How to Explain Anxiety to Your Partner, According to Experts

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Explaining anxiety to your partner can be tricky, especially if you are learning about your triggers and feelings yourself. But open communication and knowing how to ask for the support you need can work wonders for boosting mental health.

Below are several tips for explaining anxiety to your partner, along with ways you and your partner can work together to support symptoms and find relief, according to mental health experts.

Meet the Expert

Explain the Signs of Anxiety

According to licensed clinical professional counselor Julienne Derichs, there are three main ways anxiety can show up: generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and social anxiety. "Most anxiety disorder symptoms include restlessness or feeling on edge, being easily fatigued, having difficulty concentrating, increased irritability, muscle tension, difficulty controlling worry, and sleep problems," she says. But again, not everyone with anxiety will show all these signs.

Social anxiety is fairly common—according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, it affects 15 million Americans. Derichs describes social anxiety as when a person feels "highly anxious about being with other people." They might have a hard time talking to others or feel worried about being humiliated, judged, or rejected by them. "Worrying for days or weeks before an event where other people will be, staying away from places where there are other people, having a hard time making friends … and feeling sick to your stomach when other people are around" are all signs of social anxiety, says Derichs.

By contrast, someone with panic disorder might have "sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear," called panic attacks, accompanied by feeling out of control, worrying about when the next attack will occur or avoiding places where past panic attacks have happened. Understanding the difference between these forms of anxiety will help you explain them to people you care about.

Understand and Communicate Triggers

"It's important for both partners to learn about anxiety and really understand what the triggers are," says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City–based licensed clinical psychologist. Becoming acquainted with the signs outlined above—and identifying the specific ones that apply to yourself—is a good start. But there are also physical techniques that you can do together during moments of anxiety.

"As simple as it may sound, being armed with some breathing techniques and using them as a guide [during] an increase in anxiety can be a very helpful tool," Derichs says. Here's a relaxing breathing technique that Derichs calls the "instant tranquilizer:" Inhale through the nose, hold for a moment, then exhale out slowly through your mouth and nose. Repeat two or three times. "As you let the air out, let go. Relax your muscles—release as much tension as you can," Derichs says. If you start to feel anxious in the car or in public, this can be a simple but handy exercise for your partner to help you through.

Communicate Your Needs Clearly

Your partner can do all the research in the world, but when it comes to your anxiety, it's important to let them know what your individual needs are. It's important to speak and listen without judgment, according to Helen Odessky, PsyD, psychologist and author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You.

Even if your anxiety doesn't make sense to them, simply communicating will help everyone see it more clearly. What you can do is encourage them to ask genuine, nonjudgmental questions to create an honest conversation about what they're feeling.

Vocalize Your Need for Support

Here's another tip that sounds so simple but took me way too long to grasp. "Many people worry that they will lose those things if they disclose their anxiety," Odessky says. But open communication is the best way forward.

Ask Your Partner to Distract You

"Studies show that distraction relieves the brain's anxiety center," says Srini Pillay, a psychiatrist, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and author of the upcoming Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.

As Mike Dow, PsyD, brain health expert and author of Healing the Broken Brain advises, "Do something pleasurable or productive when you notice yourself stewing." So when you start feeling anxious, don't hesitate to ask your partner out to a movie, dinner, grocery shopping, or a walk around the neighborhood.

Ask Your Partner Not to Trivialize Anxiety

"Stop stressing," "stop worrying," "suck it up," and "what's wrong with you?" are all things to avoid saying to an anxious person, according to experts. These phrases often make people even more anxious, Pillay says. If you could simply "stop worrying," you would. Unfortunately, anxiety is more complicated than that.

Explain to your partner that if you have anxiety, your brain is likely wired differently than theirs may be, according to Dow. "[You] probably have an overactive amygdala, a part of the brain involved in fear, and an underactive prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that can act as the brakes."

According to Dow, in order for treatment to be effective, you need to feel safe and open about your fears and where they come from. "For someone without anxiety, being called "crazy" might not seem like a big deal," explains Dow. But to you, it could feel crushing. Being open about this with your partner is crucial.

Oh, and one last thing to let your partner know: "Do not try to compare everyday anxiety situations with what the person is going through," Odessky says. "Worrying about passing an exam is very different from having a phobia or an anxiety disorder."

Hold Yourself Accountable

Encouraging your partner to be a helpful ally is a good thing—but allowing your anxiety to control both of your lives is not. "The goal is to be supportive, not to walk on eggshells or radically change your life to accommodate the person with anxiety," Hafeez says. "Doing so removes the need for the person to address and overcome their anxiety."

For instance, if you have anxiety about leaving the house, you might find your partner doing all the errands by themself. This might lead to your partner developing their own anxiety over needing to handle all of these tasks alone, Hafeez says. Or, let's say you have social anxiety—then your partner ends up going to all of their family functions and work parties alone, which could cause resentment to build.

Instead, the focus should always be on progressing and getting better—not on letting anxiety rule everyone's life.

Consider Couple's Therapy

Everyone can likely benefit from a little therapy. "I encourage spouses to both come to therapy so that they both understand what the thought processes are, how it's triggered, and what to do," Hafeez says. "Everyone is different, so it's helpful to have a game plan that factors in boundaries that work for both partners."

If time and cost are preventing you from seeing a professional, consider an online therapy service, like Talkspace, which makes the whole thing more convenient and manageable.

Article Sources
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  1. Davey-Rothwell, M. A., Stewart, J., Vadnais, A., Braxton, S. A., & Latkin, C. A. (2017). The role of partner support among women with depressive symptoms. Community mental health journal, 53(4), 415. doi:10.1007/s10597-017-0101-3

  2. Kalisch R, Wiech K, Herrmann K, Dolan RJ. Neural correlates of self-distraction from anxiety and a process model of cognitive emotion regulation. J Cogn Neurosci. 2006;18(8):1266-1276.

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