
Tool #3: How Therapy Helps With Anxiety
Therapy and counseling services can be life-saving for a relationship that is under the influence of anxiety. There are several gifts that having an outsider perspective, expert coaching, and personal time lend to your relationship. At Guided Wellness Counseling we see all of these and more:
- Self awareness related to your anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviors
- Feedback on how your anxiety is perceived by your partner (e.g. your therapist noting that you look uninterested and distant during sessions when you feel anxious)
- Tools for reducing, coping or eliminating anxiety or panic attacks
- Techniques for reducing or alleviating pain from past trauma and current triggers
- Skills to “up regulate” or come back to the present moment when anxiety makes you feel spacy or
- Resources to “down regulate” or soothe yourself when anxiety makes you feel speedy, over-stimulated and unsettled.
Further, getting outside help can relieve your relationship of certain power dynamics. For example, for reasons of their own, your partner may feel like they are your number one and primary support for you as you manage anxiety. Nancy MacGregor at Harmony Bay Wellness outlines that therapy can be helpful in disrupting the impact of:
- Being overly dependent on your partner
- Anxiety fueled social isolation
- Constant worrying and the sensation of ‘walking on eggshells’
Unfortunately, our clinical team of therapists here in St. George UT often hears from partners who put their own plans second to the anxiety, or deny their own self-care because catering to the anxiety comes first. The impact of this is a partner who is depleted and resentful…This is not healthy or sustainable for them or for you. It can help them to know you are not alone and seeking professional support.
You may also need to express feelings that are not productive for your partner to hear because they are anxious thoughts, not true and authentic thoughts. Therapy is a safe place to say it all out loud so you can get feedback on how to manage impulsive thought patterns, critical or negative self beliefs and more.
Therapy can help you take responsibility for things that you can control. For example, if you become highly anxious when your partner doesn’t text you back immediately you can learn to manage your anxious feelings and thoughts, rather than asking your partner to commit to a response time that is unrealistic for them (and, again, may lead to resentful feelings).
If you struggle with guilt or shame about seeking professional help, remember this affirmation:
I have the right to ask for what I want and need.
I have the right to ask for help.
I have the right to feel good about myself, my actions and my life.
Therapy For Anxiety Near Me | 84790 | 84770 | 84780
While you did not ask for this anxiety, you are responsible for managing it. No one will know these anxious feelings and experiences as intimately as you. No one will know what helps or doesn’t help as acutely as you. So I ask, what do you think could help?
Counseling for anxiety in Southern Utah is available at Guided Wellness Counseling. We offer a complimentary 15-minute phone consultation so we can get to know you, answer all your questions and match you with the best therapist on our team. We keep ourselves available so you can meet weekly with your counselor and have consistent appointments as you learn new coping skills or address a history of trauma / PTSD.
Counseling can help you manage your anxiety and panic attacks. Learning to communicate with your partner can bring you closer in this journey and improve trust and intimacy.
Do you remember the story I told at the start of this? That day on the hike, I felt supported and seen by my partner, even through my tears and anxiety. Experiencing his unconditional support (even when I told him I’d rather hike 3 miles back to the car rather than 1 mile to our final destination – a seemingly illogical choice) was a pivotal moment in our relationship. That night we reached the car in darkness and had a joyful night car camping in the middle of the desert. I knew then I wouldn’t have to prove to him my anxiety was real, and he trusted me to express my needs no matter how wild they seemed.