Supporting A Loved One Who Suffers From Anxiety

Tony Alter

For the first four years of marriage, I didn’t believe that my husband had legitimate anxiety. He had never received a formal diagnosis; he was a pretty healthy person both physically and emotionally, and whatever it was that he was going through just didn’t seem to be severe enough to merit a label. Sure, sometimes he couldn’t sleep at night, he tended to overanalyze things, and he was a bit of a worrywart, but were those things really that big of a deal? I didn’t think so.

Embarrassingly, it seems like what I thought about it was more important than what he thought because I distinctly remember him saying things like, “I’m telling you I have an anxiety problem!” and me just trying to make the situation at hand better as quickly as possible. I only wanted to help, but denying his reality and looking for a “quick fix” was actually not helpful at all.

When pressures in our lives increased, as they often do, it finally became clear that he truly did have diagnosis-level anxiety and I was forced to admit that I couldn’t will it away with a few consoling words and a mug of hot chocolate. As time has gone on, I’ve gained experience and understanding in the best ways to support him through bouts of anxiety as they come and go. I’ve learned to read his cues (both verbal and nonverbal) and know when to give him some alone time, when he needs to sit and talk, and when he needs to sleep.

1) I’ve learned that when my husband needs extra personal time and space, it’s not about me. In the beginning it was hard to not take it personally, but now I recognize that it’s important to his mental health. Instead of demanding that he spend all his free time with me (or giving him a guilt trip if he doesn’t want to), I can see that it’s necessary for him to process his stress and all the thoughts whirring around in his brain. Sometimes I’m able to tell he needs it even before he does, and I’ll gently suggest that he get away for a few hours to journal in a coffee shop.

2) But then there are other times when he needs someone to talk to, and as his wife, I’m the most accessible listening ear. Often the most helpful thing I can do for his anxiety is to sit on the couch with him at night and converse with him about the subject he’s fixated on. It’s not always easy or natural, and sometimes I just want to rush through it, end it quickly, or comment that he’s being overly sensitive. But I’ve done that and it’s counterproductive. To be a fully supportive spouse, I need to think of him and not just myself.

3) The last thing that I’ve learned to help with is his need for sleep. Some of this is due to the fact that there are seasons when anxiety keeps him from sleeping well for weeks. His mind just can’t seem to rest. But sometimes he just needs to crash in the middle of the day regardless of how he slept the night before, because the truth is that his brain is working on overdrive and sometimes it’s just too much. So occasionally sleeping in late or taking naps during the day isn’t necessarily a luxury or a sign of laziness, it’s a way that his body copes with the job at hand of processing extra information and stress. The best way I can support this is being understanding and accommodating. And if I find myself feeling jealous or resentful of it, well that’s a pretty good indicator that I myself need more sleep!

Navigating a relationship through anxiety is not easy, but we’re proof that you can do it and still have a beautiful life. I’ve come a long way in the past few years to be a more supportive spouse through this challenge, and our relationship is only better because of it.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Tony-Alter

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