There’s a lot going on right now. Let me prep you.
I’m not sure which one is harder: being in a relationship when you have anxiety or being in a relationship with someone who has anxiety. Either way, things can be absolutely amazing one day and a storm of confusion the next. You might be able to feel something building but when you’re in the middle of the storm it’s too late to go back. The best you can do is weather it.
People with anxiety are great people. We’re often empathetic, kind, and giving. We are worthy of love and crave it. We also know that when you don’t have anxiety and your partner does, understanding what’s happening and why is incredibly difficult.
We’re not trying to be difficult. We want to be cool, calm, and breezy. Going with the flow sounds amazing. Some days though, that’s like asking a fish not to swim.
I figured the best time to try to explain the storm is when one is pouring rain on my head.
In order to better understand your partner, let me shed some light on what it’s like to have an anxiety attack and what you can do.
We’ve been triggered by something.
The problem is that we have often no idea what it is. This is why we don’t always see it coming. My attacks start the same way: I sweat, my heart races, and I shake my hands a lot. By the time I get to this point, I can’t pull the nose of the plane up.
I know I have triggers and it’s half the battle. Tomorrow, when I feel better, I will sit down and look back on everything that happened in the last few days, everything that was said to me, and try to make sense of it. I can’t do this right now. It’s too much. It’s like trying to sing an opera with laryngitis. Ain’t gonna happen.
It’ll take me two days after the dust has settled before I figure it out. From there, I sort through patterns and come up with plans on how to stop the train from starting down the tracks. Hopefully, this means I have months and months before this happens again. Your partner could've hoping for days, not months.
It has taken me years of therapy, countless copays, and a house full of self-help books to be able to do this.
What you can do: Be encouraging and strong. Reinforce that you are there for them, but give them space. If your partner has not talked to someone about this, the time to suggest resources or professional help is after the storm passes, not in the middle of it. We’re less likely to see it as judgment then. Judgment leads to shame. Not a good thing in the moment.
Nothing is wrong.
At the same time, everything is wrong. I mustered up the courage to tell my boyfriend of less than three months that I am having an anxiety attack. I felt vulnerability was my best option because sitting here angry at him for things I have fabricated in my head is a horrible idea.
He was supportive but it was clear he doesn’t know what this is like. He asked me lots of questions to get an idea of what was wrong. What I had a hard time verbalizing is that nothing is wrong but so is everything.
When we have anxiety attacks, there’s a feeling of impending doom. Even if nothing is wrong, it feels like the world could end at any minute. Invisible shoes hanging over us will just start dropping.
Throughout the day I have carried all of these thoughts: I am a horrible writer. Someone at work is mad at me and I’m going to be fired. The drywall repair in my bathroom is going to bankrupt me. My boyfriend no longer likes me and is going to dump me sometime in the next 20 minutes to three days. My daughter’s prom is going to suffer an explosion.
What you can do: Be kind. Much of our anxiety stems from negative self-talk. We need a different narrative. When you help provide one, we breathe a little easier. You don’t have to shower us with compliments but whatever it is that you do that makes your partner feel loved on any other day, do that. With enthusiasm.
We’re absolutely not crazy.
This doesn't change the fact that we feel like we are. We understand we are not rational. We’re just not functioning well enough to see it.
Having anxiety issues is a mental health problem. It doesn't make us less of a person. It just means that we’ve been through a few things and we’re continuing to go through them.
It also doesn't mean we’re weak. If we can weather these storms time and time again and still come out of them and return to you, we’re tough as nails. These attacks are so draining that I climbed in bed at 8:30 and could barely keep my eyes open. This attack took everything I had right out of me and I will be left with an anxiety hangover that will last all the next day.
What you can do: Give comfort. Understand that you’re going to have to make dinner. Reserve judgment. We’re doing the best we can.
As our partner, you will be affected by our anxiety. We will tell ourselves stories that are not true. You may have done nothing wrong but that’s not our reality right now. Our insecurity is at an 11. Please don’t take it personally. The anxiety is not about you and, if you can see that, it helps remind us of that, too.
I need to have a very open conversation with my boyfriend about what happened, what if felt like and how he figures into it. That’s my hard work and it’s scary as hell because it requires a level of vulnerability that makes my teeth itch.
Don’t be afraid to ask us how you can help. You might need to wait until the anxiety hangover has passed but, if we feel connected to you, we’ll tell you. Hang in there with us.
Full disclosure: I wrote most of this in the middle of an actual anxiety attack. Welcome to the party. There are crudites and fruit on the table. Let me know if we’re running low on ice.