How to support a partner with anxiety (and take care of yourself)
While anxiety disorders continue to rise in America, it can be difficult to know how to care for a loved one with anxiety. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help make what can be a challenging situation feel more manageable.
Expect some anxiety—no matter your situation
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life, whether it's in anticipation of an important test, job interview, medical procedure, life event or other happening.
"In these cases, anxiety is expected," says Behavioral Health nurse practitioner Jennifer Fiegel-Newlon. "It's usually short-lived, lasting from a couple of hours to a couple of days. Those anxious feelings often pass on their own. The body has mechanisms to let that happen."
It's when anxiety moves farther along the spectrum, beginning to last for longer periods of time and disrupting daily routines, that it becomes problematic.
It can be crucial to maintain a routine and follow it as much as possible when helping someone cope with anxiety. This means having the person continue to complete household chores, encouraging them to eat, go to bed consistently, and preserve other daily rituals.
"A lot of caregivers, especially women, think that if they shoulder the bulk of tasks around the home that it'll make life easier for the person with anxiety," Jennifer says.
In reality, taking away structure usually complicates the problem and can make the person with anxiety feel like they're inadequate or haven't been doing a good enough job around the house.
"You want to keep the person engaged and functional and doing the things that will help to keep their mind busy so that they're not left to just sit and worry," Jennifer says.
It also can be helpful to routinely check in with the person. Asking simple questions about how they're doing, especially when you notice the person seems overwhelmed, can offer your loved one a much-needed pause from their thoughts and redirect their anxiety.
Some questions to try include:
- What's on your mind?
- How does your body feel right now?
- How can I help?
If the person with anxiety has a smartphone, there also are many different apps they can download to help them check in with their thoughts throughout the day and ground themselves in the present. Some apps are free. Others have a fee. Regardless, it can be worthwhile to test out a few and find one that fits their needs.
Take care of yourself
With so much attention often focused on the person with anxiety, it's important to remember to prioritize yourself, too.
"It's really easy to get caught up in the caregiver role," Jennifer says.
To prevent feelings of burnout or overwhelm, make time to eat nutritious meals, get quality sleep and move your body every day.
"Exercise doesn't have to be training for a marathon or doing a huge amount of activity," Jennifer says. "It can be walking outside to your garden, smelling the flowers, taking a stroll around your neighborhood or playing with a pet outdoors—anything small that offers a change of scenery."
After all, research shows that just 15 minutes outside can significantly improve your mood and help calm you.
No matter what self-care looks like for you, remember:
"It's important to prioritize your mental health as well," Jennifer says. "If you're not taking care of your well-being, it's difficult to support someone with anxiety."